Functions

Quite often we need to perform a similar action in many places of the script.

For example, we need to show a nice-looking message when a visitor logs in, logs out and maybe somewhere else.

Functions are the main “building blocks” of the program. They allow the code to be called many times without repetition.

We’ve already seen examples of built-in functions, like alert(message), prompt(message, default) and confirm(question). But we can create functions of our own as well.

Function Declaration

To create a function we can use a function declaration.

It looks like this:

function showMessage() {
  alert( 'Hello everyone!' );
}

The function keyword goes first, then goes the name of the function, then a list of parameters in the brackets (empty in the example above) and finally the code of the function, also named “the function body”.

Our new function can be called by its name: showMessage().

For instance:

function showMessage() {
  alert( 'Hello everyone!' );
}

showMessage();
showMessage();

The call showMessage() executes the code of the function. Here we will see the message two times.

This example clearly demonstrates one of the main purposes of functions: to evade code duplication.

If we ever need to change the message or the way it is shown – it’s enough to modify the code in one place: the function which outputs it.

Local variables

A variable declared inside a function is only visible inside that function.

For example:

function showMessage() {
  let message = "Hello, I'm JavaScript!"; // local variable

  alert( message );
}

showMessage(); // Hello, I'm JavaScript!

alert( message ); // <-- Error! The variable is local to the function

Outer variables

A function can access an outer variable as well, for example:

let userName = 'John';

function showMessage() {
  let message = 'Hello, ' + userName;
  alert(message);
}

showMessage(); // Hello, my name is John

The function has full access to the outer variable. It can modify it as well.

For instance:

let userName = 'John';

function showMessage() {
  userName = "Bob"; // (1) changed the outer variable

  let message = 'Hello, ' + userName;
  alert(message);
}

alert( userName ); // John before the function call

showMessage();

alert( userName ); // Bob, the value was modified by the function

The outer variable is only used if there’s no local one. So an occasional modification may happen if we forget let.

If a same-named variable is declared inside the function then it shadows the outer one. For instance, in the code below the function uses the local userName, the outer one is ignored:

let userName = 'John';

function showMessage() {
  let userName = "Bob"; // declare a local variable

  let message = 'Hello, ' + userName; // Bob
  alert(message);
}

// the function will create and use it's own userName
showMessage();

alert( userName ); // John, unchanged, the function did not access the outer variable
Global variables

Variables declared outside of any function, such as the outer userName in the code above, are called global.

Global variables are visible from any function (unless shadowed by locals).

Usually, a function declares all variables specific to its task, and global variables only store project-level data, so important that it really must be seen from anywhere. Modern code has few or no globals, most variables reside in their functions.

Parameters

We can pass arbitrary data to function using parameters (also called function arguments) .

In the example below, the function has two parameters: from and text.

function showMessage(from, text) { // arguments: from, text
  alert(from + ': ' + text);
}

showMessage('Ann', 'Hello!'); // Ann: Hello! (*)
showMessage('Ann', "What's up?"); // Ann: What's up? (**)

When the function is called in lines (*) and (**), the given values are copied to local variables from and next. Then the function uses them.

Here’s one more example: we have a variable from and pass it to the function. Please note: the function changes from, but the change is not seen outside, because a function always gets a copy of the value:

function showMessage(from, text) {

  from = '*' + from + '*'; // make "from" look nicer

  alert( from + ': ' + text );
}

let from = "Ann";

showMessage(from, "Hello"); // *Ann*: Hello

// the value of "from" is the same, the function modified a local copy
alert( from ); // Ann

Default values

If a parameter is not provided, then its value becomes undefined.

For instance, the aforementioned function showMessage(from, text) can be called with a single argument:

showMessage("Ann");

That’s not an error. Such call would output "Ann: undefined". There’s no text, so it’s assumed that text === undefined.

If we want to use a “default” text in this case, then we can specify it after =:

function showMessage(from, text = "no text given") {
  alert( from + ": " + text );
}

showMessage("Ann"); // Ann: no text given

Now if the text parameter is not passed, it will get the value "no text given"

Here "no text given" is a string, but it can be a more complex expression, which is only evaluated and assigned if the parameter is missing. So, this is also possible:

function showMessage(from, text = anotherFunction()) {
  // anotherFunction() only executed if no text given
  // its result becomes the value of text
}
Default parameters old-style

Old editions of JavaScript did not support default parameters. So there are alternative ways to support them, that you can find mostly in the old scripts.

