Joe Attardi
Joe Attardi ๐Ÿ‘จ๐Ÿปโ€๐Ÿ’ป

Joe Attardi ๐Ÿ‘จ๐Ÿปโ€๐Ÿ’ป

Comparing `const` declarations and immutable objects

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Comparing `const` declarations and immutable objects

Joe Attardi's photo
Joe Attardi
ยทSep 1, 2022ยท

6 min read

Way back in my Java days, when interviewing candidates, I would often ask the candidate to explain the meaning of the final keyword. Many times I would get an answer along the lines of "It's a constant value" or "It can't be changed once assigned".

Fast forward to today, living in JavaScript Land, we now have const declarations. I ask the same question to JavaScript candidates and often get the same sorts of answers.

On the surface, these answers are more or less correct, but when I would ask follow-up questions about what exactly they meant by "constant" or "can't be changed", I was sometimes surprised by the answers I received.

This appears to be a question that can sometimes trip up beginners. Let's take a deeper look.

The const keyword

Back in the dark ages, we had var for declaring variables and that was it! ES2015 gave us two new tools: const and let.

We use const like this:

const name = 'Joe';

I have just declared name, which is a reference to the string 'Joe'. If I try to assign a new value to name, I get an error:

name = 'Liz'; // TypeError: Assignment to constant variable.

Great, so this is a constant value! I can't change the name assigned to name. This much, I think, is pretty clear.

What about an array?

A string is a primitive value. What if I use const for, say, an array?

const foods = ['apple', 'banana', 'pear'];

Indeed, I can't set a new array:

foods = ['bacon', 'chicken', 'turkey']; // TypeError: Assignment to constant variable.

I want to take banana out of my array. I might try to do that with Array.prototype.filter, but I run into the same problem:

foods = foods.filter(food => food !== 'banana'); // TypeError: Assignment to constant variable.

That won't work because foods is declared with const. Of course, this will work fine if I assign the result of foods.filter to another variable name, but let's pretend that for whatever reason the array referenced by foods has to have the banana-less array.

Instead of filtering, a value can also be removed from an array with Array.prototype.splice. But since foods is a constant that can't be changed, this will fail as well, right?

foods.splice(foods.indexOf('banana'), 1); // No error!
console.log(foods); // ['apple', 'pear']

This works! The array referenced by foods no longer contains banana. Why did this work if we used const?

The reference is the constant!

Obi-Wan breaks the news

As it turns out, the constant is the reference itself, not the value it's pointing to. We can do anything we want to the foods array as long as we don't try to reassign a new value to foods.

So you see, explaining const by saying "it's a constant value" or "it can't be changed" is only true from a certain point of view.

Immutable data

What if we really, truly, want to lock down the foods array so we can't modify it? The reason we can still get away with this is because functions like Array.prototype.splice mutate the thing. This is just a fancy way of saying we are modifying its internal state.

Some values, like strings, are immutable, so for a string, our simplified explanation of const is accurate. But for objects and arrays, we still have a mutation escape hatch.

It's actually easy to achieve immutability for our humble array of foods. We can freeze it!

const foods = ['apple', 'banana', 'pear']; // At this point we can still mutate the array
Object.freeze(foods); // Not anymore!

Object.freeze essentially locks down our array. We can't do anything to it now:

foods.splice(foods.indexOf('banana'), 1); // TypeError: Cannot delete property '2' of [object Array]

foods.push('bacon'); // TypeError: Cannot add property 3, object is not extensible

Now our foods array is untouchable. Like before, we can still filter it as long as we assign it to a new name. Interestingly, the new filtered array is no longer frozen:

const noBananas = foods.filter(food => food !== 'banana');
noBananas.push('bacon'); // No error!
console.log(noBananas); // ['apple', 'pear', 'bacon'];

A note on Object.freeze

You may notice that the array threw exceptions when trying to add or remove elements after it was frozen. As we will see soon, this does not happen with other objects (unless in strict mode). When not running in strict mode, the mutation will fail silently.

Freezing objects

Let's take one more example, an array of users, and freeze it.

const users = [
  { username: 'obiwan', email: 'kenobi@gmail.com' },
  { username: 'yoda', email: 'yoda@coruscant.com' }
];

Object.freeze(users);

// This will fail with TypeError: Cannot add property 2, object is not extensible
users.push({ username: 'chewbacca', email: 'chewie@kashyykmail.com' });

Ben Kenobi?

To protect his identity, let's change Obi-Wan's username to ben (the Empire will surely think the last name is a coincidence):

users[0].username = 'ben';
console.log(users[0]); // { username: 'ben', email: 'kenobi@gmail.com' }

No error was thrown, and when we check the user object, it was updated (so it did not fail silently as we discussed above!)

What happened? Isn't the array frozen? Indeed it is, the individual items in the array are not. To achieve this, we need to freeze every item in the array:

  const users = [
    { username: 'obiwan', email: 'kenobi@gmail.com' },
    { username: 'yoda', email: 'yoda@coruscant.com' }
  ];

Object.freeze(users);
users.forEach(user => Object.freeze(user));

// Change Obi-Wan's name.
users[0].username = 'ben';

// No error, let's check the object
console.log(users[0]); // { username: 'obiwan', email: 'kenobi@gmail.com' }

Now that we've frozen each object in the array, we get the desired outcome. Array items can't be added, removed, or modified.

If we ran the same above code in strict mode, it would fail with an error:

TypeError: Cannot assign to read only property 'username' of object '#<Object>'

Recursively freezing objects

At any given level, Object.freeze will only freeze the top-level properties. For deeply nested objects, you will need to traverse all the way down and freeze at each level.

Fortunately, there is a simple package called deep-freeze that will do this in a single function call:

  import deepFreeze from 'deep-freeze';

const users = [
  { username: 'obiwan', email: 'kenobi@gmail.com' },
  { username: 'yoda', email: 'yoda@coruscant.com' }
];

deepFreeze(users);

This will freeze the array as well as all the objects in it. If those objects had nested object properties, those would be frozen as well. Since we are in an ES module (we're using import), this automatically puts us in strict mode, so attempting to change Obi-Wan's username will throw an error.

Summary

  • const marks a reference as constant; it cannot be reassigned. However, the object pointed to by the const can be mutated.
  • To make an object truly unmodifiable, you will need to freeze it.
  • Object.freeze does not recurse into nested properties, but the deep-freeze package will.

Now you can crush this question on your next job interview!

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