Making sense out of Context in JavaScript

The this keyword is probably one of the most misunderstood aspects of JavaScript. At the root of it for me, it allows us to reuse functions within different contexts, or in other words, it allows us to decide which objects should be focal when invoking a function.

Whenever you’re trying to figure out what the value of this is, you need to look at where the function is being invoked. Not when it was defined, but specifically when it was called.

Let’s say we have a function called sayHi which takes in a name and logs to the console Hi, ${name}, ${name} being whatever name we pass in.

function sayHi(name) {
console.log('Hello, my name is ' + name);
}

If I were to ask you right now what name this last function is logging to the console, you wouldn’t have a clue because you can’t possibly know what name is until the function is invoked.

The exact same idea holds for the this keyword. We can’t know what the value of this is until that function gets run.

Context Bindings

There are four different types of bindings in JavaScript:

  1. Implicit Binding
  2. Explicit Binding
  3. new Binding
  4. window Binding

Implicit Binding

TL;DR: look at the very left of the dot at call time.

Whenever you call a function that’s attached to an object, look to the left of the dot, and that is what the this keyword is going to be.

var Person = function (name, age) {
return {
name: name,
age: age,
sayHi: function () {
console.log('Hi, my name is '+ this.name);
}
};
};
var homer = new Person('Homer Simpson', 30);
homer.sayHi(); // "Hi, my name is Homer Simpson"

Now, what if we had a nested object within this homer object called daughter which also had a name property and a sayHi method on it?

var homer = {
name: 'Homer Simpson',
age: 26,
sayHi: function () {
console.log('Hi, my name is ' + this.name);
},
daughter: {
name: 'Lisa Simpson',
sayName: function () {
console.log('Hi, my name is ' + this.name);
}
}
};
homer.sayHi(); // Hi, my name is Homer Simpson
homer.daughter.sayHi(); // Hi, my name is Lisa Simpson

Well, this doesn’t really matter as we always look at what’s to the left of the dot, in this case, homer.daughter.sayHi() is going to be bound to the daughter object. The object which is immediately left to the dot is always the context used.

Explicit Binding

TL;DR: we explicitly tell a function what the context (= value of the this keyword) is by using one of these prototype methods: call, apply or bind.

This is about explicitly setting the value of this to a function upon execution.

Let’s say we have a getCountryDetails function which is not a method on any object we’ve created, rather a function attached to the global scope:

function getCountryDetails() {
console.log(this.country + '\'s capital city is '+ this.capital + ' and as of ' + arguments[0] + ' the country has a population of ' + this.population + ' according to ' + arguments[1]);
}

Note that getCountryDetails looks like a free flowing function, but there are actually no free flowing functions in JavaScript. They’re all attached to some object. In this case, getCountryDetails is attached to the global window object.

Now, what we want to do is somehow call this function in the context of these two countries:

var oz = {
country: 'Australia',
capital: 'Canberra',
population: '23M'
};
var nz = {
country: 'New Zealand',
capital: 'Wellington',
population: '4M'
};
var today = '30/12/2016';
var source = 'Wikipedia';

We’ve got a number of ways to achieve this.

  • Function.prototype.call
  • Function.prototype.apply
  • Function.prototype.bind

What this means is Every function (that is, every instance of Function) has a .call method, an .apply method and a .bind method that allows us to do what we want to do.

i. Call

Here’s the signature for call:

fun.call(thisArg[, arg1[, arg2[, ...]]])

In layman’s terms this means:

  • The very first argument call takes in is the context you want to use.
  • Afterwards, you can pass in any number of comma-separated values which will be treated as arguments for the function fun.
You can remember this because: call starts with c as in comma-separated arguments 💥

Here’s our country details example using call:

getCountryDetails.call(nz, today, source);
// "New Zealand's capital city is Wellington and as of 30/12/2016 the country has a population of 4M according to Wikipedia"

ii. Apply

The signature for apply is as follows:

fun.apply(thisArg, [argsArray])

As opposed to the call method, this one takes only two arguments:

  • First argument is the context we want to use.
  • Second argument is an array of values which are gonna be used as the arguments passed in to the function fun.
You can remember this because: apply starts with a as in array of args 💥

Again, here’s our country details example using apply:

getCountryDetails.apply(oz, [today, source]);
// "Australia's capital city is Canberra and as of 30/12/2016 the country has a population of 23M according to Wikipedia"

iii. Bind

bind is almost the exact same thing as call, except it defers the function invocation, i.e.: bind returns a whole new function instead of invoking the original one.

