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You Don't Know JS: Scope & Closures

Chapter 5: Scope Closure

We arrive at this point with hopefully a very healthy, solid understanding of how scope works.

We turn our attention to an incredibly important, but persistently elusive, almost mythological, part of the language: closure. If you have followed our discussion of lexical scope thus far, the payoff is that closure is going to be, largely, anticlimactic, almost self-obvious. There's a man behind the wizard's curtain, and we're about to see him. No, his name is not Crockford!

If however you have nagging questions about lexical scope, now would be a good time to go back and review Chapter 2 before proceeding.

Enlightenment

For those who are somewhat experienced in JavaScript, but have perhaps never fully grasped the concept of closures, understanding closure can seem like a special nirvana that one must strive and sacrifice to attain.

I recall years back when I had a firm grasp on JavaScript, but had no idea what closure was. The hint that there was this other side to the language, one which promised even more capability than I already possessed, teased and taunted me. I remember reading through the source code of early frameworks trying to understand how it actually worked. I remember the first time something of the "module pattern" began to emerge in my mind. I remember the a-ha! moments quite vividly.

What I didn't know back then, what took me years to understand, and what I hope to impart to you presently, is this secret: closure is all around you in JavaScript, you just have to recognize and embrace it. Closures are not a special opt-in tool that you must learn new syntax and patterns for. No, closures are not even a weapon that you must learn to wield and master as Luke trained in The Force.

Closures happen as a result of writing code that relies on lexical scope. They just happen. You do not even really have to intentionally create closures to take advantage of them. Closures are created and used for you all over your code. What you are missing is the proper mental context to recognize, embrace, and leverage closures for your own will.

The enlightenment moment should be: oh, closures are already occurring all over my code, I can finally see them now. Understanding closures is like when Neo sees the Matrix for the first time.

Nitty Gritty

OK, enough hyperbole and shameless movie references.

Here's a down-n-dirty definition of what you need to know to understand and recognize closures:

Closure is when a function is able to remember and access its lexical scope even when that function is executing outside its lexical scope.

Let's jump into some code to illustrate that definition.

function foo() {
	var a = 2;

	function bar() {
		console.log( a ); // 2
	}

	bar();
}

foo();

This code should look familiar from our discussions of Nested Scope. Function bar() has access to the variable a in the outer enclosing scope because of lexical scope look-up rules (in this case, it's an RHS reference look-up).

Is this "closure"?

Well, technically... perhaps. But by our what-you-need-to-know definition above... not exactly. I think the most accurate way to explain bar() referencing a is via lexical scope look-up rules, and those rules are only (an important!) part of what closure is.

From a purely academic perspective, what is said of the above snippet is that the function bar() has a closure over the scope of foo() (and indeed, even over the rest of the scopes it has access to, such as the global scope in our case). Put slightly differently, it's said that bar() closes over the scope of foo(). Why? Because bar() appears nested inside of foo(). Plain and simple.

But, closure defined in this way is not directly observable, nor do we see closure exercised in that snippet. We clearly see lexical scope, but closure remains sort of a mysterious shifting shadow behind the code.

Let us then consider code which brings closure into full light:

function foo() {
	var a = 2;

	function bar() {
		console.log( a );
	}

	return bar;
}

var baz = foo();

baz(); // 2 -- Whoa, closure was just observed, man.

The function bar() has lexical scope access to the inner scope of foo(). But then, we take bar(), the function itself, and pass it as a value. In this case, we return the function object itself that bar references.

After we execute foo(), we assign the value it returned (our inner bar() function) to a variable called baz, and then we actually invoke baz(), which of course is invoking our inner function bar(), just by a different identifier reference.

bar() is executed, for sure. But in this case, it's executed outside of its declared lexical scope.

After foo() executed, normally we would expect that the entirety of the inner scope of foo() would go away, because we know that the Engine employs a Garbage Collector that comes along and frees up memory once it's no longer in use. Since it would appear that the contents of foo() are no longer in use, it would seem natural that they should be considered gone.

But the "magic" of closures does not let this happen. That inner scope is in fact still "in use", and thus does not go away. Who's using it? The function bar() itself.

By virtue of where it was declared, bar() has a lexical scope closure over that inner scope of foo(), which keeps that scope alive for bar() to reference at any later time.

bar() still has a reference to that scope, and that reference is called closure.

