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Cover image for JavaScript "this" simplified - all you need to know to use it confidently

JavaScript "this" simplified - all you need to know to use it confidently

irensaywhen profile image Irina ・10 min read

Javascript this is full of peculiarities. Wanna figure them out? Keep reading!

My goal here is to give you an idea of how it works, and why this behaves in such a manner.

TL;DR

  1. This is an implicit function parameter - that's why it is evaluated during execution.
  2. When a function is invoked as a function, this is either undefined or the global object (window in the browser).
  3. When a function is invoked as a method, this is the object before the dot.
  4. We can specify this in the first argument when invoking a function with call or apply.
  5. To define context before function invocation, we can use the bind method.
  6. Arrow functions don't have this.

Common ideas behind this

This is a reserved word often called the function context. It is a reference to an object in which this function is invoked. No worries, we'll discuss what does it all mean in a second. Just as a warm-up, I want to show a simple example of using this. For now, without in-depth explanations.

const person = {
  name: 'Iren',
  talk() {
    alert(`Hello, my name is ${this.name}`);
  },
};

person.talk(); // Hello, my name is Iren
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Here you see this in action: it allows us to reference the object from inside the method when we invoke it.

But as you may have noticed, JavaScript is special. And this is not bound to anything.

Let me show you the problem:

const person = {
  name: 'Iren',
  talk() {
    alert(`Hello, my name is ${this.name}`);
  },
};

person.talk(); // Hello, my name is Iren

const talk = person.talk;

talk(); //Uncaught TypeError: Cannot read property 'name' of undefined
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After copying the talk method into the talk variable, our this is undefined.

If you don't know why it happens, continue reading. Don't worry if it doesn't make much sense yet.

Before we begin: function arguments vs function parameters

You might be wondering why I want to start with such an irrelevant topic. You came here because you had decided to learn about this, not about that boring little words we put inside the parenthesis.

But the real trick in understanding this is to understand function parameters.

We usually use these two terms interchangeably despite it's two different things.

Definitions
  • A Parameter is a variable that we list as a part of a function definition
  • An Argument is a value that we pass to a function when we invoke it

Ehh, sounds complicated. Let's sort it out.

Suppose have a function definition:

function sayHello(name) {
  alert(`Hello, ${name}!`);
}
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name is a parameter. Parameters are always specified in the moment of a function definition.

No function definition => no parameters.

Now, imagine we're invoking this function:

const name = 'Iren';

sayHello(name); // Hello, Iren
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Here, name is a variable containing a string. When we invoke the function, we pass this string to the function. name here is an argument.
Arguments are always linked to function invocation.

No function invocation => no arguments.

Okay, now we're ready to go. I don't want to spend hours on reflexing about that.

This: the definition

In our example, name is an explicit function parameter.
We declared that parameter during the function definition, and passed an argument to that function on invocation so that 'Iren' (our argument) was assigned as a value to that parameter.

This is an implicit function parameter.

This is it. Nothing less, nothing more. But wait, what's that mean?
It means that we're not declaring that parameter during the function definition. JavaScript does it behind the scenes. And when we invoke the function, it also passes an argument to the function that will be assigned to this.

There are two frequently occuring ideas:

  • The value of this is evaluated during the run-time.
  • This can be used in any function, not only in methods of objects

And both of them make sense when you think about this as of an implicit parameter, because:

  • The values of function parameters are assigned when the function is invoked.
  • We can use function's parameters inside it independantly of where the function is defined.

No function invocation => no this

The value of this depends on how we invoke the function because only at the moment of function invocation JavaScript decides what to pass as an argument to that implicit parameter.

Different ways to invoke functions in JavaScript

Lets talk about different ways to invoke a function in JavaScript:

  • As a function
  • As a method
  • As a constructor
  • Via function's methods call and apply

Invoking function as a function

Sounds weird, but I simply want to emphasize the case when we invoke a function as is, not as a method, not as a constructor, nor, via function's methods.

We can have three different cases.

