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Understanding the Difference Between Reference and Value in JavaScript

thawkin3 profile image Tyler Hawkins Originally published at Medium ・4 min read

“Objects are passed by reference, not by value.”

Have you heard that phrase before but struggled to understand what it means? This is a concept that often causes new developers to stumble when first learning JavaScript.

In this article we’ll look at a few examples to better understand how variables are treated and what the difference is between “reference” and “value”.


Passing Primitives

Primitive data types in JavaScript are things like number, string, boolean, or undefined. There are other primitives, but those are the most common ones.

Primitives are passed by value. To understand what that means, let’s look at a simple example:

const myNumber = 10;

const addOne = x => x + 1;

const anotherNumber = addOne(myNumber);

console.log(myNumber);
console.log(anotherNumber);

In this example we have a variable myNumber which has the value 10. We have a function addOne that takes an argument and returns the argument plus 1. Then we call the addOne function using the myNumber variable as the argument and save the result to another variable called anotherNumber. Finally, we log to the console the values of both of our variables.

So, the question is: what gets logged?

If you answered 10 and 11, you are correct. Because numbers are passed by value, the value of myNumber is passed to the function, but when the number is incremented, the myNumber variable is unaffected.


Comparing Primitives

So now we know that primitives are passed by value. But what about when they’re compared? To answer that, let’s look at another example:

const x = 5;
const y = 5;

console.log(x === y);

We have two variables, x and y, both of which have the value 5. When we log to the console a check for strict equality, what do we get?

If you answered true, you are correct. This is because primitives are compared by value too, and 5 is equal to 5.


Passing Objects

Now, what about data types that are not primitives in JavaScript? For example, objects are not primitives, and neither are arrays (which are really just objects, secretly).

Objects are passed by reference. To understand what that means, let’s look at a simple example:

const someNumbers = [1, 2, 3];

const addNumberToArray = arr => {
  arr.push(100);
  return arr;
}

const otherNumbers = addNumberToArray(someNumbers);

console.log(someNumbers);
console.log(otherNumbers);

In this example we have a variable someNumbers which is an array that contains three elements. We have a function addNumberToArray that takes an argument (an array), pushes the value 100 into the array, and then returns the array. Then we call the addNumberToArray function using the someNumbers variable as the argument and save the result to another variable called otherNumbers. Finally, we log to the console the values of both of our variables.

So, the question is: what gets logged?

If you answered [1, 2, 3, 100] and [1, 2, 3, 100], you are correct.

Oh no! We’ve inadvertently modified our input array that we passed to the function!

Because objects are passed by reference, the reference to someNumbers is passed to the function. So, when the value 100 is pushed to the array, that value is being pushed into the same array that someNumbers represents.

If you wanted to be sure not to modify the original array in a function like this, it would be necessary to push the value 100 into a copy of the input array using the concat method or the ES6 spread operator. For example:

const someNumbers = [1, 2, 3];

const addNumberToArray = arr => [...arr, 100];

const otherNumbers = addNumberToArray(someNumbers);

console.log(someNumbers);
console.log(otherNumbers);

Now when we log those two variables to the console, we’ll see [1, 2, 3] and [1, 2, 3, 100] get logged. Much better.


Comparing Objects

So now we know that objects are passed by reference. But what about when they’re compared? To answer that, let’s look at another example:

const object1 = { someKey: 'someValue' }
const object2 = { someKey: 'someValue' }

console.log(object1 === object2);

We have two variables, object1 and object2, both of which are an object with only one property. The key is someKey, and the value is someValue. When we log to the console a check for strict equality, what do we get?

If you answered false, you are correct. This is because objects are compared by reference too. Even though these two objects are the same in value, they are not the same object. These are two separate objects held in two separate variables, so their references are different.

If you wanted a quick sanity check, you could also check if each object is equal to itself, like this:

console.log(object1 === object1);
console.log(object2 === object2);

Both of these logs to the console will be true since in each case you are comparing an object to itself, which is the same reference.

If you really wanted to check if object1 and object2 had the same keys and values, you’d need to write a utility method that would loop over the objects’ keys and values and make sure that they are all identical. Or, you could use a helper method from a library like lodash which implements this functionality for you.


Conclusion

Primitives are passed and compared by value. Objects are passed and compared by reference. Understanding the difference will save you a lot of headaches debugging your code!

This article was originally published here: https://medium.com/javascript-in-plain-english/understanding-the-difference-between-reference-and-value-in-javascript-21c0a6bac7a9

Posted on May 26 by:

thawkin3 profile

Tyler Hawkins

@thawkin3

Senior software engineer. Continuous learner. Educator. http://tylerhawkins.info

Discussion

markdown guide
 

Sorry, this is wrong.

It is always pass by value. Values of arguments are always copied and sent to the function.

The "value" of an object is the reference. This is why it seems like it's pass-by-reference but JS does not support pass-by-reference.

Yes, you can mutate the object from within the function, but you cannot change the reference.

var x = { /* some obj */ };
var y = x;
foo(x); 
// no matter what foo does, the following will be true. You cannot make x reference any other object.
x === y

x is not the object. x is not the object.

When you call a function with x, you aren't passing x. You're passing the value of x. The value of x happens to be a reference to an object.

Pass-by-value by copying a reference is NOT pass-by-reference.

Pass-by-reference is a concept/feature that (effectively) only exists in C++: learncpp.com/cpp-tutorial/73-passi...

Sources:

 

Valentin, thank you for the correction and the detailed articles!

The mental model I've had that "primitives are passed by value; objects are passed by reference" has served me well over the years, and it's been helpful in understanding what behavior to expect, but it appears that I've been using the incorrect terms to explain what's really going on underneath the hood.

I've read through all your linked references. Just for my understanding, it seems like the following statement from the Stack Overflow answer is an appropriate way to explain the concept, right?

Primitives are passed by value. Objects are passed by "copy of a reference".

Or as you've said:

It is always pass by value. The "value" of an object is the reference.

 

Agree with above of course. Just want to point out to people coming from a C# world that for instance structs in C# are passed by value. You get a copy of an object with all of its members also copied. It ends up on the stack. class instances are passed by "a copy of a reference" if you like often short-handed to "passed by reference". In Javascript only primitives are passed by copying the pure value, objects are always a copy of a reference.

 

Correct. structs in several languages behave similarly (C, Go, Crystal). The cost of copying becomes larger as the struct becomes larger, which is where pointers come in. Then references were made as a safer alternative to pointers. (obviously glossing over details here)

By the way, I think you mean instances when you wrote "classes are passed by "a copy of a reference""

In the end it all comes down to knowing how pointers work. So many programmers think that if they're not coding in C or C++ then they can just not learn how pointers work since they're dealing with """references"""

Knowing what is exactly copied is incredibly important in every language.

Ooops... Quite right, instances of classes.

 

I've only just recently realized that there's this whole fanatical, obstinate, and downright wrong subsection of the programming ecosphere that loves nothing more than to try to shout people down over their own narrow interpretation of what is or is not "pass by reference".

 

this whole fanatical, obstinate, and downright wrong subsection of the programming ecosphere

Are you implying this about the post author or the comment author? Weird, passive-aggressive comment.

 

It's not about the author.

And I'm perfectly fine with weird.