So, a few microseconds later, when the variable baz is invoked (invoking the inner function we initially labeled bar), it duly has access to author-time lexical scope, so it can access the variable a just as we'd expect.

The function is being invoked well outside of its author-time lexical scope. Closure lets the function continue to access the lexical scope it was defined in at author-time.

Of course, any of the various ways that functions can be passed around as values, and indeed invoked in other locations, are all examples of observing/exercising closure.

function foo() {
	var a = 2;

	function baz() {
		console.log( a ); // 2
	}

	bar( baz );
}

function bar(fn) {
	fn(); // look ma, I saw closure!
}

We pass the inner function baz over to bar, and call that inner function (labeled fn now), and when we do, its closure over the inner scope of foo() is observed, by accessing a.

These passings-around of functions can be indirect, too.

var fn;

function foo() {
	var a = 2;

	function baz() {
		console.log( a );
	}

	fn = baz; // assign `baz` to global variable
}

function bar() {
	fn(); // look ma, I saw closure!
}

foo();

bar(); // 2

Whatever facility we use to transport an inner function outside of its lexical scope, it will maintain a scope reference to where it was originally declared, and wherever we execute it, that closure will be exercised.

Now I Can See

The previous code snippets are somewhat academic and artificially constructed to illustrate using closure. But I promised you something more than just a cool new toy. I promised that closure was something all around you in your existing code. Let us now see that truth.

function wait(message) {

	setTimeout( function timer(){
		console.log( message );
	}, 1000 );

}

wait( "Hello, closure!" );

We take an inner function (named timer) and pass it to setTimeout(..). But timer has a scope closure over the scope of wait(..), indeed keeping and using a reference to the variable message.

A thousand milliseconds after we have executed wait(..), and its inner scope should otherwise be long gone, that inner function timer still has closure over that scope.

Deep down in the guts of the Engine, the built-in utility setTimeout(..) has reference to some parameter, probably called fn or func or something like that. Engine goes to invoke that function, which is invoking our inner timer function, and the lexical scope reference is still intact.

Closure.

Or, if you're of the jQuery persuasion (or any JS framework, for that matter):

function setupBot(name,selector) {
	$( selector ).click( function activator(){
		console.log( "Activating: " + name );
	} );
}

setupBot( "Closure Bot 1", "#bot_1" );
setupBot( "Closure Bot 2", "#bot_2" );

I am not sure what kind of code you write, but I regularly write code which is responsible for controlling an entire global drone army of closure bots, so this is totally realistic!

(Some) joking aside, essentially whenever and wherever you treat functions (which access their own respective lexical scopes) as first-class values and pass them around, you are likely to see those functions exercising closure. Be that timers, event handlers, Ajax requests, cross-window messaging, web workers, or any of the other asynchronous (or synchronous!) tasks, when you pass in a callback function, get ready to sling some closure around!

Note: Chapter 3 introduced the IIFE pattern. While it is often said that IIFE (alone) is an example of observed closure, I would somewhat disagree, by our definition above.

var a = 2;

(function IIFE(){
	console.log( a );
})();

This code "works", but it's not strictly an observation of closure. Why? Because the function (which we named "IIFE" here) is not executed outside its lexical scope. It's still invoked right there in the same scope as it was declared (the enclosing/global scope that also holds a). a is found via normal lexical scope look-up, not really via closure.

While closure might technically be happening at declaration time, it is not strictly observable, and so, as they say, it's a tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it.

Though an IIFE is not itself an example of closure, it absolutely creates scope, and it's one of the most common tools we use to create scope which can be closed over. So IIFEs are indeed heavily related to closure, even if not exercising closure themselves.

Put this book down right now, dear reader. I have a task for you. Go open up some of your recent JavaScript code. Look for your functions-as-values and identify where you are already using closure and maybe didn't even know it before.

I'll wait.

Now... you see!

Loops + Closure

The most common canonical example used to illustrate closure involves the humble for-loop.

for (var i=1; i<=5; i++) {
	setTimeout( function timer(){
		console.log( i );
	}, i*1000 );
}

Note: Linters often complain when you put functions inside of loops, because the mistakes of not understanding closure are so common among developers. We explain how to do so properly here, leveraging the full power of closure. But that subtlety is often lost on linters and they will complain regardless, assuming you don't actually know what you're doing.

