JavaScript: this is easy and what do you need to know about it!

JavaScript: this is easy and what do you need to know about it!

Tapas Adhikary
·Jul 6, 2020·

10 min read

Subscribe to my newsletter and never miss my upcoming articles

Listen to this article

Introduction

Let me start this article by thanking the readers of my series, JavaScript: Cracking the Nuts for liking and loving it so far. This article will go through another fundamental but equally misunderstood aspect of JavaScript called the this keyword.

It is not mandatory, but if you are new to the series, I would recommend you to go through the previous articles for other fundamental concepts like,

Alright, so let us get started. At the end of the article, you should have a better understanding with,

  • What is this in JavaScript.
  • How to make this sounds less confusing than ever.
  • Rules of this and the usage.
  • Importantly, this is easy!

Many Thanks to the resource links mentioned in the Credits and Resources section. It helped me to master this concept well.

Lengthy Read Alert ⚠️

Unlike other articles from the series, this one is going to be a bit lengthy. After going over several tutorials, I felt that one should connect various aspects to understand the concept of this well. For example, the concept of call => apply => bind is very related to understanding this keyword. We need to discuss them together.

I could have broken things into multiple articles but, it is better to be together as the concepts are very inter-related. Hence the lengthy read alert!

Take your favorite beverages, relax, and start reading. I am sure you are going to enjoy it.

What is this?

this is a keyword in JavaScript, and the existence of it is to allow us in,

  • To understand different execution contexts.
  • The context of the object that this is related to.

Remember that, when an Execution Context is created in JavaScript, it creates a special thing called, this.

  • In the Global execution context, this is equal to the global window object.
  • In the Function execution context, the value of this depends on binding.

Rules of Binding

It can be challenging to understand a function's this keyword as it behaves differently in JavaScript than in other languages. When it comes to finding the context of this, we need to see where the function is invoked.

The usage of this can be categorized into four different binding aspects.

Implicit binding

Implicit binding is the most used use-case for the this keyword. When we invoke a method of an object, we use the dot(.) notation to access it. In the case of implicit binding, the context of this is bound to the object on which we invoke the method.

Here is an example,

Example:

const user = {
    name: 'GreenRoots',
    address: 'HashNode',
    greeting: function() {
        return `Hello, ${this.name} belongs to ${this.address}`
    }
};

user.greeting();

Explanation: In the above example, we invoke the greeting() method on the user object using the dot(.) notation. Hence this is bound to the user object. So, this.name is going to log GreenRoots and this.address is HashNode.

Let's take another example to explain this concept better way,

Example:

 function greeting(obj) {
      obj.logMessage = function() {
          console.log(`${this.name} is ${this.age} years old!`);
      }
  };

  const tom = {
      name: 'Tom',
      age: 7
  };

  const jerry = {
      name: 'jerry',
      age: 3
  };

  greeting(tom);
  greeting(jerry);

  tom.logMessage ();
  jerry.logMessage ();

Explanation: In the above example, we have two objects, tom and jerry. We have decorated(enhanced) these objects by attaching a method called logMessage ().

Just notice when we invoke tom.logMessage(), the method is invoked on the tom object. Hence this bound to the tom object. The same applies when jerry.logMessage () is invoked.

Explicit binding

We are aware that JavaScript creates an environment to execute the code we write. This environment includes stuff beyond the actual code we write.

It takes care of the memory creation for variables, functions, objects, etc., in the creation phase. Finally, execute the code in the execution phase. This special environment is called JavaScript Execution Context.

There are many such environments(Execution Contexts) in a JavaScript application. Each Execution Context is independent of the other. But we may want to access something from one execution context to another. That is where explicit binding comes into play. We can bind stuff from one context into the context of a different environment for execution using this.

There are three extraordinary methods, call(), apply(), and bind(), help in achieving explicit binding.

call() method

With the call() method, the context with which the function has to be called will be passed as a parameter to the call(). Let us see with an example,

Example:

greeting: function() {
        return `Hello, ${this.name} belongs to ${this.address}`
 }

const user = {
   name: 'GreenRoots',
   address: 'HashNode'  
 };

 greeting.call(user);

Explanation: What we see here is, the call() method is invoked on a function called greeting(). The greeting() function just logs a message using this.name and this.address. But what is this here? That gets determined by what has been passed to the call() method.

Here this will bind to the user object because we have passed the user as a parameter to the call() method. Hence this.name should log the value of the user object's name property, i.e., GreenRoots, and similarly, this.address as Hashnode.

In the above example, we have passed just one argument to call(). But, we can pass multiple arguments to call(), if required. Let's take another example to understand that,

Example

var getName = function(hobby1, hobby2) {
     console.log(this.name + ' likes ' + hobby1 + ' , ' + hobby2);
 }
 var user = {
   name: 'Tapas',
   address: 'Bangalore'  
 };

 var hobbies = ['Swimming', 'Blogging'];
 getName.call(user, hobbies[0], hobbies[1]);

Explanation: Notice that we have passed two more arguments here in the call() method. The first argument must be the object context with which the function has to be invoked. Other parameters could be just values to use. Here I am passing Swimming and Blogging as two parameters to the getName() function.

