Understanding Functions in JavaScript

This post was originally written for DigitalOcean.

Introduction

A function is a block of code that performs an action or returns a value. Just like how arrays in JavaScript have built-in methods that perform tasks, functions can be thought of as custom global methods. Functions are reusable, and can therefore make your programs more modular and efficient.

In this article, we will learn several ways to define a function in JavaScript, calling a function, and how to use function parameters.

Defining a Function

Functions are defined, or declared, with the function keyword. Below is the syntax for a function in JavaScript.

function nameOfFunction() {
  // Code to be executed
}

The declaration begins with the function keyword, followed by the name of the function. Function names follow the same rules as variables - they can contain letters, numbers, underscores and dollar signs, and are frequently written in camel case. The name is followed by a set of parentheses, which can be used for optional parameters. The code of the function is contained in curly brackets, just like a for statement or if statement.

In our first example, we'll make a function declaration to print a greeting statement to the console.

// Initialize greeting function
function greet() {
  console.log('Hello, World!')
}

Here we have the code to print Hello, World to the console contained inside the greet() function. However, nothing will happen and no code will execute until we invoke, or call the function. You can invoke a function by writing the name of the function followed by the parentheses.

// Invoke the function
greet()

Now we will put those together, defining our function and invoking it.

// Initialize greeting function
function greet() {
  console.log('Hello, World!')
}

// Invoke the function
greet()
Hello, World!

Now we have our greet() code contained in a function, and can reuse it as many times as we want. Using parameters, we can make the code more dynamic.

Function Parameters

In our greet.js file, we created a very simple function that prints Hello, World to the console. Using parameters, we can add additional functionality that will make the code more flexible. Parameters are input that get passed into functions as names and behave as local variables.

When a user logs in to an application, we might want to greet them by name, instead of just saying, "Hello, World!".

We'll add a parameter into our function, called name, to represent the name of the person being greeted.

// Initialize custom greeting function
function greet(name) {
  console.log(`Hello, ${name}!`)
}

The name of the function is greet, and now we have a single parameter inside the parentheses. The name of the parameter follows the same rules as naming a variable. Inside the function, instead of a static string consisting of Hello, World, we have a template literal string containing our parameter, which is now behaving as a local variable.

You'll notice we haven't defined our name parameter anywhere. We assign it a value when we invoke our function. Assuming our user is named Sammy, we'll call the function and place the username as the argument. The argument is the actual value that gets passed into the function, in this case "Sammy".

// Invoke greet function with "Sammy" as the argument
greet('Sammy')

The value of "Sammy" is being passed into the function through the name parameter. Now every time name is used throughout the function, it will represent the "Sammy" value. Here is the whole code.

// Initialize custom greeting function
function greet(name) {
  console.log(`Hello, ${name}!`)
}

// Invoke greet function with "Sammy" as the argument
greet('Sammy')
Hello, Sammy!

Now we have an example of how a function can be reused. In a real world example, the function would pull the username from a database instead of directly supplying the name as an argument value.

In addition to parameters, variables can be declares inside of functions. These variables are known as local variables, and will only exist inside the scope of their own function block. This allows the same name to be used multiple times throughout a program without issue.

Returning Values

More than one parameter can be used in a function. We can pass multiple values into a function and return a value. We will create a function to find the sum of two values, represented by x and y.

// Initialize add function
function add(x, y) {
  return x + y
}

// Invoke function to find the sum
add(9, 7)
16

In this case, we passed the values of 9 and 7 to the sum function to return the total value of 16.

When the return keyword is used, the function ceases to execute and the value of the expression is returned. Although in this case the browser will display the value in the console, it is not the same as using console.log() to print to the console. Invoking the function will output the value exactly where the function was invoked. This value can be used immediately or placed into a variable.

Function Expressions

Previously, we used a function declaration to get the sum of two numbers and return that value. We can also create a function expression by assigning a function to a variable.

Using our same add function example, we can directly apply the returned value to a variable, in this case sum.

// Assign add function to sum constant
const sum = function add(x, y) {
  return x + y
}

// Invoke function to find the sum
sum(20, 5)
25

Now the sum constant is a function. We can make this expression more concise by turning it into an anonymous function, which is an unnamed function. Currently, our function has the name add, but with function expressions it is not necessary and is usually omitted.

// Assign function to sum constant
const sum = function(x, y) {
  return x + y
}

// Invoke function to find the sum
sum(100, 3)
103

In this example, we've removed the name of the function, which was add, and turned it into an anonymous function. A named function expression might be used to aid in debugging, but it is usually omitted.

Arrow Functions

So far, we've learned how to define functions using the function keyword. However, there is a newer, more concise method of defining a function known as arrow function expressions as of ECMAScript 6. Arrow functions, as they are commonly known, are represented by an equals sign followed by a greater than sign (=>).

Arrow functions are always anonymous functions and a type of function expression. We can create a simple example to find the product of two numbers.

// Define multiply function
const multiply = (x, y) => {
  return x * y
}

// Invoke function to find product
multiply(30, 4)
120

Instead of writing out function, we use the => arrow to indicate a function. Otherwise, it works similarly to a regular function expression, with some advanced differences which you can read about under Arrow Functions on the Mozilla Developer Network.

In the case of only one parameter, the parentheses can be excluded. In this example, we're squaring x, which only requires one number to be passed as an argument. The parentheses have been omitted.

// Define square function
const square = x => {
  return x * x
}

// Invoke function to find product
square(8)
64

Note: In the case of no parameters, an empty set of parentheses () is required in the arrow functions.

With these particular examples that only consist of a return statement, arrow functions allow the syntax to be reduced even further. If the function is only a single line return, both the curly brackets and the return statement can be omitted, as seen in the example below.

// Define square function
const square = x => x * x

// Invoke function to find product
square(10)
100

All three of these types of syntax result in the same output. It is generally a matter of preference or company coding standards to decide how you will structure your own functions.

Conclusion

Functions are blocks of code that return a value or perform an action. In this article, we covered function declarations and function expressions, returning values from functions, assigning function values to variables, and ES6 arrow functions. Functions are used to make programs scalable and modular. To learn more about JavaScript functions in general, read the Function reference on the Mozilla Developer Network.

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