The spirit of this code snippet is that we would normally expect for the behavior to be that the numbers "1", "2", .. "5" would be printed out, one at a time, one per second, respectively.

In fact, if you run this code, you get "6" printed out 5 times, at the one-second intervals.

Huh?

Firstly, let's explain where 6 comes from. The terminating condition of the loop is when i is not <=5. The first time that's the case is when i is 6. So, the output is reflecting the final value of the i after the loop terminates.

This actually seems obvious on second glance. The timeout function callbacks are all running well after the completion of the loop. In fact, as timers go, even if it was setTimeout(.., 0) on each iteration, all those function callbacks would still run strictly after the completion of the loop, and thus print 6 each time.

But there's a deeper question at play here. What's missing from our code to actually have it behave as we semantically have implied?

What's missing is that we are trying to imply that each iteration of the loop "captures" its own copy of i, at the time of the iteration. But, the way scope works, all 5 of those functions, though they are defined separately in each loop iteration, all are closed over the same shared global scope, which has, in fact, only one i in it.

Put that way, of course all functions share a reference to the same i. Something about the loop structure tends to confuse us into thinking there's something else more sophisticated at work. There is not. There's no difference than if each of the 5 timeout callbacks were just declared one right after the other, with no loop at all.

OK, so, back to our burning question. What's missing? We need more cowbell closured scope. Specifically, we need a new closured scope for each iteration of the loop.

We learned in Chapter 3 that the IIFE creates scope by declaring a function and immediately executing it.

Let's try:

for (var i=1; i<=5; i++) {
	(function(){
		setTimeout( function timer(){
			console.log( i );
		}, i*1000 );
	})();
}

Does that work? Try it. Again, I'll wait.

I'll end the suspense for you. Nope. But why? We now obviously have more lexical scope. Each timeout function callback is indeed closing over its own per-iteration scope created respectively by each IIFE.

It's not enough to have a scope to close over if that scope is empty. Look closely. Our IIFE is just an empty do-nothing scope. It needs something in it to be useful to us.

It needs its own variable, with a copy of the i value at each iteration.

for (var i=1; i<=5; i++) {
	(function(){
		var j = i;
		setTimeout( function timer(){
			console.log( j );
		}, j*1000 );
	})();
}

Eureka! It works!

A slight variation some prefer is:

for (var i=1; i<=5; i++) {
	(function(j){
		setTimeout( function timer(){
			console.log( j );
		}, j*1000 );
	})( i );
}

Of course, since these IIFEs are just functions, we can pass in i, and we can call it j if we prefer, or we can even call it i again. Either way, the code works now.

The use of an IIFE inside each iteration created a new scope for each iteration, which gave our timeout function callbacks the opportunity to close over a new scope for each iteration, one which had a variable with the right per-iteration value in it for us to access.

Problem solved!

Block Scoping Revisited

Look carefully at our analysis of the previous solution. We used an IIFE to create new scope per-iteration. In other words, we actually needed a per-iteration block scope. Chapter 3 showed us the let declaration, which hijacks a block and declares a variable right there in the block.

It essentially turns a block into a scope that we can close over. So, the following awesome code "just works":

for (var i=1; i<=5; i++) {
	let j = i; // yay, block-scope for closure!
	setTimeout( function timer(){
		console.log( j );
	}, j*1000 );
}

But, that's not all! (in my best Bob Barker voice). There's a special behavior defined for let declarations used in the head of a for-loop. This behavior says that the variable will be declared not just once for the loop, but each iteration. And, it will, helpfully, be initialized at each subsequent iteration with the value from the end of the previous iteration.

for (let i=1; i<=5; i++) {
	setTimeout( function timer(){
		console.log( i );
	}, i*1000 );
}

How cool is that? Block scoping and closure working hand-in-hand, solving all the world's problems. I don't know about you, but that makes me a happy JavaScripter.

Modules

There are other code patterns which leverage the power of closure but which do not on the surface appear to be about callbacks. Let's examine the most powerful of them: the module.

function foo() {
	var something = "cool";
	var another = [1, 2, 3];

	function doSomething() {
		console.log( something );
	}

	function doAnother() {
		console.log( another.join( " ! " ) );
	}
}

As this code stands right now, there's no observable closure going on. We simply have some private data variables something and another, and a couple of inner functions doSomething() and doAnother(), which both have lexical scope (and thus closure!) over the inner scope of foo().

