JavaScript Best Practices

JavaScript is not only amazing language but also very tricky language. To make correct use of it, you need to follow some best practices to avoid any problems that might come about otherwise. I share some of the best practices you really should be following when writing JavaScript code. Of course this is not an exhaustive list but at the most fundamental level, every programmer should know and adhere to it.

1 -NEVER FORGET VAR KEYWORD

Most of the developers know about this but yet I wanted to mention this because it may not be clear to some or newbies or people having other programming language background that come to JavaScript.

Consider the following piece of code:

function myFunc(){
var firstName = 'sarfraz';
lastName = 'ahmed';
}

It should be noted that in JS, variables have function-level scope which means a variable declared inside a function can not be accessed outside of it. So let’s test above two variables:

myFunc();
console.log(lastName); // ahmed
console.log(firstName); // undefined

As you will notice, we are still able to access lastName variable. The reason is that it does not have function-level scope because we forgot to put var keyword before it unlike firstName variable. Hence, lastName variable went into global scope and became part of window (while inside browser) object eg window.lastName will output the last name too.

It is therefore always required to put var keyword before variables so that they do not become part of global scope. It has following benefits:

  • You save the memory and improve performance
  • You don’t pollute the global scope
  • You mistakenly don’t overwrite a global variable that might have the same variable name

This is a very important concept and JS developers have always been finding solutions to avoid this problem. One of the most popular solution is Singleton or Module Pattern you should check out. By the way, if you want to see other patterns also, take a look at:

Essential JavaScript Design Patterns For Beginners

2 - DECLARE VARIABLES ON TOP

Another thing that should be followed is that variables should be declared on top of each function because of what is known as JavaScript Hoisting. Here is an example:

var name = 'sarfraz';

(function(){
console.log(name); // undefined
     var name = 'nawaz';
     console.log(name); // nawaz
})();

Notice that even though name variable is outside the scope of function but on the very fist line it gives back undefined rather than actual name. The reason for this is that interpreter hoists or moves variables on top of the function, here is how interpreter sees or re-arranges it:

var name = 'sarfraz';

(function(){
     var name;
     console.log(name); // undefined
     name = 'nawaz';
     console.log(name); // nawaz
})();

As can be seen, name variable has been hoisted to top and declared there and also var keyword has been stripped from it where we assigned the value of ‘nawaz‘.

The same is issue is not only with variables but also function declarations but NOT with function expressions. You can learn more about the difference between function declaration and function expression here:

Named Functions Demystified

The solution to this problem is to always declare variables and function declarations on top of container function:

function myFunc(){
     var foo;
     var bar;
     var baz;

     // do something foo, bar, baz
}

The preferred and recommended syntax though that you must follow is to declare all variables in one go by separating them with a comma:

function myFunc(){
     var foo, bar, baz;

     // do something foo, bar, baz
}

3 – INITIALIZING MULTIPLE VARIABLES

Declaring variables on top is good practice but not multiple initialization. Consider:

function myFunc(){
var lang = encoding = 'en';
}

This is a very common mistake even amongst experienced JS developers where they think they have quickly assigned two variables same scope and same value. Though value for both lang and encoding variable is some but not the scope. Try it out:

myFunc();
console.log(encoding); // en
console.log(lang); // undefined

Here again, variable encoding has gone into global scope. Since var keyword is only appears before lang variable, that is the one which gets correct functional scope. In short, you should avoid that shorthand initialization unfortunately.

4 – STARTING CURLY BRACE ON THE SAME LINE

Consider the following code block where starting curly brace “{” is on a new line, this works fine in most situations.

function myFunc()
{
// some code
}

However, same convention will not yield expected results if you happen to write:

function myFunc()
{
     return
     {
         name: 'sarfraz'
     };
}

var f = myFunc();
console.log(f);

The result will be undefined because behind the scenes, interpreter puts a semicolon ‘;‘ after the return keyword making it:

function myFunc()
{
     return; // <----------------
     {
         name: 'sarfraz'
     };
}

To remedy such hard-to-debug issues, it is good practice to always put starting curly brace on the same line, this would work fine though:

function myFunc() {
     return {
         name: 'sarfraz'
     };
}

var f = myFunc();
console.log(f.name); // sarfraz

And that’s a reason why Douglas Crockford in his book “JavaScript: The Good Parts“, advocates this syntax for JS:

function () {
     // some code
}

if (expression) {
     // do something
}

Go ahead and check out JavaScript Coding Style to learn more as well as naming conventions.

