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this in JavaScript and TypeScript

Stefan Baumgartner

Written by @ddprrt

More on TypeScript, JavaScript

Sometimes when writing JavaScript, I want to shout “This is ridiculous!”. But then I never know what this refers to.

If there is one concept in JavaScript that confuses people, it has to be this. Especially if your background is a class-based object-oriented programming languages, where this always refers to an instance of a class. this in JavaScript is entirely different, but not necessarily harder to understand. There’re a few basic rules, and about as many exceptions to keep in mind. And TypeScript can help greatly!

this in regular JavaScript functions #

A way I like to think about this is that in regular functions (with the function keyword or the object function short-hand), resolve to “the nearest object”, which is the object that they are bound to. For example:

const author = {
name: "Stefan",
// function shorthand
hi() {
console.log(this.name);
},
};

author.hi(); // prints 'Stefan'

In the example above, hi is bound to author, so this is author.

JavaScript is flexible, you can attach functions or apply functions to an object on the fly.

const author = {
name: "Stefan",
// function shorthand
hi() {
console.log(this.name);
},
};

author.hi(); // prints 'Stefan'

const pet = {
name: "Finni",
kind: "Cat",
};

pet.hi = author.hi;

pet.hi(); // prints 'Finni'

The “nearest object” is pet. hi is bound to pet.

We can declare a function independently from objects and still use it in the object context with apply or call:

function hi() {
console.log(this.name);
}

const author = {
name: "Stefan",
};

const pet = {
name: "Finni",
kind: "Cat",
};

hi.apply(pet); // prints 'Finni'
hi.call(author); // prints 'Stefan'

The nearest object is the object we pass as the first argument. The documentation calls the first argument thisArg, so the name tells you already what to expect.

apply vs call #

What’s the difference between call and apply? Think of a function with arguments:

function sum(a, b) {
return a + b;
}

With call you can pass the arguments one by one:

sum.call(null, 2, 3);

null is the object sum should be bound to, so no object.

With apply, you have to pass the arguments in an array:

sum.apply(null, [2, 3]);

An easy mnemonic to remember this behaviour is array for apply, commas for call.

bind #

Another way to explicitly bind an object to an object-free function is by using bind

const author = {
name: "Stefan",
};

function hi() {
console.log(this.name);
}

const boundHi = hi.bind(author);

boundHi(); // prints 'Stefan'

This is already cool, but more on that later.

Event listeners #

The concept of the “nearest object” helps a lot when you work with event listeners:

const button = document.querySelector("button");

button.addEventListener("click", function () {
this.classList.toggle("clicked");
});

this is button. addEventListener sets one of many onclick functions. Another way of doing that would be

button.onclick = function () {
this.classList.toggle("clicked");
};

which makes it a bit more obvious why this is button in that case.

this in arrow functions and classes #

So I spent half of my professional JavaScript career to totally understand what this refers to, just to see the rise of classes and arrow functions that turn everything upside down again.

Here's my most favorite meme on this (click to expand)
Two people shouting at each other: This is the difference between arrow functions and normal functions. What is the difference? This is the difference? And so on, and so on.
My most favourite this meme

Arrow functions always resolve this respective to their lexical scope. Lexical scope means that the inner scope is the same as the outer scope, so this inside an arrow function is the same as outside an arrow function. For example:

const lottery = {
numbers: [4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42],
el: "span",
html() {
// this is lottery
return this.numbers
.map(
(number) =>
//this is still lottery
`<${this.el}>${number}</${this.el}>`
)
.join();
},
};

Calling lottery.html() gets us a string with all numbers wrapped in spans, as this inside the arrow function of map doesn’t change. It’s still lottery.

If we would use a regular function, this would be undefined, as there is no nearest object. We would have to bind this:

const lottery = {
numbers: [4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42],
el: "span",
html() {
// this is lottery
return this.numbers
.map(
function (number) {
return `<${this.el}>${number}</${this.el}>`;
}.bind(this)
)
.join("");
},
};

Tedious.

