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TypeScript + React: Typing Generic forwardRefs

Stefan Baumgartner

Written by @ddprrt

More on TypeScript, React

If you are creating component libraries and design systems in React, you might already have fowarded Refs to the DOM elements inside your components.

This is especially useful if you wrap basic components or leafs in proxy components, but want to use the ref property just like you’re used to:

const Button = React.forwardRef((props, ref) => (
<button type="button" {...props} ref={ref}>
{props.children}
</button>
));

// Usage: You can use your proxy just like you use
// a regular button!
const reference = React.createRef();
<Button className="primary" ref={reference}>Hello</Button>

Providing types for React.forwardRef is usually pretty straightforward. The types shipped by @types/react have generic type variables that you can set upon calling React.forwardRef. In that case, explicitly annotating your types is the way to go!

type ButtonProps = JSX.IntrinsicElements["button"];

const Button = React.forwardRef<HTMLButtonElement, ButtonProps>(
(props, ref) => (
<button type="button" {...props} ref={ref}>
{props.children}
</button>
)
);

// Usage
const reference = React.createRef<HTMLButtonElement>();
<Button className="primary" ref={reference}>Hello</Button>

If you want to know more about patterns on proxy components, type information on WithChildren and preset attributes, please refer to my Component Patterns guide. Also, check on useRef typings from my TypeScript + React guide for a hook-friendly alternative to React.createRef.

So far, so good. But things get a bit hairy if you have a component that accepts generic properties. Check out this component that produces a list of list items, where you can select each row with a button element:

type ClickableListProps<T> = {
items: T[];
onSelect: (item: T) => void;
};

function ClickableList<T>(props: ClickableListProps<T>) {
return (
<ul>
{props.items.map((item) => (
<li>
<button onClick={() => props.onSelect(item)}>
Choose
</button>
{item}
</li>
))}
</ul>
);
}

// Usage
const items = [1, 2, 3, 4];
<ClickableList items={items}
onSelect={(item) => {
// item is of type number
console.log(item)
} }
/>

You want the extra type-safety so you can work with a type-safe item in your onSelect callback. Say you want to create a ref to the inner ul element, how do you proceed? Let’s change the ClickableList component to an inner function component that takes a ForwardRef, and use it as an argument in the React.forwardRef function.

// The original component extended with a `ref`
function ClickableListInner<T>(
props: ClickableListProps<T>,
ref: React.ForwardedRef<HTMLUListElement>
) {
return (
<ul ref={ref}>
{props.items.map((item, i) => (
<li key={i}>
<button onClick={(el) => props.onSelect(item)}>Select</button>
{item}
</li>
))}
</ul>
);
}

// As an argument in `React.forwardRef`
const ClickableList = React.forwardRef(ClickableListInner)

This compiles, but has one downside: We can’t assign a generic type variable for ClickableListProps. It becomes unknown by default. Which is good compared to any, but also slightly annoying. When we use ClickableList, we know which items to pass along! We want to have them typed accordingly! So how can we achieve this? The answer is tricky… and you have a couple of options.

Option 1: Type assertion #

One option would be to do a type assertion that restores the original function signature.

const ClickableList = React.forwardRef(ClickableListInner) as <T>(
props: ClickableListProps<T> & { ref?: React.ForwardedRef<HTMLUListElement> }
) => ReturnType<typeof ClickableListInner>;

Type assertions are a little bit frowned upon as they look similar like type casts in other programming languages. They are a little bit different, and Dan masterfully explains why. Type assertions have their place in TypeScript. Usually, my approach is to let TypeScript figure out everything from my JavaScript code that it can figure out on its own. Where it doesn’t, I use type annotations to help a little bit. And where I know definitely more than TypeScript, I do a type assertion.

This is one of these cases, here I know that my original component accepts generic props!

Option 2: Create a custom ref / The Wrapper Component #

While ref is a reserved word for React components, you can use your own, custom props to mimic a similar behavior. This works just as well.

type ClickableListProps<T> = {
items: T[];
onSelect: (item: T) => void;
mRef?: React.Ref<HTMLUListElement> | null;
};

export function ClickableList<T>(
props: ClickableListProps<T>
) {
return (
<ul ref={props.mRef}>
{props.items.map((item, i) => (
<li key={i}>
<button onClick={(el) => props.onSelect(item)}>Select</button>
{item}
</li>
))}
</ul>
);
}

You introduce a new API, though. For the record, there is also the possibility of using a wrapper component, that allows you to use forwardRefs inside in an inner component and expose a custom ref property to the outside. This circulates around the web, I just see no significant benefit compared to the previous solution – enlighten me if you know one!.

function ClickableListInner<T>(
props: ClickableListProps<T>,
ref: React.ForwardedRef<HTMLUListElement>
) {
return (
<ul ref={ref}>
{props.items.map((item, i) => (
<li key={i}>
<button onClick={(el) => props.onSelect(item)}>Select</button>
{item}
</li>
))}
</ul>
);
}

const ClickableListWithRef = forwardRef(ClickableListInner);

type ClickableListWithRefProps<T> = ClickableListProps<T> & {
mRef?: React.Ref<HTMLUListElement>;
};

export function ClickableList<T>({
mRef,
...props
}: ClickableListWithRefProps<T>) {
return <ClickableListWithRef ref={mRef} {...props} />;
}

Both are valid solutions if the only thing you want to achieve is passing that ref. If you want to have a consistent API, you might look for something else.

Option 3: Augment forwardRef #

This is actually my most favourite solution.

TypeScript has a feature called higher-order function type inference, that allows propagating free type parameters on to the outer function.

This sounds a lot like what we want to have with forwardRef to begin with, but for some reason it doesn’t work with our current typings. The reason is that higher-order function type inference only works on plain function types. the function declarations inside forwardRef also add properties for defaultProps, etc. Relics from the class component days. Things you might not want to use anyway.

So without the additional properties, it should be possible to use higher-order function type inference!

And hey! We are using TypeScript, we have the possibility to redeclare and redefine global module, namespace and interface declarations on our own. Declaration merging is a powerful tool, and we’re going to make use of it.

// Redecalare forwardRef
declare module "react" {
function forwardRef<T, P = {}>(
render: (props: P, ref: React.Ref<T>) => React.ReactElement | null
): (props: P & React.RefAttributes<T>) => React.ReactElement | null;
}


// Just write your components like you're used to!

type ClickableListProps<T> = {
items: T[];
onSelect: (item: T) => void;
};
function ClickableListInner<T>(
props: ClickableListProps<T>,
ref: React.ForwardedRef<HTMLUListElement>
) {
return (
<ul ref={ref}>
{props.items.map((item, i) => (
<li key={i}>
<button onClick={(el) => props.onSelect(item)}>Select</button>
{item}
</li>
))}
</ul>
);
}

export const ClickableList = React.forwardRef(ClickableListInner);

The nice thing about this solution is that you write regular JavaScript again, and work exclusively on a type level. Also, redeclarations are module-scoped. No interference with any forwardRef calls from other modules!

Credits #

This article comes from a discussion with Tom Heller as we had a case like this in our component library. While we came up with option 1, the assertion on our own, we did some digging to see if there are more options. This StackOverflow discussion – especially the feedback from User ford04 brought up new perspectives. Big shout-out to them!

I also put up a Codesandbox where you can try out all the solutions on your own.

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