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Fun with Native Arrays

In JavaScript, arrays can be created with the Array constructor, or using the [] convenience shortcut, which is also the preferred approach. Arrays inherit from the Object prototype and they haven’t a special value for typeof, they return 'object' too. Using [] instanceof Array, however, returns true. That being said, there are also Array-like objects which complicate matters, such as strings, or the arguments object. The arguments object is not an instance of Array, but it still has a length property, and its values are indexed, so it can be looped like any Array.

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Nicolás Bevacqua
| 22 minute read | 4

In this article I’ll go over a few of the methods on the Array prototype, and explore the possibilities each of these methods unveil.

  • Looping with .forEach
  • Asserting with .some and .every
  • Subtleties in .join and .concat
  • Stacks and queues with .pop, .push, .shift, and .unshift
  • Model mapping with .map
  • Querying with .filter
  • Ordering with .sort
  • Computing with .reduce, .reduceRight
  • Copying a .slice
  • The power of .splice
  • Lookups with .indexOf
  • The in operator
  • Going in .reverse
console.png
console.png

You can copy and paste any of the examples in your browser’s console, I sure did!

Looping with .forEach

This is one of the simplest methods in a native JavaScript Array. Unsurprisingly unsupported™ in IE7 and IE8.

forEach takes a callback which is invoked once for each element in the array, and gets passed three arguments.

  • value containing the current array element
  • index is the element’s position in the array
  • array is a reference to the array

Furthermore, we could pass an optional second argument which will become the context (this) for each function call.

['_', 't', 'a', 'n', 'i', 'f', ']'].forEach(function (value, index, array) {
	this.push(String.fromCharCode(value.charCodeAt() + index + 2))
}, out = [])

out.join('')
// <- 'awesome'

I cheated with .join which we didn’t cover yet, but we’ll look at it soon. In this case, it joins together the different elements in the array, effectively doing something like out[0] + '' + out[1] + '' + out[2] + '' + out[n]. We can’t break forEach loops, and throwing exceptions wouldn’t be very sensible. Luckily, we have other options available to us in those cases where we might want to short-circuit a loop.

Asserting with .some and .every

If you’ve ever worked with .NET’s enumerables, these methods are the poorly named cousins of .Any(x => x.IsAwesome) and .All(x => x.IsAwesome).

These methods are similar to .forEach in that they also take a callback with value, index, and array, which can be context-bound passing a second argument. The MDN docs describe .some:

some executes the callback function once for each element present in the array until it finds one where callback returns a true value. If such an element is found, some immediately returns true. Otherwise, some returns false. callback is invoked only for indexes of the array which have assigned values; it is not invoked for indexes which have been deleted or which have never been assigned values.

max = -Infinity
satisfied = [10, 12, 10, 8, 5, 23].some(function (value, index, array) {
	if (value > max) max = value
	return value < 10
})

console.log(max)
// <- 12

satisfied
// <- true

Note that the function stopped looping after it hit the first item which satisfied the callback’s condition value < 10. .every works in the same way, but short-circuits happen when your callback returns false, rather than true.

Subtleties in .join and .concat

The .join method is often confused with .concat. .join(separator) creates a string, resulting of taking every element in the array and separating them by separator. If no separator is provided, it’ll default to a comma ','. .concat works by creating new arrays which are shallow copies of the source arrays.

  • .concat has the signature: array.concat(val, val2, val3, valn)
  • .concat returns a new array
  • array.concat() with no arguments returns a shallow copy of the array

Shallow copy means that the copy will hold the same object references as the source array, which is generally a good thing. For example:

var a = { foo: 'bar' }
var b = [1, 2, 3, a]
var c = b.concat()

console.log(b === c)
// <- false

b[3] === a && c[3] === a
// <- true

Stacks and queues with .pop, .push, .shift, and .unshift

Nowadays, everyone knows that adding elements to the end of an array is done using .push. Did you know that you can push many elements at once using [].push('a', 'b', 'c', 'd', 'z')?

