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Rob Lauer
Rob Lauer

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JavaScript 101: var or let or const?

I've been spending some free time lately updating some "old" NativeScript projects to 6.0. The process has been amazingly smooth, but I realized I haven't been very consistent in my usage of var, let, and const when assigning variables.

It led me to think: I'm not even 100% sure when I should be using which method of variable assignment! I mean, var and let seem to be interchangeable, right? And it's still JavaScript so it seems like I can change the value and data type of anything I want at any time. So maybe there isn't much of a difference? Or am I just overthinking all of this to a fault? Classic Rob! 🤦

It turns out there are some fairly significant differences between var, let, and const. So if you're a forever-noob JavaScript developer like me (or hey, maybe you're just getting started!), here is what I've learned:

The Venerable var

In JavaScript, variables are initialized with the value of undefined when they are created. So if you ever wrote something like this:

var foo;
console.log(foo);
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...it would return undefined in your console. Makes sense, right?

But if I assigned a value to the variable first, all will be right in the world:

var foo = "yo";
console.log(foo);
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...you'd see the string "yo" in the console, since now foo is a string with the value of "yo".

And since it's JavaScript, variables initialized with var can not only have their values changed, but also their data types. So, yes, this is valid syntax:

var foo = "yo";
foo = 123;
console.log(foo);
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...with the resulting output being 123 in your console.

Pretty straightforward, right? Now let's look at one of the big differences of var, that being its scope.

Function Scope vs Block Scope

The scope of a variable lets the compiler know where variables (and functions) are accessible inside of your app. In the case of var, the variable is "scoped" to the function in which it was created and is (literally) only accessible inside that function.

function Hello() {
    var foo = "poo";
}

Hello();

console.log(foo); // THIS NO WORK 😭
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But if I moved the console.log(foo); line up into the Hello() function, all would be cool.

So let's continue on this concept of scoping as we get into let:

The NKOTB: let

Bonus points to anyone who is brave enough to admit they know what NKOTB stands for. Hint: 🧑‍🤝‍🧑🎤

For all practical purposes, let is the same as var. Except! (You knew I was going to say that.) Instead of being function scoped (see above), let is block scoped. This means that variables created with let are available inside the "block" in which it was created. What's a "block"? It's effectively anything inside curly braces (like a function assignment, a for loop, an if statement, etc).

If you're coming to JavaScript from another language, let is likely to make more sense to you than var. Let me give you an example:

function Hello() {
    for (var i = 0; i <= 10; i++) {
        var foo = i;
    }

    console.log(foo); // 10
}

Hello();
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...versus if we used let:

function Hello() {
    for (let i = 0; i <= 10; i++) {
        let foo = i;
    }

    console.log(foo); // 😭
}

Hello();
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Since in the first example, i is scoped to the entire function, it's totally cool to reference it outside of the for loop.

In the second example, though, i is block scoped to the for loop, meaning it's not available outside of the loop.

This const Thing

At first glance, you're probably thinking that const is a way to assign immutable (unchangeable) variables. They are "constants" that now and forever will never ever ever change. End of story! 🛑

It so happens that const is almost identical to let. The main difference is that once you've assigned a value using const, you can't re-assign it to a new value. That's cool, because it makes a const a literal constant.

Ok, that's not entirely true.

I'm going to stop you right here. If you want an in-depth look at const and how it's not quite as immutable as you think it might be, you should read Brian Rinaldi's article, Confused by JavaScript's const? Me too!.

By changing a property of an object, you aren't actually reassigning the value (even though it was declared with const). This means that this syntax is perfectly valid:

const me = {
    name: "Rob";
}

me.name = "Rob Lauer";
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#JustJavaScriptThings

So Which Should I Use???

I hear you, I haven't actually given you any guidance up to this point. It almost seems like var, let, and const are interchangeable in many scenarios. But here is my opinion:

  1. I try to never use var. There is no real reason to use it other than your own muscle memory of typing it.
  2. Always use let (yes, I even use it for constants).
  3. Use const if you want to, knowing that it doesn't provide many explicit advantages over let.

In fact, I would recommend if you're truly creating constants, you name the variable appropriately. Something like:

const __IAMACONSTANT = "indeed i am a constant";
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In summary:

var is function scoped, meaning you can only access the value inside the function in which it was created.

let is block scoped, meaning you can only access the value inside the block ({}) in which it was created.

const is also block scoped, but unlike let and var, it can't be reassigned (well, with some exceptions noted above!).

Discussion (2)

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toddanglin profile image
Todd Anglin

Good overview. I was just wondering the other day why all the linters are pushing me to use const instead of let. I now feel better just using let 👍.

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mahrukhsa2 profile image
mahrukhsa2

Good explanation. (y) thumbs up