Function declaration invoked as a function
// Function declaration
function sayHello(name) {
  alert(`Hello, ${name}!`);
}

sayHello('Iren');
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Function expression invoked as a function
// Function expression
const sayHello = function (name) {
  alert(`Hello, ${name}!`);
};

sayHello('Iren');
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IIFE - Immediately invoked function expression
(function () {
  alert('Hello, Iren!');
})();
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In all three cases, this is evaluated in the same way, and it depends on the current mode.
In non-strict mode, it is the global object (window in the browser). In strict mode, it's undefined.

Invoking function as a method

First things first, let's be precise.

Definition

Let's say that function is invoked as a method when it is assigned to an object's property, and invocation occurs by referencing the function via the object's property.

Suppose you have an object with a name.

const person = {
  name: 'Iren',
};
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Then you assing a function as a property of that object, and invoke the function via calling object property:

person.talk = function () {
  alert(`Hi! My name is ${this.name}`);
};

person.talk(); // Hi! My name is Iren
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When the function is invoked as a method of an object, this becomes a reference to the object on which this method was invoked. That's why this is missed when you copy the object's method.

Let's cover a more complex example:

'use strict';

const man = {
  name: 'John',
};
const woman = {
  name: 'Alice',
};

function talk() {
  alert(`Hi! My name is ${this.name}`);
}

man.talk = talk;
woman.talk = talk;

man.talk(); // Hi! My name is John
woman.talk(); // Hi! My name is Alice

talk(); // Uncaught TypeError: Cannot read property 'name' of undefined
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Let's see what's going on here:

  • Two objects are defined. Both of them have the same property name with different values.
  • Function talk is defined and assigned to the object's properties.
  • When talk is called as a method of an object, JavaScript passes an object reference to the function as an argument. this becomes an object before the dot.
  • When talk is called as a function, JavaScript implicitly passes undefined to the function (in strict mode). We're getting an error then.

Invoking function as a constructor

Let's be precise here, too, and define a constructor function before digging any deeper.

A constructor function is a function invoked with the new keyword

Let's discuss what is going on in the case of constructors. I'm not going to talk about all the peculiarities of the constructors in JavaScript as it's a whole other topic. Reach me out if you feel you might benefit from an article about that, and I'll write one.

Now, consider the following example:

function Person(name) {
  this.talk = function () {
    this.name = name;
    alert(`Hello! My name is ${this.name}`);
  };
}

const alice = new Person('Alice');

alice.talk(); // Hello! My name is Alice
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The Person is our constructor function. When a function is invoked as a constructor, the following steps happen:

  • A new empty object is created
  • This object is passed to the function as the this parameter
  • The newly created object is returned

Now, with our example:

Diagram showcasing the flow of function invocation as a constructor

And for now, this is it for invoking functions as constructors.

Invoking function with call and apply

In this kinda crazy JavaScript world, sometimes you need to specify in which context a function must be invoked for things to work properly.

It can be especially useful when you pass a function as a callback. For example, in event handlers, JavaScript passes HTMLElement object, which triggered the event.

Consider the following example:

<button id="button">Click to talk!</button>
<script>
  const button = document.getElementById('button');

  function Person(name) {
    this.talk = function () {
      this.name = name;
      alert(`Hello! My name is ${this.name}`);
    };

  const alice = new Person('Alice');

  function talk() {
    this.talk();
  }
  button.addEventListener('click', talk);
</script>
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We have out good old constructor, a button, and a talk function. This function simply calls talk method of the current context.

Now, if we click the button, we'll see an error in the console because our this is our <button id="button">Click to talk!</button>

This is not what we were looking for. Our button doesn't know about talk method. And it shouldn't.

So welcome call and apply methods of a function.

They are two built-in methods of a function (functions are objects in JavaScript, remember):

func.call(context[, a, b, c, ...])
func.apply(context[, [a, b, c, ...]])
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They're doing the same thing: calling the func function with the specified context. After calling func this way, this inside this function becomes context.
The only difference is how arguments are passed. call accepts an arbitrary number of arguments and passes it to the function, while apply accepts an array of arguments.

Let's tweak our example a bit, and fix our context.

