Stefan Baumgartner

Web ops, performance and front-end

Symbols in JavaScript and TypeScript

04 September 2019 by @ddprrt | Posted in: TypeScript, JavaScript

symbol is a primitive data type in JavaScript and TypeScript, which, amongst other things, can be used for object properties. Compared to number and string, symbols have some unique features that make them stand out.

Symbols in JavaScript

Symbols can be created using the Symbol() factory function:

const TITLE = Symbol('title')

Symbol has no constructor function. The parameter is an optional description. By calling the factory function, TITLE is assigned the unique value of this freshly created symbol. This symbol is now unique, distinguishable from all other symbols and doesn’t clash with any other symbols that have the same description.

const ACADEMIC_TITLE = Symbol('title')
const ARTICLE_TITLE = Symbol('title')

if(ACADEMIC_TITLE === ARTICLE_TITLE) {
  // THis is never true
}

The description helps you to get info on the Symbol during development time:

console.log(ACADEMIC_TITLE.description) // title
console.log(ACADEMIC_TITLE.toString()) // Symbol(title)

Symbols are great if you want to have comparable values that are exclusive and unique. For runtime switches or mode comparisons:

// A shitty logging framework
const LEVEL_INFO = Symbol('INFO')
const LEVEL_DEBUG = Symbol('DEBUG')
const LEVEL_WARN = Symbol('WARN')
const LEVEL_ERROR = Symbol('ERROR')

function log(msg, level) {
  switch(level) {
    case LEVEL_WARN: 
      console.warn(msg); break
    case LEVEL_ERROR: 
      console.error(msg); break;
    case LEVEL_DEBUG: 
      console.log(msg); 
      debugger; break;
    case LEVEL_INFO:
      console.log(msg);
  }
}

Symbols also work as property keys, but are not iterable, which is great for serialisation

const print = Symbol('print')

const user = {
  name: 'Stefan',
  age: 37,
  [print]: function() {
    console.log(`${this.name} is ${this.age} years old`)
  }
}

JSON.stringify(user) // { name: 'Stefan', age: 37 }
user[print]() // Stefan is 37 years old

Global symbols registry

There’s a global symbols registry that allows you to access tokens across your whole application.

Symbol.for('print') // creates a global symbol

const user = {
  name: 'Stefan',
  age: 37,
  // uses the global symbol
  [Symbol.for('print')]: function() {
    console.log(`${this.name} is ${this.age} years old`)
  }
}

First call to Symbol.for creates a symbol, second call uses the same symbol. If you store the symbol value in a variable and want to know the key, you can use Symbol.keyFor()

const usedSymbolKeys = []

function extendObject(obj, symbol, value) {
  //Oh, what symbol is this?
  const key = Symbol.keyFor(symbol)
  //Alright, let's better store this
  if(!usedSymbolKeys.includes(key)) {
    usedSymbolKeys.push(key)
  }
  obj[symnbol] = value
}

// now it's time to retreive them all
function printAllValues(obj) {
  usedSymbolKeys.forEach(key => {
    console.log(obj[Symbol.for(key)])
  })
}

Nifty!

Symbols in TypeScript

TypeScript has full support for symbols, and they are prime citizens in the type system. symbol itself is a data type annotation for all possible symbols. See the extendObject function from earlier on. To allow for all symbols to extend our object, we can use the symbol type:

const sym = Symbol('foo')

function extendObject(obj: any, sym: symbol, value: any) {
  obj[sym] = value
}

extendObject({}, sym, 42) // Works with all symbols

There’s also the sub-type unique symbol. A unique symbol is closely tied to the declaration, only allowed in const declarations and references this exact symbol, and nothing else.

You can think of a nominal type in TypeScript for a very nominal value in JavaScript.

To get to the type of unique symbols, you need to use the typeof operator.

const PROD: unique symbol = Symbol('Production mode')
const DEV: unique symbol = Symbol('Development mode')

function showWarning(msg: string, mode: typeof DEV | typeof PROD) {
 // ...
}

At time of writing, the only possible nominal type in TypeScript’s structural type system.

Symbols stand at the intersection between nominal and opaque types in TypeScript and JavaScript. And are the closest things we get to nominal type checks at runtime. A good way to recreate constructs like enums for example.