In classes, this also refers to the lexical scope, which is the class instance. Now we’re getting Java-y!

class Author {
constructor(name) {
this.name = name;
}

// lexical, so Author
hi() {
console.log(this.name);
}

hiMsg(msg) {
// lexical, so still author!
return () => {
console.log(`${msg}, ${this.name}`);
};
}
}

const author = new Author("Stefan");
author.hi(); //prints '
author.hiMsg("Hello")(); // prints 'Hello, Stefan'

unbinding #

Problems occur if you accidentally unbind a function, e.g. by passing a function that is bound to some other function or storing it in a variable.

const author = {
name: "Stefan",
hi() {
console.log(this.name);
},
};

const hi = author.hi();
// hi is unbound, this refers to nothing
// or window/global in non-strict mode
hi(); // 💥

You would have to re-bind the function. This also explains some behaviour in React class components with event handlers:

class Counter extends React.Component {
constructor() {
super();
this.state = {
count: 1,
};
}

// we have to bind this.handleClick to the
// instance again, because after being
// assigned, the function loses its binding ...
render() {
return (
<>
{this.state.count}
<button onClick={this.handleClick.bind(this)}>+</button>
</>
);
}

//... which would error here as we can't
// call `this.setState`
handleClick() {
this.setState(({ count }) => ({
count: count + 1,
}));
}
}

this in TypeScript #

TypeScript is pretty good at finding the “nearest object” or knowing the lexical scope, so TypeScript can give you exact information on what to expect from this. There are however some edge cases where we can help a little.

this arguments #

Think of extract an event handler function into its own function:

const button = document.querySelector("button");
button.addEventListener("click", handleToggle);

// Huh? What's this?
function handleToggle() {
this.classList.toggle("clicked"); //💥
}

We lose all information on this since this would now be window or undefined. TypeScript gives us red squigglies as well!

We add an argument at the first position of the function, where we can define the type of this.

const button = document.querySelector("button");
button.addEventListener("click", handleToggle);

function handleToggle(this: HTMLElement) {
this.classList.toggle("clicked"); // 😃
}

This argument gets removed once compiled. We now know that this will be of type HTMLElement, which also means that we get errors once we use handleToggle in a different context.

// The 'this' context of type 'void' is not
// assignable to method's 'this' of type 'HTMLElement'.
handleToggle(); // 💥

ThisParameterType and OmitThisParameter #

There are some helpers if you use this parameters in your function signatures.

ThisParameterType tells you which type you expect this to be:

const button = document.querySelector("button");
button.addEventListener("click", handleToggle);

function handleToggle(this: HTMLElement) {
this.classList.toggle("clicked"); // 😃
handleClick.call(this);
}

function handleClick(this: ThisParameterType<typeof handleToggle>) {
this.classList.add("clicked-once");
}

OmitThisParameter removes the this typing and gives you the blank type signature of a function.

// No reason to type `this` here!
function handleToggle(this: HTMLElement) {
console.log("clicked!");
}

type HandleToggleFn = OmitThisParameter<typeof handleToggle>;

declare function toggle(callback: HandleToggleFn);

toggle(function () {
console.log("Yeah works too");
}); // 👍

ThisType #

There’s another generic helper type that helps defining this for objects called ThisType. It originally comes from the way e.g. Vue handles objects. For example:

var app5 = new Vue({
el: "#app-5",
data: {
message: "Hello Vue.js!",
},
methods: {
reverseMessage() {
// OK, so what's this?
this.message = this.message.split("").reverse().join("");
},
},
});

Look at this in the reverseMessage() function. As we learned, this refers to the nearest object, which would be methods. But Vue transforms this object into something different, so you can access all elements in data and all methods in methods (eg. this.reverseMessage()).

With ThisType we can declare the type of this at this particular position.

The Object descriptor for the code above would look like this:

type ObjectDescriptor<Data, Methods> = {
el?: string;
data?: Data;
methods?: Methods & ThisType<Data & Methods>;
};

It tells TypeScript that within all functions of methods, this can access to fields from type Data and Methods.

Typing this minimalistic version of Vue looks like that:

declare const Vue: VueConstructor;

type VueConstructor = {
new<D, M>(desc: ObjectDescriptor<D, M>): D & M
)

ThisType<T> in lib.es5.d.ts itself is empty. It’s a marker for the compiler to point this to another object. As you can see in this playground, this is exactly what it should be.

Bottom line #

I hope this piece on this did shed some light on the different quirks in JavaScript and how to type this in TypeScript. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me.

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