For instance, an explicit check for being undefined:

function showMessage(from, text) {
  if (text === undefined) {
    text = 'no text given';
  }

  alert( from + ": " + text );
}

…Or the || operator:

function showMessage(from, text) {
  // if text is falsy then text gets the "default" value
  text = text || 'no text given';
  ...
}

Returning a value

A function can return a value back into the calling code as the result.

The simplest example would be a function that sums two values:

function sum(a, b) {
  return a + b;
}

let result = sum(1, 2);
alert( result ); // 3

The directive return can be in any place of the function. When the execution reaches it, the function stops, and the value is returned to the calling code (assigned to result above).

There may be many occurences of return in a single function. For instance:

function checkAge(age) {
  if (age > 18) {
    return true;
  } else {
    return confirm('Got a permission from the parents?');
  }
}

let age = prompt('How old are you?', 18);

if ( checkAge(age) ) {
  alert( 'Access granted' );
} else {
  alert( 'Access denied' );
}

It is possible to use return without a value. That causes the function to exit immediately.

For example:

function showMovie(age) {
  if ( !checkAge(age) ) {
    return;
  }

  alert( "Showing you the movie" ); // (*)
  // ...
}

In the code above, if checkAge(age) returns false, then showMovie won’t proceed to the alert.

A function with an empty return or without it returns undefined

If a function does not return a value, it is the same as if it returns undefined:

function doNothing() { /* empty */ }

alert( doNothing() === undefined ); // true

An empty return is also the same as return undefined:

function doNothing() {
  return;
}

alert( doNothing() === undefined ); // true
Never add a newline between return and the value

For a long expression in return, it might be tempting to put it on a separate line, like this:

return
 (some + long + expression + or + whatever * f(a) + f(b))

That doesn’t work, because JavaScript assumes a semicolon after return. That’ll work the same as:

return;
 (some + long + expression + or + whatever * f(a) + f(b))

So, it effectively becomes an empty return. We should put the value on the same line instead.

Naming a function

Functions are actions. So their name is usually a verb. It should briefly, but as accurately as possible describe what the function does. So that a person who reads the code gets the right clue.

It is a widespread practice to start a function with a verbal prefix which vaguely describes the action. There must be an agreement within the team on the meaning of the prefixes.

For instance, functions that start with "show" – usually show something.

Function starting with…

  • "get…" – return a value,
  • "calc…" – calculate something,
  • "create…" – create something,
  • "check…" – check something and return a boolean, etc.

Examples of such names:

showMessage(..)     // shows a message
getAge(..)          // returns the age (gets it somehow)
calcSum(..)         // calculates a sum and returns the result
createForm(..)      // creates a form (and usually returns it)
checkPermission(..) // checks a permission, returns true/false

With prefixes at place, a glance at a function name gives an understanding what kind of work it does and what kind of value it returns.

One function – one action

A function should do exactly what is suggested by its name, no more.

Two independant actions usually deserve two functions, even if they are usually called together (in that case we can make a 3rd function that calls those two).

Few examples of breaking this rule:

  • getAge – would be bad if it shows an alert with the age (should only get).
  • createForm – would be bad if it modifies the document, adding a form to it (should only create it and return).
  • checkPermission – would be bad if displays the access granted/denied message (should only perform the check and return the result).

These examples assume common meanings of prefixes. What they mean for you is determined by you and your team. Maybe it’s pretty normal for your code to behave differently. But you should have a firm understanding of what a prefix means, what a prefixed function can and what it cannot do. All same-prefixed functions should obey the rules. And the team should share the knowledge.

Ultrashort function names

Functions that are used very often sometimes have ultrashort names.

For example, jQuery framework defines a function $, LoDash library has it’s core function named _.

These are exceptions. Generally functions names should be concise, but descriptive.

Functions == Comments

Functions should be short and do exactly one thing. If that thing is big, maybe it’s worth to split the function into few smaller functions. Sometimes following this rule may be not easy, but it’s a definitely good thing.

A separate function is not only easier to test and debug – its very existence is a great comment!

For instance, compare the two functions showPrimes(n) below. Each one outputs prime numbers up to n.