Do you notice a pain point here? In case of a call(), the arguments need to be passed one by one, which is not such a smart way of doing things! That's where our next method apply() comes into the picture.

apply() method

The hectic way of passing the arguments to the call() method can be solved by another alternate method called apply(). It is the same as call() but allows passing the arguments more conveniently. Have a look,

Example

var getName = function(hobby1, hobby2) {
     console.log(this.name + ' likes ' + hobby1 + ' , ' + hobby2);
 }
 var user = {
   name: 'Tapas',
   address: 'Bangalore'  
 };

 var hobbies = ['Swimming', 'Blogging'];
 getName.apply(user, hobbies);

Explanation: As you see here, we can pass an array as arguments, which is much more convenient than passing one by one.

When you have only one value argument or no value arguments to pass, use call(). When you have multiple value arguments to pass, use apply().

bind() method

The call() method invokes the function by passing the context of this. The bind() method is similar to the call() but, instead of calling the function directly, bind() returns a brand new function, and we can invoke that instead.

Example:

var getName = function(hobby1, hobby2) {
     console.log(this.name + ' likes ' + hobby1 + ' , ' + hobby2);
 }
 var user = {
   name: 'Tapas',
   address: 'Bangalore'  
 };

 var hobbies = ['Swimming', 'Blogging'];
 var newFn = getName.bind(user, hobbies[0], hobbies[1]); 

 newFn();

Explanation: As we see above, the getName.bind() doesn't invoke the function getName(). It returns a new function, newFn and we can invoke is as, newFn().

new binding

A Constructor function is created with the new keyword. Here is an example of a Constructor function,

var Cartoon = function(name, animal) {
     this.name = name;
     this.animal = animal;
     this.log = function() {
         console.log(this.name +  ' is a ' + this.animal);
     }
 };

We can create the objects using the new keyword as,

 var tom = new Cartoon('Tom', 'Cat');
 var jerry = new Cartoon('Jerry', 'Mouse');

Let's break it down. Take this line,

var tom = new Cartoon('Tom', 'Cat');

Here the function Cartoon is invoked with the new keyword. Hence this will be bound to the new object created here, tom.

Global Object binding

What will be the output of this code execution? What is this bind to here?

var sayName = function(name) {
    // 'use strict';
    console.log(this.name);
};

window.name = 'Tapas';
sayName();

if the this keyword is not resolved with any of the above bindings, implicit, explicit or new then, the this binds to the window(global) object.

Arrow functions, no binding?

ES6 introduced arrow functions, which don't provide their own this binding. As we have seen so far, in regular functions, the this keyword represented the object that is called the function, which could be the window, the document, user-defined, or whatever.

Arrow functions don't bind their own scope but inherit it from the parent.

Example time. Let us see it working.

var testHobbies = {
  hobbies: ['Cricket', 'Football', 'Blogging'],
  name: 'Alex',
  logHobbies() {
     this.hobbies.forEach((elem) => {
     console.log(`${this.name} knows ${elem}`);
  });
  }
}

Here the logHobbies() method iterates through the hobbies and logs them into the console. Notice, we are using an arrow function in forEach. The this inside the arrow function would bind to the object testHobbies as there is no this binding for the arrow functions, and it always binds to the parent one.

Hence invoking testHobbies.logHobbies() would correctly log as,

Alex knows Cricket
Alex knows Football
Alex knows Blogging

Now let us bring a twist to it. Notice the modification I have made below. Instead of an arrow function, the for-each uses a regular function.

var testHobbies = {
  hobbies: ['Cricket', 'Football', 'Blogging'],
  name: 'Alex',
  logHobbies() {
    this.hobbies.forEach(function(elem){
    console.log(`${this.name} knows ${elem}`);
  });
  }
}

What do you think, this would be bound to here inside forEach? It is not an arrow function. It is a regular function, and it has its own execution context. In that execution context, there is nothing called a name. Hence this.name is undefined.

Hence the output will be,

undefined knows Cricket
undefined knows Football
undefined know Blogging

We will see it in more detail in future articles on Scope and Closure.

Use Strict and this

Normally, in global scope this keyword refers to window object,

<script>
console.log(this);  //returns window object.
</script>

In JavaScript strict mode also, the this keyword in global scope returns window object. However, it behaves differently in the function scope.

See the following example,

<script>
        "use strict;"
        console.log(this);

        function testThis() {
            "use strict";
            console.log('testThis', this);
        }

        testThis();
    </script>

It will log the following output in the console,

Window {parent: Window, opener: null, top: Window, length: 0, frames: Window, …}
testThis undefined

Conclusion

Yes, Understanding this is easy! But at the same time, it could be challenging to comprehend the rules and usage of this. We will understand this better when we focus on the question, Where is the function invoked?

In most of the cases, the usage would be with Implicit Binding. There will be used with explicit binding with the call(), apply(), and bind(). With many of the JavaScript-based frameworks like Reactjs, Angular, etc., we use arrow functions.

Just note, as long as you have these rules understood and practiced, I am sure you will agree that this is really easy to work with!

Credits and Resources

Other Useful Resources on this


I hope you find the article useful. Please Like/Share so that it reaches others as well. If you enjoyed this article or found it helpful, let's connect. You can find me on Twitter(@tapasadhikary) sharing thoughts, tips, and code practices.

To get e-mail notifications on my latest posts, please subscribe to my blog by hitting the Subscribe button at the top of the page.

I'll explain other fundamental concepts called Scope and Closure in the series's future posts. Stay Tuned.

Did you find this article valuable?

Support Tapas Adhikary by becoming a sponsor. Any amount is appreciated!

See recent sponsors Learn more about Hashnode Sponsors
 
Share this

Impressum