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Best Practices for Using Modern JavaScript Syntax

Modern JavaScript is evolving quickly to meet the changing needs of new frameworks and environments. Understanding how to take advantage of those changes can save you time, improve your skill set, and mark the difference between good code and great code.

Knowing what modern JavaScript is trying to do can help you decide when to use the new syntax to your best advantage, and when it still makes sense to use traditional techniques.

Something Solid to Cling To

I don’t know anybody who isn’t confused at the state of JavaScript these days, whether you’re new to JavaScript, or you’ve been coding with it for a while. So many new frameworks, so many changes to the language, and so many contexts to consider. It’s a wonder that anybody gets any work done, with all of the new things that we have to learn every month.

I believe that the secret to success with any programming language, no matter how complex the application, is getting back to the basics. If you want to understand Rails, start by working on your Ruby skills, and if you want to use immutables and unidirectional data flow in isomorphic React with webpack (or whatever the cool nerds are doing these days) start by knowing your core JavaScript.

Understanding how the language itself works is much more practical than familiarizing yourself with the latest frameworks and environments. Those change faster than the weather. And with JavaScript, we have a long history of thoughtful information online about how JavaScript was created and how to use it effectively.

The problem is that some of the new techniques that have come around with the latest versions of JavaScript make some of the old rules obsolete. But not all of them! Sometimes a new syntax may replace a clunkier one to accomplish the same task. Other times the new approach may seem like a simpler drop-in replacement for the way we used to do things, but there are subtle differences, and it’s important to be aware of what those are.

A Spoonful of Syntactic Sugar

A lot of the changes in JavaScript in recent years have been described as syntactic sugar for existing syntax. In many cases, the syntactic sugar can help the medicine go down for Java programmers learning how to work with JavaScript, or for the rest of us we just want a cleaner, simpler way to accomplish something we already knew how to do. Other changes seem to introduce magical new capabilities.

But if you try to use modern syntax to recreate a familiar old technique, or stick it in without understanding how it actually behaves, you run the risk of:

  • having to debug code that worked perfectly before
  • introducing subtle mistakes that may catch you at runtime
  • creating code that fails silently when you least expect it.

In fact, several of the changes that appear to be drop-in replacements for existing techniques actually behave differently from the code that they supposedly replace. In many cases, it can make more sense to use the original, older style to accomplish what you’re trying to do. Recognizing when that’s happening, and knowing how to make the choice, is critical to writing effective modern JavaScript.

When Your const Isn’t Consistent

Modern JavaScript introduced two new keywords, let and const, which effectively replace the need for var when declaring variables in most cases. But they don’t behave exactly the same way that var does.

In traditional JavaScript, it was always a clean coding practice to declare your variables with the var keyword before using them. Failure to do that meant that the variables you declared could be accessed in the global scope by any scripts that happened to run in the same context. And because traditional JavaScript was frequently run on webpages where multiple scripts might be loaded simultaneously, that meant that it was possible for variables declared in one script to leak into another.

The cleanest drop-in replacement for var in modern JavaScript is let. But let has a few idiosyncrasies that distinguish it from var. Variable declarations with var were always hoisted to the top of their containing scope by default, regardless of where they were placed inside of that scope. That meant that even a deeply nested variable could be considered declared and available right from the beginning of its containing scope. The same is not true of let or const.

console.log(usingVar); // undefined
var usingVar = "defined";
console.log(usingVar); // "defined"

console.log(usingLet); // error
let usingLet = "defined"; // never gets executed
console.log(usingLet); // never gets executed

When you declare a variable using let or const, the scope for that variable is limited to the local block where it’s declared. A block in JavaScript is distinguished by a set of curly braces {}, such as the body of a function or the executable code within a loop.

This is a great convenience for block-scoped uses of variables such as iterators and loops. Previously, variables declared within loops would be available to the containing scope, leading to potential confusion when multiple counters might use the same variable name. However let can catch you by surprise if you expect your variable declared somewhere inside of one block of your script to be available elsewhere.

for (var count = 0; count < 5; count++) {
} // outputs the numbers 0 - 4 to the console
console.log(count); // 5

for (let otherCount = 0; otherCount < 5; otherCount++) {
} // outputs the numbers 0 - 4 to the console
console.log(otherCount); // error, otherCount is undefined

The other alternative declaration is const, which is supposed to represent a constant. But it’s not completely constant.

A const can’t be declared without a value, unlike a var or let variable.

var x; // valid
let y; //valid
const z; // error

A const will also throw an error if you try to set it to a new value after it’s been declared:

const z = 3; // valid
z = 4; // error

But if you expect your const to be immutable in all cases, you may be in for a surprise when an object or an array declared as a const lets you alter its content.

const z = []; // valid
z.push(1); // valid, and z is now [1]
z = [2] // error

For this reason, I remain skeptical when people recommend using const constantly in place of var for all variable declarations, even when you have every intention of never altering them after they’ve been declared.

While it’s a good practice to treat your variables as immutable, JavaScript won’t enforce that for the contents of a reference variables like arrays and objects declared with const without some help from external scripts. So the const keyword may make casual readers and newcomers to JavaScript expect more protection than it actually provides.

I’m inclined to use const for simple number or string variables I want to initialize and never alter, or for named functions and classes that I expect to define once and then leave closed for modification. Otherwise, I use let for most variable declarations — especially those I want to be bounded by the scope in which they were defined. I haven’t found the need to use var lately, but if I wanted a declaration to break scope and get hoisted to the top of my script, that’s how I would do it.

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