But now consider:

function CoolModule() {
	var something = "cool";
	var another = [1, 2, 3];

	function doSomething() {
		console.log( something );
	}

	function doAnother() {
		console.log( another.join( " ! " ) );
	}

	return {
		doSomething: doSomething,
		doAnother: doAnother
	};
}

var foo = CoolModule();

foo.doSomething(); // cool
foo.doAnother(); // 1 ! 2 ! 3

This is the pattern in JavaScript we call module. The most common way of implementing the module pattern is often called "Revealing Module", and it's the variation we present here.

Let's examine some things about this code.

Firstly, CoolModule() is just a function, but it has to be invoked for there to be a module instance created. Without the execution of the outer function, the creation of the inner scope and the closures would not occur.

Secondly, the CoolModule() function returns an object, denoted by the object-literal syntax { key: value, ... }. The object we return has references on it to our inner functions, but not to our inner data variables. We keep those hidden and private. It's appropriate to think of this object return value as essentially a public API for our module.

This object return value is ultimately assigned to the outer variable foo, and then we can access those property methods on the API, like foo.doSomething().

Note: It is not required that we return an actual object (literal) from our module. We could just return back an inner function directly. jQuery is actually a good example of this. The jQuery and $ identifiers are the public API for the jQuery "module", but they are, themselves, just a function (which can itself have properties, since all functions are objects).

The doSomething() and doAnother() functions have closure over the inner scope of the module "instance" (arrived at by actually invoking CoolModule()). When we transport those functions outside of the lexical scope, by way of property references on the object we return, we have now set up a condition by which closure can be observed and exercised.

To state it more simply, there are two "requirements" for the module pattern to be exercised:

  1. There must be an outer enclosing function, and it must be invoked at least once (each time creates a new module instance).

  2. The enclosing function must return back at least one inner function, so that this inner function has closure over the private scope, and can access and/or modify that private state.

An object with a function property on it alone is not really a module. An object which is returned from a function invocation which only has data properties on it and no closured functions is not really a module, in the observable sense.

The code snippet above shows a standalone module creator called CoolModule() which can be invoked any number of times, each time creating a new module instance. A slight variation on this pattern is when you only care to have one instance, a "singleton" of sorts:

var foo = (function CoolModule() {
	var something = "cool";
	var another = [1, 2, 3];

	function doSomething() {
		console.log( something );
	}

	function doAnother() {
		console.log( another.join( " ! " ) );
	}

	return {
		doSomething: doSomething,
		doAnother: doAnother
	};
})();

foo.doSomething(); // cool
foo.doAnother(); // 1 ! 2 ! 3

Here, we turned our module function into an IIFE (see Chapter 3), and we immediately invoked it and assigned its return value directly to our single module instance identifier foo.

Modules are just functions, so they can receive parameters:

function CoolModule(id) {
	function identify() {
		console.log( id );
	}

	return {
		identify: identify
	};
}

var foo1 = CoolModule( "foo 1" );
var foo2 = CoolModule( "foo 2" );

foo1.identify(); // "foo 1"
foo2.identify(); // "foo 2"

Another slight but powerful variation on the module pattern is to name the object you are returning as your public API:

var foo = (function CoolModule(id) {
	function change() {
		// modifying the public API
		publicAPI.identify = identify2;
	}

	function identify1() {
		console.log( id );
	}

	function identify2() {
		console.log( id.toUpperCase() );
	}

	var publicAPI = {
		change: change,
		identify: identify1
	};

	return publicAPI;
})( "foo module" );

foo.identify(); // foo module
foo.change();
foo.identify(); // FOO MODULE

By retaining an inner reference to the public API object inside your module instance, you can modify that module instance from the inside, including adding and removing methods, properties, and changing their values.

Modern Modules

Various module dependency loaders/managers essentially wrap up this pattern of module definition into a friendly API. Rather than examine any one particular library, let me present a very simple proof of concept for illustration purposes (only):

var MyModules = (function Manager() {
	var modules = {};

	function define(name, deps, impl) {
		for (var i=0; i<deps.length; i++) {
			deps[i] = modules[deps[i]];
		}
		modules[name] = impl.apply( impl, deps );
	}

	function get(name) {
		return modules[name];
	}

	return {
		define: define,
		get: get
	};
})();

The key part of this code is modules[name] = impl.apply(impl, deps). This is invoking the definition wrapper function for a module (passing in any dependencies), and storing the return value, the module's API, into an internal list of modules tracked by name.

