What are JavaScript Functions?

Image by Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum

Difficulty: Beginner friendly

JavaScript functions are blocks of code you can call to perform a specific task. The basic structure is a function name (so you know what to call/execute later) and a function body where you insert code for what you want it to do. Functions can also require parameters to be inputted as arguments when they are called (invoke, executed). Not only can you create functions to do stuff, you can also create it to do stuff and return a result. In JavaScript, functions are considered first class citizens, meaning they are treated just like variables. They can be passed around as arguments to other functions, can be returned by other functions and can be assigned as value to a variable.

At its core, a function is simply a way for the creator (you), to package a set of instructions that can be called at-will to do a task.

How do I create functions in JavaScript?

There are three basic ways to create a function in JavaScript. I write this yet another post on JS functions not to bore the world wide web, but purely for my own enjoyment and education. I am 99.21% sure no one reads these posts. This is for my future self, so he won’t hate me for not writing stuff down when I understand them and can articulate them in his own words.

Function Expression and Variable Assignment

const myFunction = function(param1,param2) {
//do something
//return something

Function expressions are pretty neat, because they imply that while a function can be created and assigned to a variable just like a primitive value or object, it doesn’t have to be assigned. When functions don’t get assigned to a variable, they are known as anonymous functions. We’ll get into this topic more later, but for now, just know that this is one way of creating a function.

Function Declaration

function myFunction(param){
//do something
//return something

Function declarations omit the assignment to variable of the first method, and instead declare a name for the function as well as its parameters/definition (what it does) in a single syntax block.

Both methods of creating functions are valid, and acceptable in JavaScript. Both give you the same result for the same input and neither is easier to write than the other. So what the heck is the difference?

The biggest difference is in the way the JavaScript interpreter (in ours and most cases, the browser and/or NodeJS) parses the code. Specifically, when the function is available for invocation(calling). On parsing a piece of code, the browser goes from top to bottom; along the way, it takes note of variable definitions and assignments (including function expressions), for which it creates a placeholder in memory for, as well as what gets assigned to it. But that’s it, it just parses the code and takes note, unless it encounters a function declaration:

Function declarations get treated differently than function expressions. When the browser parses and encounters a function declaration, they are “hoisted”, meaning they are immediately available for use when the browser goes through and executes the code, in whatever order they are placed.

Hoisting is the reason functions can be declared after they have been invoked in lexical order (the way it’s written). The first pass of your code by the browser hoisted the function declaration so it is available on execution.

Arrow functions — Available in ES6

const myFunction = (param) => {
//do something
//return something

Introduced in ES6, arrow functions are the most fun out of the three methods of creating functions. It has the exact same shape as a function expression, different only in its shorthand elegance. Writing arrow functions always gives me the feeling I’m some cool hacker, writing code no one understands. Kind of the same feeling you get writing ternary operators or Regex, or using logical operators as default conditions.

Without getting too mired in the detail, arrow functions differ in one other major way to both function expressions and declarations. It’s in its relationship to the ‘this’ object (another time, another article).

Missing Link (Important)

So… great, you now know 3 ways of creating functions. Yay! so what? Cause they do nothing right now. You’ve defined these neat little packages of instructions, and you’ve started your local web server (or codepen, or codesandbox)… but it does absolutely nothing (assuming you told it to do something in the function body)!!

Here’s the trick — You actually have to call/invoke it by naming it with a () at the end (if there are arguments you need to put arguments in there too)

Invoke your function: myFunction(arg)

If you do not invoke/call a function, it will sit there, and never execute your code. That is obvious… but when you’re starting out, it may not be so obvious.

Happy coding

Next: More JavaScript Functions




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Calvin Cheng

Calvin Cheng

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