Remedial Javascript

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My background here is that I’ve worked with Javascript on and off for years, but I never actually wrapped my head around how its inheritance works until just recently. I started out doing little bits of UI bling, then moved onto dynamic forms and simple ajax requests (pre-jQuery), then fancier stuff with jQuery and friends. So I’ve been able to get a lot done. It’s only when reading something like Javascript: the Good Parts that I’d get this nagging sense that I was missing something fundamental. Lately though, I’ve started working with backbone.js, doing serious model-view-controller programming in the browser, and that nagging has become loud and persistent.

Part of the problem is that I’m coming from a Java background, and Javascript looks a lot like it. It looks like it has the Java-style class inheritance that I’m familiar with. It’s got syntax like:

var o = new Object;

So I instinctively think, “Great, Object is a class, and o is an instance of that class.” You can think that, and Javascript will mostly work the way you expect. You can write a fair amount of code believing that.

But it’s wrong.

Javascript has prototypal inheritance, not class inheritance. I knew that, and seeing this class-y syntax gave me the feeling of being lied to. Not a malicious lie, but a little white “I’m glossing over the details here” lie. And once I got into trying to create my own class hierarchy, or extending someone else’s, those details started to matter. Things just didn’t work quite the way I expected. Mostly, I’d be missing values that I thought I’d inherited from somewhere. Even then, I could figure out what had gone wrong and fix it on a case-by-case basis, but that made it clear that there was something important I really just didn’t understand.

I’ve read a number of books and articles that talk about Javascript’s prototypal nature, and how you construct and extend objects, but my sense of what was going on under the hood never quite clicked. So I finally did what I always end up having to do to make sense of some bit of programming weirdness: step away from the big program I’m working on, and sit down at a shell to run some little experiments. In this case, it’s Chrome’s Javascript console. (Lines with a > are what I type. Lines without are the console’s response.) Starting off with the previous example:

> o = new Object;

Great, I’ve created a new Object. But what is this “Object” thing really?

> Object
function Object() { [native code] }

Wait, so Object is a function. Huh?

The deal is that new is what’s actually doing the heavy lifting here, creating a new object. The Object function is just filling in the details. There’s nothing magic about it. You could call new on any function, and you’d get a new object. If that function sets any properties on this, they’ll show up in it. If that function has a property named prototype, the new object will inherit properties from it. prototype should be an object, but since functions are also objects, you won’t get an error if you mess up.

For example:

> A = function () { this.kingdom = "Animalia"; }
function () { this.kingdom = "Animalia"; }
> B = function () { this.phylum = "Chordata"; }
function () { this.phylum = "Chordata"; }
> B.prototype = A  // wrong!
function () { this.kingdom = "Animalia"; }
> b = new B
> b.kingdom

Here, everything looks fine until you try to get b.kingdom. The trouble is that kingdom is not a property of A; it’s just a property that A sets on this.

The right thing would be:

> a = new A
> B.prototype = a
> b = new B
> b.kingdom

Now, any properties you add to a will be inherited by b:

> a.class = "Mammalia"
> b.class

But the properties that B set on b override a’s properties:

> a.phylum = "whatever"
> b.phylum

b doesn’t inherit properties from B:

> B.order = "Carnivora"
> b.order

And b keeps its relation to a even if B changes its prototype

> B.prototype = {}
> b.kingdom

So that’s what it does, but what are the relationships between all these objects and functions?

> b instanceof B
> b instanceof A
> b instanceof a
TypeError: Expecting a function in instanceof check, but got #<error>
> b.__proto__ === a
> B instanceof A

So we have this odd sort of dual inheritance going on. b is an instance of B, and has a prototype of a. The instanceof relationship is purely historical: Changes to B don’t affect b after its construction. The prototype relation is ongoing and dynamic. Changes to a’s properties show up in b (unless b overrides them). Perhaps even more oddly, b is an instance of a’s constructor, but there’s no direct connection from B to A, only through a. It looks like this in my head:

  B   A
 / \ /

In short, an object inherits a type from its constructor and behavior from its prototype. In a class-based language, an object gets both of these from its class, but in Javascript, “What is it?” and “What can it do?” are different questions with different answers.

If you got all the way through this article and this stuff still doesn’t make sense, grab a Javascript console and try it out yourself. Work through the examples. Type them in by hand; don’t copy-paste them. (Seriously, that makes a huge difference.) Ask your own questions, come up with your own experiments. Tinker.

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