JavaScript Christmas

Closures

A 4 minute read written by
Henrik Hermansen
04.12.2020

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Although I've been a professional developer for over seven years, there are still many programming terms I've yet to fully understand. I've heard the term "closures" many times, but I never really bothered to dive into the meaning of it. Maybe this is because I had a decent idea of what it was about, and I knew pretty well how to use it? It's about time I take the leap to figure this out, and finally get some closure.

Simple code

At first, I'd like to kick us off by going straight to some code.

function myFunc() {
  const value = 'Hello world';
  function alertValue() {
    alert(value);
  }
  alertValue();
}

myFunc();

To most developers this is pretty straightforward, especially if you've worked a bit with JavaScript. We create a function, inside of which we create a variable value and a function alertValue. This inner function will run alert(value), and we see this function is run right after it is created. Finally we run myFunc(), and we all sort of just know we will now get an alert box with the text "Hello world".

To me, having worked a fair bit with JavaScript, I kind of just take this for granted.

One step further

Before we start actually explaining closures, I'd like to take the previous code example one step further, to tickle your mind.

function myFunc() {
  const value = 'Hello world';
  function alertValue() {
    alert(value);
  }
  return alertValue;
}

const innerFunc = myFunc();
innerFunc();

This time our outer function doesn't run the inner function. Instead, the inner function is returned. Then we store it in a variable innerFunc, and only now do we run this function.

So this time we don't run the inner function until after the outer function is done executing. This may raise some questions. Does value still exist? Will we get an error or an empty alert, or will we still see the alert box with the text "Hello world"?

In my mind, I just know this still works. But how and why does it work? Supposedly, this is what closures is all about!

Function scope and lexical environment

To understand closures we must also understand the available scopes in JavaScript and what a lexical environment is.

The scopes that are the easiest to understand are the global and the local scopes. If we take a look at our previous code block, we have defined myFunc and innerFunc in the global scope. Then we have value and alertValue which are defined in the local scope of myFunc.

But we also have another scope to consider: the outer function's scope, the lexical environment. This means that when we are inside alertValue we can also access the lexical environment of our function, which is the local scope of myFunc.

To sum it up, the available scopes in a function are:

  • Local scope
  • Outer function's scope
  • Global scope

Scope chain

Let's stop and think for a minute. If a function's available scope is its local scope and its lexical environment, then what happens when we nest more functions?

function sum(a) {
  return function sum2(b) {
    return function sum3(c) {
      return function sum4(d){
        return a + b + c + d;
      }
    }
  }
}

console.log(sum(1)(2)(3)(4)); // Now what?

I just realized I might have given this one away in the topic, but let's break this down.

The scope of sum is its local scope, which contains a and the returned function sum2. The global scope is of course also available, but it always is, so let's not bother with that right now.

The scope of sum2 is its local scope, which contains b and the returned function sum3, but also its lexical environment, which is the scope of sum. So we can also access a and sum2 from within sum2.

The scope of sum3 is its local scope, which contains c and the returned function sum4, but also its lexical environment, which is the scope of sum2. So we can also access b and sum3, in addition to the lexical environment of sum2, which is the scope of sum. So we can also access a and sum2 from within sum3.

Phew! I'm not even going to try to explain the scope of sum4 in such detail. The point is that a function's scope includes its outer function's scope, and this results in a chain of function scopes.

This is also how recursion is possible. Like I said, the scope of sum2 contains sum2, so we are free to call or return sum2 from within sum2.

Closures

So now we understand what the lexical environment is. Hopefully you also knew already what a function is. So finally, it's time to reveal what a closure really is.

drumroll

A closure is a function which is enclosed with references to its lexical environment. In JavaScript, closures are created every time a function is created, at function creation time.

Wait, what? So all this time I thought I've just been making functions, I've actually been making closures? Well, yes!

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