The first variant uses a label:

function showPrimes(n) {
  nextPrime: for (let i = 2; i < n; i++) {

    for (let j = 2; j < i; j++) {
      if (i % j == 0) continue nextPrime;
    }

    alert( i ); // a prime
  }
}

The second variant uses an additional function isPrime(n) to test for primality:

function showPrimes(n) {

  for (let i = 2; i < n; i++) {
    if (!isPrime(i)) continue;

    alert(i);  // a prime
  }
}

function isPrime(n) {
  for (let i = 2; i < n; i++) {
    if ( n % i == 0) return false;
  }
  return true;
}

The second variant is easier to understand isn’t it? Instead of the code piece we see a name of the action (isPrime). Sometimes people refer to such code as self-describing.

So, functions can be created even if we don’t intend to reuse them. They structure the code and make it readable.

Summary

A function declaration looks like this:

function name(parameters, delimited, by, comma) {
  /* code */
}
  • Values passed to function as parameters are copied to its local variables.
  • A function may access outer variables. But it works only from inside out. The code outside of the function doesn’t see its local variables.
  • A function can return a value. If it doesn’t then its result is undefined.

To make the code clean and easy to understand, it’s recommended to use mainly local variables and parameters in the function, not outer variables.

It is always easier to understand a function which gets parameters, works with them and returns a result than a function which gets no parameters, but modifies outer variables as a side-effect.

Function naming:

  • A name should clearly describe what the function does. When we see a function call in the code, a good name instantly gives us an understanding what it does and returns.
  • A function is an action, so function names are usually verbal.
  • There exist many well-known function prefixes like create…, show…, get…, check… and so on. Use them to hint what a function does.

Functions are the main building blocks of scripts. Now we covered the basics, so we actually can start creating and using them. But that’s only the beginning of the path. We are going to return to them many times, going more deeply in their advanced features.

Tasks

importance: 4

The following function returns true if the parameter age is greater than 18.

Otherwise it asks for a confirmation and returns its result:

function checkAge(age) {
  if (age > 18) {
    return true;
  } else {
    // ...
    return confirm('Did parents allow you?');
  }
}

Will the function work differently if else is removed?

function checkAge(age) {
  if (age > 18) {
    return true;
  }
  // ...
  return confirm('Did parents allow you?');
}

Is there any difference in the bahavior of these two variants?

No difference.

importance: 4

The following function returns true if the parameter age is greater than 18.

Otherwise it asks for a confirmation and returns its result.

function checkAge(age) {
  if (age > 18) {
    return true;
  } else {
    return confirm('Do you have your parents permission to access this page?');
  }
}

Rewrite it, to perform the same, but without if, in a single line.

Make two variants of checkAge:

  1. Using a question mark operator '?'
  2. Using OR ||

Using a question mark operator '?':

function checkAge(age) {
  return (age > 18) ? true : confirm('Did parents allow you?');
}

Using OR || (the shortest variant):

function checkAge(age) {
  return (age > 18) || confirm('Did parents allow you?');
}

Note that the parentheses around age > 18 are not required here. They exist for better readabilty.

importance: 1

Write a function min(a,b) which returns the least of two numbers a and b.

For instance:

min(2, 5) == 2
min(3, -1) == -1
min(1, 1) == 1

A solution using if:

function min(a, b) {
  if (a < b) {
    return a;
  } else {
    return b;
  }
}

A solution with a question mark operator '?':

function min(a, b) {
  return a < b ? a : b;
}

P.S. In the case of an equality a == b it does not matter what to return.

importance: 4

Write a function pow(x,n) that returns x in power n. Or, in other words, multiplies x by itself n times and returns the result.

pow(3, 2) = 3 * 3 = 9
pow(3, 3) = 3 * 3 * 3 = 27
pow(1, 100) = 1 * 1 * ...*1 = 1

Create a web-page that prompts for x and n, and then shows the result of pow(x,n).

Run the demo

P.S. In this task the function should support only natural values of n: integers up from 1.

function pow(x, n) {
  let result = x;

  for (let i = 1; i < n; i++) {
    result *= x;
  }

  return result;
}

let x = prompt("x?", '');
let n = prompt("n?", '');

if (n <= 1) {
  alert(`Power ${n} is not supported,
    use an integer greater than 0`);
} else {
  alert( pow(x, n) );
}
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