Runtime Enums

An interesting use case of symbols is to re-create enum like behaviour at runtime in JavaScript. enums in TypeScript are opaque. This effectively means that you can’t assign string values to enum types, because TypeScript treats them as unique:

enum Colors {
  Red = 'Red',
  Green = 'Green',
  Blue = 'Blue',
}

const c1: Colors = Colors.Red;
const c2: Colors = 'Red'; // 💣 No direct assigment possible

Very interesting if you do comparisons:


enum Moods {
  Happy = 'Happy',
  Blue = 'Blue'
}

// 💣 This condition will always return 'false' since the
// types 'Moods.Blue' and 'Colors.Blue' have no overlap.
if(Moods.Blue === Colors.Blue) {
  // Nope
}

Even with the same value types, being in an enum makes them unique enough for TypeScript to consider them not comparable.

In JavaScript land, we can create enums like that with symbols. See the colors of the rainbow an black in the following example. Our “enum” Colors includes only symbols which are colors, not black:

// All Color symbols
const COLOR_RED: unique symbol = Symbol('RED')
const COLOR_ORANGE: unique symbol = Symbol('ORANGE')
const COLOR_YELLOW: unique symbol = Symbol('YELLOW')
const COLOR_GREEN: unique symbol = Symbol('GREEN')
const COLOR_BLUE: unique symbol = Symbol('BLUE')
const COLOR_INDIGO: unique symbol = Symbol('INDIGO')
const COLOR_VIOLET: unique symbol = Symbol('VIOLET')
const COLOR_BLACK: unique symbol = Symbol('BLACK')

// All colors except Black
const Colors = {
  COLOR_RED,
  COLOR_ORANGE,
  COLOR_YELLOW,
  COLOR_GREEN,
  COLOR_BLUE,
  COLOR_INDIGO,
  COLOR_VIOLET
} as const;

We can use this symbols just as we would use enums:

function getHexValue(color) {
  switch(color) {
    case Colors.COLOR_RED: return '#ff0000'
    //...
  }
}

And the symbols can’t be compared:

const MOOD_HAPPY: unique symbol = Symbol('HAPPY')
const MOOD_BLUE: unique symbol = Symbol('BLUE')

// All colors except Black
const Moods = {
  MOOD_HAPPY,
  MOOD_BLUE
} as const;

// 💣 This condition will always return 'false' since the types 
// 'typeof MOOD_BLUE' and 'typeof COLOR_BLUE' have no overlap.
if(Moods.MOOD_BLUE === Colors.COLOR_BLUE) {
  // Nope
}

There are a few TypeScript annotations we want to add:

  1. We declare all symbol keys (and values) as unique symbols, meaning the constant we assign our symbols to can never be changed.
  2. We declare our “enum” objects as const. With that, TypeScript goes from setting the type to allow for every symbol, to just allow the exact same symbols we defined.

This allows us to get more type safety when defining our symbol “enums” for function declarations. We start with a helper type for getting all value types from an object.

type ValuesWithKeys<T, K extends keyof T> = T[K];
type Values<T> = ValuesWithKeys<T, keyof T>

Remember, we use as const, which means that our values are narrowed down to the exact value type (e.g. type is COLOR_RED) instead of their overarching type (symbol).

With that, we can declare our function like that:

function getHexValue(color: Values<typeof Colors>) {
  switch(color) {
    case COLOR_RED:
      // super fine, is in our type
    case Colors.COLOR_BLUE:
      // also super fine, is in our type
      break;
    case COLOR_BLACK: 
      // what? What is this??? TypeScript errors 💥
      break;
  }
}

You can get rid of the helper and const context, if you use symbol keys and values instead of only symbol values:

const ColorEnum = {
  [COLOR_RED]: COLOR_RED,
  [COLOR_YELLOW]: COLOR_YELLOW,
  [COLOR_ORANGE]: COLOR_ORANGE,
  [COLOR_GREEN]: COLOR_GREEN,
  [COLOR_BLUE]: COLOR_BLUE,
  [COLOR_INDIGO]: COLOR_INDIGO,
  [COLOR_VIOLET]: COLOR_VIOLET,
}

function getHexValueWithSymbolKeys(color: keyof typeof ColorEnum) {
  switch(color) {
    case ColorEnum[COLOR_BLUE]:
      // 👍
      break;
    case COLOR_RED:
      // 👍
      break;
    case COLOR_BLACK: 
      // 💥
      break;
  }
}

This gives you both type safety at compile time through TypeScript unique symbols, and actual type safety at runtime with the unique characteristics of JavaScript’s Symbols.

And, als always: A playground for you to fiddle around.

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