This new function is bound to the scope we pass in and also keeps track of the comma-separated values we’ve provided as arguments.

var getOzDetails = getCountryDetails.bind(oz, today, source);
// nothing happens just yet...
getOzDetails(); // we need to manually run the resulting function
// "Australia's capital city is Canberra and as of 30/12/2016 the country has a population of 23M according to Wikipedia"

If we were to recreate Function.prototype.bind, this is what it’d look like:

Function.prototype.bind = function (context) {
var fn = this;
var outerArgs = [].slice.call(arguments, 1);

return function () {
var innerArgs = [].slice.call(arguments, 0);
fn.apply(context, [].concat(outterArgs, innerArgs));
};
};

One more thing about bind. This is a simple example of a functional programming technique called partial application which allows the remaining arguments to be passed in when the new bound function is called:

var missingSource = getCountryDetails.bind(oz, today);
var missingAllArgs = getCountryDetails.bind(oz);
missingSource(source);
missingAllArgs(today, source);

Let’s recap:

  • call, apply and bind they all allow us to explicitly set the value of this when calling a function.
  • call and apply both invoke the bound function immediately.
  • bind doesn’t invoke the bound function immediately, rather returns a new function we can run later.
  • call and apply differ only in the format they take extra arguments in: use comma-separated values for call, array of values for apply.
  • bind takes extra arguments as comma-separated values, just as call does.

New Binding

TL;DR: whenever we’ve got a function invoked with the new operator, the this keyword here is bound to the new object being built by the function constructor.

We’ve got this Dog function constructor which takes in a name, a breed and a colour. By the way, we have capitalised the first letter to express that this is function constructor, meaning it should be instantiated (i.e.: called with the new operator).

var Dog = function (name, breed, color) {
// this = {} --> `this` equals to a brand new object
// being created by the `new` operator whenever the
// function gets instantiated.
  this.name = name;
this.breed = breed;
this.color = color;
this.sayHi = function () {
console.log('My name is ' + this.name + ', woof woof!');
}
};

Let’s now instantiate a puppy:

var puppy = new Animal('Axel', 'German Shepherd', 'Black');
puppy.sayHi();

As we’re invoking the function constructor with the new keyword, JavaScript is (under the hood) creating a new object for us and saving it as our this, thus generating a brand new context.

This means, whenever we are instantiating a function constructor, we don’t need to worry about binding the new instance to any particular context as it already has its own.

Window Binding

TL;DR: if none of the other rules apply, then the this keyword defaults to the window object. This holds true as long as you are not in strict mode, otherwise this is undefined.

Let’s go back to our sayHi function:

function sayHi() {
console.log('Hi, my name is ' + this.name);
};

What if we just tried to invoke sayHi without specifying any context? Here we’re not using call/apply/bind, there’s also nothing to the left of the dot, nor we are using the new operator.

sayHi(); // undefined

Well, in this case we’ll just get undefined back, because what’s happening here is if you run a function that uses the this keyword but it’s not bound to anything else (that is, doesn’t meet any of the previous binding rules), then this is going to automatically default to the window object.

If we add a name property to the global window object we no longer get undefined here:

window.name = 'Homer'; // might as well be `var name = 'Homer';`
sayHi(); // we now get "Hi, my name is Homer"

What’s interesting though, is that if we run this function in strict mode, we get an error because strict mode is smart enough to know we might be screwing up. It kind of says: “Hey, you probably don’t want to do what you’re doing. You don’t want the this keyword to reference the window object, so I’m not gonna let you do that”.

function sayAge() {
'use strict';
console.log(this.age);
};
sayAge(); // bummer! type error thrown ⚠️

ES6 Goodness: Arrow Functions

Arrow functions are automatically bound to their lexical scope, i.e.: this gets passed in from the parent into the arrow function.

function () {
this.greeting = 'Good day mate';

// If we don’t bind this function, it'll echo out `undefined`
setTimeout(function () {
console.log(this.greeting);
}.bind(this));

// Binding here happens automagically using the parent scope
setTimeout(() => {
console.log(this.greeting);
});
}

Some credits: I’ve first seen the terms implicit/explicit/new/window binding on this Egghead lesson by Tyler McGinnis.