Notice that it is not the return keyword affected by automatic semi-colon insertion but all these too:

  • var statement
  • empty statement
  • expression statement
  • do-while statement
  • continue statement
  • break statement
  • throw statement

Experienced JavaScript developers know pretty well about JavaScript’s automatic semi-colon insertion problem and avoid it. The benefit of above coding style however is that you avoid this problem without knowing that this problem exists just by following that coding style.

5 – USE ARRAY LITERAL INSTEAD OF NEW ARRAY()

There are two ways you can create arrays in JS:

var arr1 = new Array(); // array constructor
var arr2 = []; // array literal

Though both serve the purpose of creating arrays but there is important difference between the two.

In JS, even an array is an object. With first constructor method above, you are telling interpreter to call constructor of the Array and generate an object. The interpreter looks up into the execution context to find the constructor and once found, it calls it and creates the Array object. It seems that it has performance hit too as compared to latter array literal method. With the array literal method, interpreter just creates the array on run-time with no extra processing done.

Other than that, Array constructor is mis-guiding the way it handles its parameters. Consider:

console.log(new Array(5)); // [,,,,]
console.log(new Array('5')); // ["5"]

When one argument is passed to Array and that happens to be a number, a new array is returned with its length property equal to that number passed. The important thing to note here is that Array will be initialized from what number you specified to it, for example:

// Array constructor
var arr = new Array(2);
console.log(arr.length); // 2
console.log(arr[0]); // undefined

// Array literal
var arr = [2];
console.log(arr.length); // 1
console.log(arr[0]); // 2

So the conclusion is to always use array literal notation rather than Array constructor.

6 – USE PROTOTYPE TO SHARE ACROSS

The concept of prototypes or prototypal inheritance is rather confusing. I have seen people especially inexperienced JS developers adding class members to parent function which needs to be shared across child classes. Consider the following code:

function Person(name){
this.name = name;
}

Now let’s assume we want to have child classes the ability to display the names some how, one of doing it is putting method directly inside Person class:

function Person(name){
     this.name = name;

     this.display = function(){
         alert(this.name);
     }
}

Other way is to use prototype:

function Person(name){
     this.name = name;
}

Person.prototype.display = function(){
     alert(this.name);
}

With both ways, all child classes will be able to use the display method but there is important difference between the two. When you attach any methods or properties via this (first way above) to a class then all instances of inheriting child classes will also have these properties or methods within them or their signature. On the other hand, when you use prototype to add members (properties and methods) to parent class, children classes will still inherit all members but it won’t be present inside their own functionality or signature, rather they will be borrowing that functionality from their parent class thereby saving memory. For this reason, later approach seems good to follow in most situations.

7 – PUT COMMA BEFORE PROPERTIES

When working with objects or arrays, it is always a good idea to put a comma before the variable or object property eg:

// jQuery - create a new div with some css
$('</pre></pre></pre>
<div>').attr({</div>
<pre>
<pre>
<pre>
 "id" : "myId"
 , "class" : "myClass"
 , "class" : "myClass"
 , "color" : "green"
 , "fontWeight" : "bold"
});

In this way, we never add an extra comma or forget one from the last property. The reason why this is good practice is that, in IE, with extra comma at the last property, we do not get expected results sometimes (ExtJS developers must have learned this). I do the same with multiple variable declarations or arguments of function. It also makes the code look pretty too as far as I see it.

8 – DON’T MIX JS AND HTML

One of the most important best practices is to always separate JS code from HTML and go unobtrusive. One would often see code like this:

<a href="#" onclick="doSomething()">Some Action</a>
<input type="button" onclick="doSomething()" value="Do Something" />
<form onsubmit="doSomething();">...

That’s a very bad practice in that it is hard to manage and maintain. HTML and JS should not be mixed ever. You could do the same thing like this:

<a href="#" id="link">Some Action</a>
<input type="button" id="button" value="Do Something" />
<form id="frm">...

<script type="text/javascript">
var link = document.getElementById('link'),
 btn = document.getElementById('button'),
 frm = document.getElementById('link');

link.onclick = function(){
 // do something
};

btn.onclick = function(){
 // do something
};

frm.onsubmit = function(){
 // validate form
};

</script>

This way it becomes easy to manage, maintain or enhance both HTML and JavaScript.

9 – PUT SCRIPTS AT BOTTOM

Normally scripts are put in <head></head> tags but this should be avoided. The reason for this is that browser loads your scripts sequentially and by the time they are loading, nothing else is done and website load times slow down (or at least that’s how visitors will perceive it) and you see actual output only after those scripts have been loaded by the browser.

