First-class functions in JavaScript

In JavaScript functions are treated like any other variable. This is sometimes referred to as “first-class functions”. The concept can be tricky for beginners, so I’m going to try and explain exactly what it means.

Functions are variables

When you create a function in JS you are creating a normal variable:

function returnsOne() {
return 1;
}
// we now have a variable named returnsOne

This is still true (and perhaps more obvious) for arrow functions:

const returnsOne = () => 1;

You can reference this variable the same way you would any other:

console.log(returnsOne);
// function returnsOne()

You can pass this function to other functions as arguments:

function logger(x) {
console.log(x);
}

logger(returnsOne);
// function returnsOne()

Functions are callable

The main distinction between a function and other types of variable is that you can call a function. You call a function by putting parens (normal brackets) after it:

returnsOne();

Calling a function will run the lines of code inside of it. If you try to reference the called function as a value you’ll get whatever the function returns:

const myValue = returnsOne();
console.log(myValue); // 1

If the functions returns nothing you’ll get undefined:

function returnsNothing() {
// doesn't have a return statement
}
const myValue = returnsNothing();
console.log(myValue); // undefined

This is often a source of confusion when passing functions as arguments. It’s easy to accidentally call your function as you reference it, which means you’re actually passing its return value:

function logger(x) {
console.log(x);
}

logger(returnsOne);
// function returnsOne()

logger(returnsOne());
// 1

This is clear if we log the type of the value:

console.log(typeof returnsOne);
// function

console.log(typeof returnsOne());
// number

Inline functions

Another source of confusion is functions defined inline. This is a common pattern for passing functions as arguments to other functions (for example as event listeners):

form.addEventListener("submit", event => {
// do stuff
});

We can extract this inline function and assign it to a variable:

const handleSubmit = event => {
// do stuff
};

form.addEventListener("submit", event => handleSubmit(event));

This can be even simpler if we realise that all our inline function is doing now is taking an argument and passing it on to handleSubmit. We don’t need the intermediary wrapper function at all:

const handleSubmit = event => {
// do stuff
};

form.addEventListener("submit", handleSubmit);

It’s important to note that we don’t want to call our function when we pass it here. This won’t work as we need to pass a function, not its return value:

const handleSubmit = event => {
// do stuff
};

form.addEventListener("submit", handleSubmit());
// this is equivalent to:
// form.addEventListener("submit", undefined);
// since handleSubmit doesn't return anything

Built-in functions

These rules apply to any functions, not just those you define yourself. For example if you wanted to log the result of a promise:

getAsyncData().then(data => console.log(data));

The .then method expects to be passed a function as an argument. It will call whatever function we pass it with the resolved data. In this case our inline arrow function will be called with data, which we then pass on to the console.log function.

It’s important to note that we are defining a function here, which means we can call the argument anything:

getAsyncData().then(whateverWeLike => console.log(whateverWeLike));

The actual value that gets passed to our function comes from inside the .then—we never have control of it.

Next lets extract the inline function to a named variable, then reference it inside the .then:

function logData(whateverWeLike) {
console.log(whateverWeLike);
}

getAsyncData().then(logData);

This works, but there’s an even simpler way. We can get rid of our wrapper function entirely, since all it does is forward whatever argument it receives on to console.log. Since console.log is already a function we can use it as-is:

getAsyncData().then(console.log);

Further reading

You can learn more about first-class functions in Chapter 2 of the Mostly Adequate Guide To Functional Programming. I highly recommend reading at least the first few chapters, as they will improve your JavaScript whether you become a hardcore functional programmer or not.