June 12, 2022

Methods of primitives

JavaScript allows us to work with primitives (strings, numbers, etc.) as if they were objects. They also provide methods to call as such. We will study those soon, but first we’ll see how it works because, of course, primitives are not objects (and here we will make it even clearer).

Let’s look at the key distinctions between primitives and objects.

A primitive

  • Is a value of a primitive type.
  • There are 7 primitive types: string, number, bigint, boolean, symbol, null and undefined.

An object

  • Is capable of storing multiple values as properties.
  • Can be created with {}, for instance: {name: "John", age: 30}. There are other kinds of objects in JavaScript: functions, for example, are objects.

One of the best things about objects is that we can store a function as one of its properties.

let john = {
  name: "John",
  sayHi: function() {
    alert("Hi buddy!");

john.sayHi(); // Hi buddy!

So here we’ve made an object john with the method sayHi.

Many built-in objects already exist, such as those that work with dates, errors, HTML elements, etc. They have different properties and methods.

But, these features come with a cost!

Objects are “heavier” than primitives. They require additional resources to support the internal machinery.

A primitive as an object

Here’s the paradox faced by the creator of JavaScript:

  • There are many things one would want to do with a primitive, like a string or a number. It would be great to access them using methods.
  • Primitives must be as fast and lightweight as possible.

The solution looks a little bit awkward, but here it is:

  1. Primitives are still primitive. A single value, as desired.
  2. The language allows access to methods and properties of strings, numbers, booleans and symbols.
  3. In order for that to work, a special “object wrapper” that provides the extra functionality is created, and then is destroyed.

The “object wrappers” are different for each primitive type and are called: String, Number, Boolean, Symbol and BigInt. Thus, they provide different sets of methods.

For instance, there exists a string method str.toUpperCase() that returns a capitalized str.

Here’s how it works:

let str = "Hello";

alert( str.toUpperCase() ); // HELLO

Simple, right? Here’s what actually happens in str.toUpperCase():

  1. The string str is a primitive. So in the moment of accessing its property, a special object is created that knows the value of the string, and has useful methods, like toUpperCase().
  2. That method runs and returns a new string (shown by alert).
  3. The special object is destroyed, leaving the primitive str alone.

So primitives can provide methods, but they still remain lightweight.

The JavaScript engine highly optimizes this process. It may even skip the creation of the extra object at all. But it must still adhere to the specification and behave as if it creates one.

A number has methods of its own, for instance, toFixed(n) rounds the number to the given precision:

let n = 1.23456;

alert( n.toFixed(2) ); // 1.23

We’ll see more specific methods in chapters Numbers and Strings.

Constructors String/Number/Boolean are for internal use only

Some languages like Java allow us to explicitly create “wrapper objects” for primitives using a syntax like new Number(1) or new Boolean(false).

In JavaScript, that’s also possible for historical reasons, but highly unrecommended. Things will go crazy in several places.

For instance:

alert( typeof 0 ); // "number"

alert( typeof new Number(0) ); // "object"!

Objects are always truthy in if, so here the alert will show up:

let zero = new Number(0);

if (zero) { // zero is true, because it's an object
  alert( "zero is truthy!?!" );

On the other hand, using the same functions String/Number/Boolean without new is totally fine and useful thing. They convert a value to the corresponding type: to a string, a number, or a boolean (primitive).

For example, this is entirely valid:

let num = Number("123"); // convert a string to number
null/undefined have no methods

The special primitives null and undefined are exceptions. They have no corresponding “wrapper objects” and provide no methods. In a sense, they are “the most primitive”.

An attempt to access a property of such value would give the error:

alert(null.test); // error


  • Primitives except null and undefined provide many helpful methods. We will study those in the upcoming chapters.
  • Formally, these methods work via temporary objects, but JavaScript engines are well tuned to optimize that internally, so they are not expensive to call.


importance: 5

Consider the following code:

let str = "Hello";

str.test = 5;


What do you think, will it work? What will be shown?

Try running it:

let str = "Hello";

str.test = 5; // (*)


Depending on whether you have use strict or not, the result may be:

  1. undefined (no strict mode)
  2. An error (strict mode).

Why? Let’s replay what’s happening at line (*):

  1. When a property of str is accessed, a “wrapper object” is created.
  2. In strict mode, writing into it is an error.
  3. Otherwise, the operation with the property is carried on, the object gets the test property, but after that the “wrapper object” disappears, so in the last line str has no trace of the property.

This example clearly shows that primitives are not objects.

They can’t store additional data.

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