JavaScript Functions


While JavaScript may look like an imperative language on the surface, much of how it behaves is based on functional languages like Scheme. This leads to some of the common sources of confusion for programmers new to the language. Let’s explore just what its functional roots mean.

JavaScript implements first-class functions, which means they can be assigned to a variable, passed as function arguments, returned from other functions, and even nested inside other functions. Most of these uses are not possible in a traditional imperative language, though C# and Java have been adding more functional-type behavior.

Defining Functions

Functions in JavaScript are traditionally declared using the function keyword, followed by an identifier, followed by parenthesized arguments, and a body enclosed in curly braces, i.e.:

function doSomething(arg1, arg2, arg3) {
  // Do something here...

Alternatively, the name can be omitted, resulting in an anonymous function:

function (arg1, arg2, arg3) {
  // Do something here...

Finally ES6 introduced the arrow function syntax, a more compact way of writing anonymous functions, similar to the lambda syntax of C#:

(arg1, arg2, arg3) => {
  // Do something here...

However, arrow function syntax also has special implications for scope, which we will discuss shortly.

Invoking Functions

Functions are invoked with a parenthetical set of arguments, i.e.

function sayHello(name) {
  console.log(`Hello, ${name}`);

Go ahead and define this function by typing the definition into your console.

Once you’ve done so, it can be invoked with sayHello("Bob"), and would print Hello, Bob to the console. Give it a try:

Functions can also be invoked using two methods defined for all functions, call() and apply().

Function Arguments

One of the bigger differences between JavaScript and imperative languages is in how JavaScript handles arguments. Consider the hello() function we defined above. What happens if we invoke it with no arguments? Or if we invoke it with two arguments?

Give it a try:

sayHello("Mary", "Bob");

What are we seeing here? In JavaScript, the number of arguments supplied to a function when it is invoked is irrelevant. The same function will be invoked regardless of the arity (number) or type of arguments. The supplied arguments will be assigned to the defined argument names within the function’s scope, according to the order. If there are less supplied arguments than defined ones, the missing ones are assigned the value undefined. And if there are extra arguments supplied, they are not assigned to a value.

Can we access those extra arguments? Yes, because JavaScript places them in a variable arguments accessible within the function body. Let’s modify our sayHello() method to take advantage of this knowledge, using the for .. of loop we saw in the last section:

function sayHello() {
  for(name of arguments) {
    console.log(`Hello, ${name}`);

And try invoking it with an arbtrary number of names:

sayHello("Mike", "Mary", "Bob", "Sue");

JavaScript does not have a mechanism for function overloading like C# and Java do. In JavaScript, if you declare a second “version” of a function that has different named arguments, you are not creating an overloaded version - you’re replacing the original function!

Thus, when we entered our second sayHello() definition in the console, we overwrote the original one. Each function name will only reference a single definition at a time within a single scope, and just like with variables, we can change its value at any point.

Finally, because JavaScript has first-order functions, we can pass a function as an argument. For example, we could create a new function, greet() that takes the greeter’s name, a function to use to greet others, and uses the arguments to greet an arbitrary number of people:

function greet(name, greetingFn) {
  for(var i = 2; i < arguments.length; i++) {
  console.log(`It's good to meet you.  I'm ${name}`);

We can then use it by passing our sayHello() function as the second argument:

greet("Mark", sayHello, "Joe", "Jill", "Jack", "John", "Jenny");

Note that we don’t follow the function name with the parenthesis (()) when we pass it. If we did, we’d inovke the function at that point and what we’d pass was the return value of the function, not the function itself.

Return Values

Just like the functions you’re used to, JavaScript functions can return a value with the return statement, i.e.:

function foo() { 
  return 3;

We can also return nothing, which is undefined:

function bar() {

This is useful when we want to stop execution immediately, but don’t have a real return value. Also, if we don’t specify a return value, we implicity return undefined.

And, because JavaScript has first-order functions, we can return a function:

function giveMeAFunction() {
  return function() {
    console.log("Here I am!")

Function Variables

Because JavaScript has first-order functions, we can also assign a function to a variable, i.e.:

var myFn = function(a, b) {return a + b;}

var greetFn = greet;

var otherFn = (a, b) => {return a - b;}

var oneMoreFn = giveMeAFunction();

Functional Scope

We’ve mentioned scope several times now. Remember, scope simply refers to where a binding between a symbol and a value is valid (here the symbol could be a var or function name). JavaScript uses functional scope, which means a new scope is created within the body of every function. Moreover, the parent scope of that function remains accessible as well.

Consider the JavaScript code:

var a = "foo";
var b = "bar";

console.log("before coolStuff", a, b);

function coolStuff(c) {
  var a = 1;
  b = 4;
  console.log("in coolStuff", a, b, c);

console.log("after coolStuff", a, b);

What gets printed before, in, and after coolStuff()?

  1. Before we invoke coolStuff() the values of a and b are "foo" and "bar" respectively.
  2. Inside the body of coolStuff():
  • The named argument c is assigned the value passed when coolStuff() is invoked - in this case, the value of b at the time, "bar".
  • A new variable a is declared, and set to a value of 1. This a only exists within coolStuff(), the old a remains unchanged outside of the function body.
  • The value of 4 is assigned to the variable b. Note that we did not declare a new var, so this is the same b as outside the body of the function.
  1. After the function is invoked, we go back to our original a which kept the value "foo" but our b was changed to 4.

That may not seem to bad. But let’s try another example:

var a = 1;
function one() {
  var a = 2;
  function two() {
    var a = 3;
    function three() {
      var a = 4;

Here we have nested functions, each with its own scope, and its own variable a that exists for that scope.

Block Scope

Most imperative programming langauges use block scope, which creates a new scope within any block of code. This includes function bodies, but also loop bodies and conditional blocks. Consider this snippet:

for(var i = 0; i < 10; i++) {
  var j = i;

What will be printed for the value of j after the loop runs?

You might think it should have been undefined, and it certainly would have been a null exception in an imperative language like Java, as the variable j was defined within the block of the for loop. Because those languages have block scope, anything declared within that scope only exists there.

However, with JavaScript’s functional scope, a new scope is only created within the body of a function - not loop and conditional blocks! So anything created within a conditional block actually exists in the scope of the function it appears in. This can cause some headaches.

Try running this (admittedly contrived) example in the console:

for(var i = 0; i < 10; i++) {
  setTimeout(function() {
  }, 10);

The setTimeout() will trigger the supplied function body 10 ms in the future.

Notice how all the values are 10? That’s because we were accessing the same variable i, because it was in the same scope each time!

The keyword let was introduced in ES6 to bring block scope to JavaScript. If we use it instead, we see the behavior we’re more used to:

for(let i = 0; i < 10; i++) {
  setTimeout(function() {
  }, 10);