The .pop method is the counterpart of the most common use for .push. It’ll return the last element in the array, and remove it from the array at the same time. If the array is empty, void 0 (undefined) is returned. Using .push and .pop we could easily create a LIFO (last in first out) stack.

function Stack () {
	this._stack = []
}

Stack.prototype.next = function () {
	return this._stack.pop()
}

Stack.prototype.add = function () {
	return this._stack.push.apply(this._stack, arguments)
}

stack = new Stack()
stack.add(1,2,3)

stack.next()
// <- 3

Inversely, we could create a FIFO (first in first out) queue using .unshift and .shift.

function Queue () {
	this._queue = []
}

Queue.prototype.next = function () {
	return this._queue.shift()
}

Queue.prototype.add = function () {
	return this._queue.unshift.apply(this._queue, arguments)
}

queue = new Queue()
queue.add(1,2,3)

queue.next()
// <- 1

Using .shift (or .pop) is an easy way to loop through a set of array elements, while draining the array in the process.

list = [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10]

while (item = list.shift()) {
	console.log(item)
}

list
// <- []

Model mapping with .map

map calls a provided callback function once for each element in an array, in order, and constructs a new array from the results. callback is invoked only for indexes of the array which have assigned values; it is not invoked for indexes which have been deleted or which have never been assigned values.

The Array.prototype.map method has the same signature we’ve seen in .forEach, .some, and .every: .map(fn(value, index, array), thisArgument).

values = [void 0, null, false, '']
values[7] = void 0
result = values.map(function(value, index, array){
    console.log(value)
    return value
})

// <- [undefined, null, false, '', undefined × 3, undefined]

The undefined × 3 values explain that while .map won’t run for deleted or unassigned array elements, they’ll be still included in the resulting array. Mapping is very useful for casting or transforming arrays.

// casting
[1, '2', '30', '9'].map(function (value) {
	return parseInt(value, 10)
})
// 1, 2, 30, 9

[97, 119, 101, 115, 111, 109, 101].map(String.fromCharCode).join('')
// <- 'awesome'

// a commonly used pattern is mapping to new objects
items.map(function (item) {
	return {
		id: item.id,
		name: computeName(item)
	}
})

Querying with .filter

filter calls a provided callback function once for each element in an array, and constructs a new array of all the values for which callback returns a true value. callback is invoked only for indexes of the array which have assigned values; it is not invoked for indexes which have been deleted or which have never been assigned values. Array elements which do not pass the callback test are simply skipped, and are not included in the new array.

Same as usual: .filter(fn(value, index, array), thisArgument). Think of it as the .Where(x => x.IsAwesome) LINQ expression (if you’re into C#), or the WHERE SQL clause. Considering .filter only returns elements which pass the callback test with a truthy value, there are some interesting use cases.

[void 0, null, false, '', 1].filter(function (value) {
	return value
})
// <- [1]

[void 0, null, false, '', 1].filter(function (value) {
	return !value
})
// <- [void 0, null, false, '']

Ordering with .sort(compareFunction)

If compareFunction is not supplied, elements are sorted by converting them to strings and comparing strings in lexicographic (“dictionary” or “telephone book,” not numerical) order. For example, “80” comes before “9” in lexicographic order, but in a numeric sort 9 comes before 80.

Like most sorting functions, Array.prototype.sort(fn(a,b)) takes a callback which tests two elements, and should produce one of three return values:

  • return value < 0 if a comes before b
  • return value === 0 if both a and b are considered equivalent
  • return value > 0 if a comes after b
[9,80,3,10,5,6].sort()
// <- [10, 3, 5, 6, 80, 9]

[9,80,3,10,5,6].sort(function (a, b) {
	return a - b
})
// <- [3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 80]

Computing with .reduce, .reduceRight

Reduce functions are, at first, hard to wrap our heads around. These functions loop through the array, from left-to-right (.reduce) or right-to-left (.reduceRight), each invocation receives the partial result so far, and the operation results in a single aggregated return value.

Both methods have the following signature: .reduce(callback(previousValue, currentValue, index, array), initialValue).

The previousValue will be the value returned in the last callback invocation, or initialValue the first time around. currentValue contains the current element, while index indicates the array position for the element. array is simply a reference to the array .reduce was called on.

One of the typical use cases for .reduce is the sum function.

Array.prototype.sum = function () {
	return this.reduce(function (partial, value) {
		return partial + value
	}, 0)
};

[3,4,5,6,10].sum()
// <- 28

Say we wanted to join a few strings together. We could use .join to that purpose. In the case of objects, though, .join wouldn’t work as we expected, unless the objects had a reasonable valueOf or toString representation. However, we might use .reduce as a string builder for those objects.

function concat (input) {
	return input.reduce(function (partial, value) {
		if (partial) {
			partial += ', '
		}
		return partial + value.name
	}, '')
}

concat([
	{ name: 'George' },
	{ name: 'Sam' },
	{ name: 'Pear' }
])
// <- 'George, Sam, Pear'

Copying a .slice

Similarly to .concat, calls to .slice without any arguments produce a shallow copy of the source array. Slice takes two arguments, a begin and an end position. Array.prototype.slice can be used to convert array-like objects into real arrays.