The best practice is that scripts should be put on bottom of page just before closing body tag eg </body>. This way browser will instantly display page and page load time will be better for users who view that page.

By the way, always put CSS on top in <head></head> tags because that’s something browser reads first and renders page’s layout accordingly.

Read more about this at famous Yahoo’s performance article.

I would also suggest you to use Yahoo’s YSlow or Google’s PageSpeed add-on (add-ons of Firebug) which suggest you a lot of things on how to improve the performance of the page.

10 – NEVER FORGET SEMI-COLON

Always end statements and function expressions with a semi-colon:

var name = 'some name'; // <-------------

var myFunc = function(){
// some doe

}; // <------------

This is useful when you want to compress the code (for faster load times). If at any place, semi-colon isn’t present, you won’t be able to compress the code or wouldn’t get expected results most likely code-wise. You should always, always use semi-colons.

BONUS

The good news is that you can solve most of above problems by using JSHint or JSLint code quality tool. It will tell you about best-practices and any errors that might exist in your code. Having said that, it is good to improve your JS skills and avoid the need to go to such tools.

Javascript Self Invoking Functions

In this article, I will discuss self-executing or self-invoking functions of javascript and their hidden power with real-world example. We will also see why using setInterval is bad in some situations and should be avoided. Let’s explore little used but extremely powerful self-invoking functions of javascript.

Self-Invoking Anonymous Function

A self-invoking anonymous runs automatically/immediately when you create it and has no name, hence called anonymous. Here is the format of self-executing anonymous function:

(function(){
 // some code…
})();

You must be aware of the fact that javascript functions run immediately when you put () after their names eg:


doStuff(); // this will run immediately

And:


doStuff; // this will not run immediately and can be used as callback

Now because () exist at the end of self-executing anonymous function above, it will run immediately.

Interestingly, if you look at the source code of jQuery, you will see that everything is wrapped in between:

(function( window, undefined ) {
 // jQuery code
})(window);

That is as can be seen also a self-executing anonymous function with arguments. A window (and undefined) argument is created and is mapped with global window object at the bottom (window).

Notice that you can also write self-executing anonymous function like this:

(function(){
 // some code…
})();

Using extra braces like before function keyword is simply coding convention and is used even by famous javascript libraries such as jQuery and also recommended by Douglas Crockford. If you are confused about that extra pair of braces, here is another easy to remember notation:


! function(){
// some code…
}();
Notice the addition of ! before function keyword, it is essentially same in functionality to previous notation and also recommended (used by twitter too), quoting docs, section 12.4:
An ExpressionStatement cannot start with the function keyword because that might make it ambiguous with a FunctionDeclaration.

Self-Executing Function

Self-Executing function is a named function that runs immediately. Example:


(function foo(){
 // some code…
})()

Notice that now that we have named our function foo, it is not an anonymous function though it still is self-executing function because of () at the end.

How do they run automatically?

This can be best explained through an example. Let’s say in your webpage you have this javascript code:


function showUp(){
 alert(’Hello There’);
}

When you visit the page, the showUp function will not get triggered unless you do so by calling the function:


function showUp(){
 alert(’Hello There’);
}

// run the function
showUp();

However, you can make the function auto-run by making it self-executing function like this:

(function showUp(){
alert(’Hello There’);
})()

Where to use self-executing functions?

One obvious situation is when you want to auto-run a function like I showed in above example but that is trivial. If you are in a situation where you want to run a piece of code repeatedly like updating something in the database based on user interaction or fetching records from database every 10 seconds or you want to load new stories via ajax similar to how facebook does on its homepage or some other similar situation, one would normally go for setInterval function something like this:

setInterval(doStuff, 10000);

Above, doStuff function will get called every 10 seconds. That is the normal approach most developers seem to go with. However, there is a huge problem with that. The setInterval will call doStuff function exactly at specified time of 10 seconds again and again irrespective of whether doStuff function actually finished doing what it is supposed to do. That is bad and will certainly get you into unexpected results.

That is one example of where setInterval is ^bad^ and should be avoided.

This is exactly where self-executing functions come in handy. We can do the same task with the help of self-executing function along with setTimeout like this:

! function foo(){
 // your other code here

setTimeout(foo, 10000);

}();

This code will also repeat itself again and again with one difference. setTimeout will never get triggered unless doStuff is finished. A much better approach than using setInterval in this situation.

You can see the example in action here.

Another more common use of self-invoking functions is data privacy, everything wrapped in them is only available within the scope of these functions.