Javascript Class Basics

3 minute read

TIL about the javascript class keyword introduced in ES6, and dug in to some of the nuances behind it.

The class keyword was introduced with ES6, and with it came a whole bunch of confusion about what it actually brought to the language.

ES6 classes are used throughout React applications while creating new Components, so a firm understanding of how they function is critical to any aspiring React developer.

Basic Classes

The class keyword is a clearer, easier to read syntax for creating objects and dealing with inheritance in javascript. It does NOT introduce an object-oriented inheritance model to the language: it is syntactic sugar around preexisting prototype-based inheritance patterns.

The class keyword can be used in place of traditional function ‘class’ definitions used pre ES6.

For example, the following two definitions for a Base class are behaviorally identical.

// traditional class constructor && prototype method definition
function BaseA(name) {
    this.name = name;
}
BaseA.prototype.greet = function () {
    return `hello ${this.name}!`;
};
const baseA = new BaseA(name);
// ES6 class keyword definition of the same class above.
class BaseB {
    constructor(name) {
        this.name = name;
    }
    greet() {
        return `hello ${this.name}`;
    }
}
const baseB = new BaseB(name);

Notice that both are still invoked with the new keyword to create an instance of the class. The class keyword supports the use of an explicit constructor function, which should contain code to create and initialize a class instance.

Also of note, in BaseB I am using ES6 method-definition shorthand. This is sugar around the traditional this.fnName = function() {} when attaching methods to objects.

Inheritance

Inheritance in javascript can be difficult to implement correctly: see my past blog post on implementing an inheritance relationship in javascript to see what I mean.

The class keyword provides syntactic sugar for setting up a prototypal-inheritance relationship between two classes in javascript. To state it again, the class keyword does NOT introduce a new object-oriented form of inheritance to the language, even though the syntax looks similar to what you might see in a traditional OO language like Java or C++. Prototypes are still at the core of inheritance-like behavior in javascript.

class ChildB extends BaseB {
    constructor(name, age) {
        super(name);
        this.age = age;
    }
    greet() {
        return `${super.greet()} you are ${this.age} years old`;
    }
}

The extends keyword is used to connect a class to a parent via the prototype chain.

The super keyword allows you to call methods on the super-class prototype. This allows you to accomplish partial overriding behavior in your sub-classes (like in greet above). In a constructor, super must be called before you reference this for the first time.

For comparison, the following code achieves the same behavior as ChildB above, but using traditional prototype means instead of class sugar:

function ChildA (name, age) {
    BaseA.call(this, name); // STEP 1: call parent constructor
    this.age = age;
    this.greet = function () {
        return `${BaseA.prototype.greet.call(this)} you are ${this.age} years old`;
    };
}

// STEP 2: Connect ChildA to prototype chain of BaseA.
ChildA.prototype = Object.create(BaseA.prototype);
// STEP 3: Reset constructor to ChildA's constructor.
ChildA.prototype.constructor = ChildA;

Whew… that’s pretty confusing.

I always forget steps 2 and 3: connecting the new class prototype to the parent’s proto chain, and resetting the constructor after doing this. Using extends with classes defined with the class keyword takes care of this for you.

Also note how super is no longer available, and instead we need to directly call methods on the prototype of the parent. This couples the child implementation more tightly with the class that it extends, creating more points of maintenance if the parent winds up changing.

Static methods

It is also possible to declare a method as static in a class:

class ChildB extends BaseB {
    // ...same as above
    static goodbye() {
        return `see you later!`
    }
}

ChildB.goodbye() // returns `see you later!`

Static methods do not depend on a particular instance of a class to execute, and are called directly off of the class name itself. The goodbye() method above does not depend on any properties that are available on a class instance (i.e. it does not reference anything off of this that is defined in the constructor) so it can be declared as static.

Static methods can reference other static methods using this.

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