JavaScript’s two array types

Jul 16th, 2012

Imagine a BitSet constructor with an overloaded API for setting bits:

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var bits = new BitSet();

bits.set(4);
bits.set([1, 4, 8, 17]);

The interface for BitSet.prototype.set is:

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// set :: (number | [number]) -> undefined

Now imagine a StringSet constructor with an overloaded API for adding strings:

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var set = new StringSet();

set.add('foo');
set.add(['foo', 'bar', 'baz']);
set.add({ foo: true, bar: true, baz: true });

The interface for StringSet.prototype.add is something like:

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// add :: (string | [string] | object) -> undefined

These both look pretty similar, but there’s a critical difference. Think about how you might implement BitSet.prototype.set:

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BitSet.prototype.set = function set(x) {
    // number case
    if (typeof x === 'number') {
        this._add1(x);
        return;
    }
    // array case
    for (var i = 0, n = x.length; i < n; i++) {
        this._add1(x[i]);
    }
};

Now think about how you might implement StringSet.prototype.add:

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StringSet.prototype.add = function add(x) {
    // string case
    if (typeof x === 'string') {
        this._add1(x);
        return;
    }
    // array case
    if (/* hmmmm... */) {
        for (var i = 0, n = x.length; i < n; i++) {
            this._add1(x[i]);
        }
        return;
    }
    // object case
    for (var key in x) {
        if ({}.hasOwnProperty.call(x, key)) {
            this._add1(key);
        }
    }
};

What’s the difference? BitSet.prototype.set doesn’t have to test whether its argument is an array. It’ll work for any object that acts like an array (i.e., has indexed properties and a numeric length property). It’ll even accept values like an arguments object, a NodeList, some custom object you create that acts like an array, or even a primitive string.

But StringSet.prototype.add actually needs a test to see if x is an array. How do you distinguish between arrays and objects when JavaScript arrays are objects?

One answer you’ll sometimes see is what I call “duck testing”: use some sort of heuristic that probably indicates the client intended the argument to be an array:

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if (typeof x.length === 'number') {
    // ...
}

Beware the word “probably” in programming! Duck testing is a horribly medieval form of computer science:

For example, what happens when a user happens to pass in a dictionary object with the string 'length'?

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symbolTable.add({ a: 1, i: 1, length: 1 });

The user clearly intended this to be the dictionary case, but the duck test saw a numeric 'length' property and gleefully proclaimed “it’s an array!”

This comes down to the difference between nominal and structural types.

A nominal type is a type that has a unique identity or “brand.” It carries a tag with it that can be atomically tested to distinguish it from other types.

A structural type, also known as a duck type, is a kind of interface: it’s just a contract that mandates certain behaviors, but doesn’t say anything about what specific implementation is used to provide that behavior. The reason people have such a hard time figuring out how to test for structural types is that they are designed specifically not to be testable!

There are a few common scenarios in dynamically typed languages where you need to do dynamic type testing, such as error checking, debugging, and inrospection. But the most common case is when implementing overloaded API’s like the set and add methods above.

The BitSet.prototype.set method treats arrays as a structural type: they can be any kind of value whatsoever as long as they have indexed properties with corresponding length. But StringSet.prototype.add overloads array and object types, so it has to check for “arrayness.” And you can’t reliably check for structural types.

It’s specifically when you overload arrays and objects that you need a predictable nominal type test. One answer would be to punt and change the API so the client has to explicitly tag the variants:

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set.add({ key: 'foo' });
set.add({ array: ['foo', 'bar', 'baz'] });
set.add({ dict: { foo: true, bar: true, baz: true } });

This overloads three different objects types that can be distinguished by their relevant property names. Or you could get rid of overloading altogether:

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set.add('foo');
set.addArray(['foo', 'bar', 'baz']);
set.addDict({ foo: true, bar: true, baz: true });

But these API’s are heavier and clunkier. Rather than rigidly avoiding overloading arrays and objects, the lighter-weight approach is to use JavaScript’s latent notion of a “true” array: an object whose [[Class]] internal property is "Array". That internal property serves as the brand for a built-in nominal type of JavaScript. And it’s a pretty good candidate for a universally available nominal type: clients get the concise array literal syntax, and the ES5 Array.isArray function (which can be shimmed pretty reliably in older JavaScript engines) provides the exact test needed to implement the API.

But this test is very different from the structural type accepted by BitSet.prototype.set. For example, you can’t pass an arguments object to StringSet.prototype.add:

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MyClass.prototype.update = function update() {
    this.wibbles.add(arguments);
};

This code clearly means to pass arguments as an array, but it’ll get interpreted as a dictionary. Similarly, you can’t pass a NodeList, or a primitive string, or any other JavaScript value that acts array-like.

In other words, JavaScript has two latent concepts of array types. Library writers should clearly document when their API’s accept any array-like value (i.e., the structural type) and when they require a true array (i.e., the nominal type). That way clients know whether they need to convert array-like values to true arrays before passing them in.

As a final note, ES6’s Array.from API will do that exact conversion. This would make it very convenient, for example, for the update method above to be fixed:

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MyClass.prototype.update = function update() {
    this.wibbles.add(Array.from(arguments));
};

Thanks to Rick Waldron for helping me come to this understanding during an awesome IRC conversation this morning.