scribbles_

Written by Yash Agrawal in San Francisco.

Declaring Variables in ES6 Javascript

August 06, 2017 4 mins

Before ES6, var was the only keyword used to declare variables in JavaScript. Unlike other languages like C, variables do not need to use different keywords based on their type. For example in C, integers undergo a different treatment as compared to strings but in JS we don’t need to specify the type of the variable when declaring it. JavaScript is a loosely typed language and this makes it simple to use but onerous to understand. More on that in another article.

With ES6 JavaScript introduced two other variable declaration keywords —let and const. Since JS follows a dynamic typing system, what’s the difference between these keywords?

Venn Diagram

If we were to divide variable declaration types based on their characteristics, the Venn diagram above could be used a simplistic view.

Based on mutability, const is on one side and var & let on the other. Based on scoping, var is on one side and let & const on the other. Let’s explore this further.

Mutability

A const variable is just like any other variable with some exceptions.

  • Need to initialize the value when declared. It throws an error otherwise.

Syntax Error

  • A new value can’t be assigned afterward. Not very variable, is it? However we can still change its properties. Check out the gist below to see this more clearly. (Look into immutable.js for truly immutable datatypes).
// Mutable properties of a const variable.
const check = {};
check.property = "value";

// This is totally fine.
// Also, if it is an array, it can be modified.

const check2 = [];
// check2.length = 0
check2.push(1);
// check2.length = 1`

Needless to say, var and let are ‘normal’ variables which do not need to be initialized when declaring and can also be changed after initializing.

Scope

The var falls under a different basket when scoping is considered. Unlike let & const, the var is defined to the closest function or global lexical environment. Consider the following code sample below.

// Global Scope
var var1 = 1;
let let1 = 1;

function myFunction(){
  // Function Scope
  var var2 = 2;
  let let2 = 2;

  for(var i = 0; i < 1; i++){
    // Block Scope
    var var3 = 3;
    let let3 = 3;

  }
}

Basically in every scope there’s a variable initialized using var and a variable initialized using let. Just to reiterate, these are the lexical environments of the above code sample.

Scopes

As mentioned earlier, var ignores the blocks and is defined to the closest function or global scope. let and const on the other hand are block scoped variables. We have a total of 6 variables defined across 3 scopes. Checking the value of each variable across every scope gives us the following result.

table of variables

The highlighted cells show block scoping in action. var3 and let3 were both defined within a for loop which serves as a block scope. Since var is defined to the closest function or lexical environment, it ignores the block and can be accessed within function scope. Since it hasn’t been initialized by the time we are outside of the block scope but inside the function scope, its value is undefined. let on the other hand is a block scoped variable and isn’t accessible outside of the block lexical environment it is defined in. Read more about lexical environments and variable hoisting here.

What to use and when?

There isn’t a solid argument for why anyone should keep using var anymore in ES6 JavaScript with the advent of the new and improved let and const. If the value doesn’t need to be reassigned or to reference a fixed value, use const so that the code doesn’t get bogged down with seemingly arbitrary values. If a variable might need to be reassigned, use let.


Written by Yash Agrawal in San Francisco.