Array.prototype.slice.call({ 0: 'a', 1: 'b', length: 2 })
// <- ['a', 'b']

This won’t work with .concat, because it’ll wrap the array-like object in a real array, instead.

Array.prototype.concat.call({ 0: 'a', 1: 'b', length: 2 })
// <- [{ 0: 'a', 1: 'b', length: 2 }]

Other than that, another common use for .slice is removing the first few elements from a list of arguments (an array-like object, which we could cast to a real array).

function format (text, bold) {
	if (bold) {
		text = '<b>' + text + '</b>'
	}
	var values = Array.prototype.slice.call(arguments, 2)

	values.forEach(function (value) {
		text = text.replace('%s', value)
	})

	return text
}

format('some%sthing%s %s', true, 'some', 'other', 'things')
// <- <b>somesomethingother things</b>

The power of .splice

.splice is one of my favorite native array functions. It allows you to remove elements, insert new ones, and to do both in the same position, using just one function call. Note that this function alters the source array, unlike .concat or .slice.

var source = [1,2,3,8,8,8,8,8,9,10,11,12,13]
var spliced = source.splice(3, 4, 4, 5, 6, 7)

console.log(source)
// <- [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 ,13]

spliced
// <- [8, 8, 8, 8]

As you might’ve noted, it also returns the removed elements. This might come in handy if you want to loop a section of the array and then forget about it.

var source = [1,2,3,8,8,8,8,8,9,10,11,12,13]
var spliced = source.splice(9)

spliced.forEach(function (value) {
	console.log('removed', value)
})
// <- removed 10
// <- removed 11
// <- removed 12
// <- removed 13

console.log(source)
// <- [1, 2, 3, 8, 8, 8, 8, 8, 9]

Lookups with .indexOf

With .indexOf, we can look up array element positions. If it can’t find a match, -1 is returned. A pattern I find myself using a lot, is when I have comparisons such as a === 'a' || a === 'b' || a === 'c', or even with just two comparsions. You could just use .indexOf, like so: ['a', 'b', 'c'].indexOf(a) !== -1.

Note that objects will be found only if the same reference is provided. A second argument can provide the start index at which to begin searching.

var a = { foo: 'bar' }
var b = [a, 2]

console.log(b.indexOf(1))
// <- -1

console.log(b.indexOf({ foo: 'bar' }))
// <- -1

console.log(b.indexOf(a))
// <- 0

console.log(b.indexOf(a, 1))
// <- -1

b.indexOf(2, 1)
// <- 1

If you want to go in the reverse direction, .lastIndexOf will do the trick.

The in operator

A common rookie mistake during interviews is to confuse .indexOf with the in operator, and hand-scribbling things such as:

var a = [1, 2, 5]

1 in a
// <- true, but because of the 2!

5 in a
// <- false

The problem here was that the in operator checks the object key for a value, rather than searching for values. This is, of course, much faster than using .indexOf.

var a = [3, 7, 6]

1 in a === !!a[1]
// <- true

The in operator is similar to casting the value at the provided key to a boolean value. The !! expression is used by some developers to negate a value, and then negate it again. Effectively casting to boolean any truthy value to true, and any falsy value to false.

Going in .reverse

This method will take the elements in an array and reverse them in place.

var a = [1, 1, 7, 8]

a.reverse()
// [8, 7, 1, 1]

Rather than a copy, the array itself is modified. In a future article we’ll expand on these concepts to see how we could create an _-like library, such as Underscore or Lo-Dash.

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Comments (4)

Marek Pepke wrote

There is a mistake in “Queue” section. By using shift and unshift you get a stack. To get a queue you should use push and shift.

Ryan O'Neill wrote

You can copy and paste any of the examples in your browser’s console, I sure did!

Did not! Or else you would have caught the mistakes :)

In the Array.reduce section the concat example function is missing a “.name”:

function concat (input) {
    return input.reduce(function (partial, value) {
        if (partial) {
            partial += ', '
        }
        return partial + value.name
    }, '')
}
Nicolas Bevacqua wrote

Oops! Thanks, fixed!

Felix Sanz wrote

The .splice part should have the function signature. It was so hard to understand that i had to google about it:

array.splice(index,howmany,item1,…,itemX)