<button id="alice-button">Talk to Alice</button>
<button id="iren-button">Talk to Iren</button>
<script>
  const aliceButton = document.getElementById('alice-button');
  const irenButton = document.getElementById('iren-button');

  function Person(name) {
    this.talk = function () {
      this.name = name;
      alert(`Hello! My name is ${this.name}.`);
    };

  const alice = new Person('Alice');
  const iren = new Person('Iren');

  const talk = function () {
    this.talk();
  }

  aliceButton.addEventListener('click', function () {
    talk.call(alice);
  })
  irenButton.addEventListener('click', function () {
    talk.apply(iren);
  });
</script>
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Now we have two buttons, and a talk function.
Pay attention to how we're specifying the callbacks. For both buttons, we're passing an anonymous function.

For aliceButton, we're calling the talk function specifying alice as a context. In this case, the alice object, which was created by our constructor, becomes this inside talk function.

For irenButton, we're doing almost the same, but passing iren as a context. So when we click those buttons, corresponding methods of alice and iren are invoked.

Let's summarize function invokation in the following table:
Diagram showcasing the flow of function invocation as a constructor

Dealing with function context

Now that we've talked about how functions can be invoked and what happens with the context in those cases, we can get our hands dirty in two other topics tightly coupled with this: arrow functions and bind method.

Binding the context

Before knowledge about call and apply has flushed from our mind, let's talk about another guy in the family of function methods: bind.
It looks like the call method:
func.bind(context[, a, b, ...])
But it does a completely different thing. Instead of invoking a function, it sews a function with provided context and returns this function. Let's tweak our last example:

<button id="alice-button">Talk to Alice</button>
<button id="iren-button">Talk to Iren</button>
<script>
  const aliceButton = document.getElementById('alice-button');
  const irenButton = document.getElementById('iren-button');

  function Person(name) {
    this.talk = function () {
      this.name = name;
      alert(`Hello! My name is ${this.name}.`);
    };
  }

  const alice = new Person('Alice');
  const iren = new Person('Iren');

  let talk = function () {
    this.talk();
  };

  // Bind context to talk function and override the previous function
  talk = talk.bind(alice);

  aliceButton.addEventListener('click', talk);
  irenButton.addEventListener('click', function () {
    // Call function with call method
    talk.call(iren);
  });
</script>
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In the example above, we:

  • Declare a normal talk function,
  • Call bind method of this function with alice object passed as an argument,
  • Override initial talk function with the function returned by bind,
  • Pass talk function as a callback to the click event listener.

With that in place, we can click on the Talk to Alice button and see that our context isn't lost.

So here, the bind method returns a function with the specified context attached to it. This function doesn't accept context anymore. this is alice forever.

Moreover, we can't talk with Iren anymore. When we click on the Talk to Irene button, the alert is Hello! My name is Alice..

That's because the call method doesn't do anything in the callback we provided to the irenButton.

bind, call, apply comparison

As we discussed earlier, the call and apply methods does pretty much the same. The bind, on the other hand, is whole another beast.
It's easy to grasp the difference in the comparison table:

Bind, call and apply comparison

Arrow functions

I'm not going to dive deep into all the peculiarities of the arrow functions in JavaScript, hovewer, it is a powerful feature to deal with this.

The important difference between regular functions and arrow functions is that arrow functions don't have this.
Simply, they don't have this implicit parameter, hence JavaScript cannot pass anything to it.

So when an arrow function is invoked, JavaScript doesn't see this parameter in the lexical environment of the current function, and check the outer scope.

For example, when you use a regular function as an event handler for click events, JavaScript passes the clicked target as this:

<button id="button">Button</button>
<script>
  const button = document.getElementById('button');

  button.addEventListener('click', function () {
    console.log(this); // <button id="button">Button</button>
  });
</script>
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Hovewer, when we use arrow function instead, this is global object - the closest not-empty this:

<button id="button">Button</button>
<script>
  const button = document.getElementById('button');

  button.addEventListener('click', () => {
    console.log(this); // Window
  });
</script>
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That's pretty much it. This tutorial becomes extremely long, so it's time to wrap everything up.

Summary

  1. This is an implicit function parameter - that's why it is evaluated during execution.
  2. When a function is invoked as a function, this is either undefined or the global object (window in the browser).
  3. When a function is invoked as a method, this is the object before the dot.
  4. We can specify this in the first argument when invoking a function with call or apply.
  5. To define context before function invocation, we can use the bind method.
  6. Arrow functions don't have this.

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