And here's how I might use it to define some modules:

MyModules.define( "bar", [], function(){
	function hello(who) {
		return "Let me introduce: " + who;
	}

	return {
		hello: hello
	};
} );

MyModules.define( "foo", ["bar"], function(bar){
	var hungry = "hippo";

	function awesome() {
		console.log( bar.hello( hungry ).toUpperCase() );
	}

	return {
		awesome: awesome
	};
} );

var bar = MyModules.get( "bar" );
var foo = MyModules.get( "foo" );

console.log(
	bar.hello( "hippo" )
); // Let me introduce: hippo

foo.awesome(); // LET ME INTRODUCE: HIPPO

Both the "foo" and "bar" modules are defined with a function that returns a public API. "foo" even receives the instance of "bar" as a dependency parameter, and can use it accordingly.

Spend some time examining these code snippets to fully understand the power of closures put to use for our own good purposes. The key take-away is that there's not really any particular "magic" to module managers. They fulfill both characteristics of the module pattern I listed above: invoking a function definition wrapper, and keeping its return value as the API for that module.

In other words, modules are just modules, even if you put a friendly wrapper tool on top of them.

Future Modules

ES6 adds first-class syntax support for the concept of modules. When loaded via the module system, ES6 treats a file as a separate module. Each module can both import other modules or specific API members, as well export their own public API members.

Note: Function-based modules aren't a statically recognized pattern (something the compiler knows about), so their API semantics aren't considered until run-time. That is, you can actually modify a module's API during the run-time (see earlier publicAPI discussion).

By contrast, ES6 Module APIs are static (the APIs don't change at run-time). Since the compiler knows that, it can (and does!) check during (file loading and) compilation that a reference to a member of an imported module's API actually exists. If the API reference doesn't exist, the compiler throws an "early" error at compile-time, rather than waiting for traditional dynamic run-time resolution (and errors, if any).

ES6 modules do not have an "inline" format, they must be defined in separate files (one per module). The browsers/engines have a default "module loader" (which is overridable, but that's well-beyond our discussion here) which synchronously loads a module file when it's imported.

Consider:

bar.js

function hello(who) {
	return "Let me introduce: " + who;
}

export hello;

foo.js

// import only `hello()` from the "bar" module
import hello from "bar";

var hungry = "hippo";

function awesome() {
	console.log(
		hello( hungry ).toUpperCase()
	);
}

export awesome;
// import the entire "foo" and "bar" modules
module foo from "foo";
module bar from "bar";

console.log(
	bar.hello( "rhino" )
); // Let me introduce: rhino

foo.awesome(); // LET ME INTRODUCE: HIPPO

Note: Separate files "foo.js" and "bar.js" would need to be created, with the contents as shown in the first two snippets, respectively. Then, your program would load/import those modules to use them, as shown in the third snippet.

import imports one or more members from a module's API into the current scope, each to a bound variable (hello in our case). module imports an entire module API to a bound variable (foo, bar in our case). export exports an identifier (variable, function) to the public API for the current module. These operators can be used as many times in a module's definition as is necessary.

The contents inside the module file are treated as if enclosed in a scope closure, just like with the function-closure modules seen earlier.

Review (TL;DR)

Closure seems to the un-enlightened like a mystical world set apart inside of JavaScript which only the few bravest souls can reach. But it's actually just a standard and almost obvious fact of how we write code in a lexically scoped environment, where functions are values and can be passed around at will.

Closure is when a function can remember and access its lexical scope even when it's invoked outside its lexical scope.

Closures can trip us up, for instance with loops, if we're not careful to recognize them and how they work. But they are also an immensely powerful tool, enabling patterns like modules in their various forms.

Modules require two key characteristics: 1) an outer wrapping function being invoked, to create the enclosing scope 2) the return value of the wrapping function must include reference to at least one inner function that then has closure over the private inner scope of the wrapper.

Now we can see closures all around our existing code, and we have the ability to recognize and leverage them to our own benefit!