Javascript: Functions

We will begin to cover D3 next week, and critical to understanding D3 is how functions work in Javascript. There are a number of nuances to functions that are necessary to review.

Declarations and Expressions

Take a look at the following two function definitions for computing the length of a 2D vector:

function length(x,y)  {
	return Math.sqrt(x*x+y*y);
function(x,y)  {
	return Math.sqrt(x*x+y*y);

Can you spot the difference?

Indeed there is: the former is what is known as a function definition and the latter a function expression. A function definition is probably what you are most familiar with in other programming languages. We declare it, and once declared, we can access it by name. However, how can we access the function expression? It has no name! What to do?

A function defined by an expression is anonymous: it has no name. What we can do, however, is assign the function to a variable:

var my_length = function(x,y)  {
	return Math.sqrt(x*x+y*y);

By assigning my_length to the function, note that the function is not executed. We can only execute functions with (). Thus, you can view my_length as carrying around the anonymous function. We can invoke this function by treating my_length as any other function:

var my_x = 4, my_y = 5;

Importantly, in Javascript, functions are objects. Therefore, we can assign a function to a variable, like any other object.

Example: Built-in Javascript functions

The ability to assign a function to a variable is quite powerful, and is heavily used in Javascript (and D3!). Let us consider some examples. We will look at methods associated with the Array object in Javascript: sorting, mapping, and filtering.


Let’s suppose we define the following Array of objects:

var arr = [1,3,2,5,6];

The method sort is a built-in function of an Array object - it defaults to sorting strings (whether the data are strings or not). You may call it directly on arr to sort the list in ascending order:

arr.sort() // [1,2,3,5,6]

Simple enough. Now let us suppose we have the following Array of objects:

var arr = [ {'MPG':30,'Origin':'USA'}, {'MPG':25,'Origin':'Europe'}, {'MPG':45,'Origin':'Japan'} ];

Let’s suppose we wanted to sort by MPG. We cannot simply call sort as before! We need to tell sort how to compare 2 items. Luckily, what we can do is pass a function to sort!

function comparator(a,b)  {
   return a.MPG-b.MPG;
arr.sort(comparator) // [{'MPG':25,'Origin':'Europe'}, {'MPG':30,'Origin':'USA'}, {'MPG':45,'Origin':'Japan'}]

Under the hood, the function passed in to sort is assigned to a parameter. Note that comparator, however, is never explicitly called. Within sort, comparator will be invoked as necessary in order to properly sort the objects. The parameter in sort that is assigned the function is thus treated as an expression.

In the above, we actually treated a named function as an expression. We do not need to do this, however, and instead directly pass in an anonymous function when we call sort:

arr.sort(function(a,b)  {
   return a.MPG-b.MPG;

The same type of operation is performed here: the anonymous function is assigned to the parameter for this function.


Let us continue with the arr array of car data as above. Suppose we wanted to multiply the MPG of each object by a factor of 2, and just return this result. We could always create a loop to perform this operation, but we can also use the built-in method map:

var arr_2 =  {
   return 2*d.MPG;
// returns [60,50,90]

Here, the map method accepts a function that will be used when iterating over each object, and then return an array that results from applying map to each object.


Let us consider one more example. Suppose for the arr array we would like to remove objects that have a MPG less than 28. We can use the built-in filter method for this purpose:

var arr_3 = arr.filter(function(d)  {
   return d.MPG >= 28;
// returns [{'MPG':30,'Origin':'USA'}, {'MPG':45,'Origin':'Japan'}]

Here again, filter accepts a functions that will be used when iterating over each object, and invoked on each object to determine if it should be kept or not in the output array.

Scope, Functions within Functions

Another important feature of Javascript is the ability to define functions inside of functions. Let’s consider the following example:

var x_base = 2;
function my_scale()  {
   function apply_identity_scale(x1)  {
      return x_base+x1;
   return apply_identity_scale;

Question: can we directly call apply_identity_scale outside of my_scale?

No! It is not within scope. We can, however, call my_scale, which in turn, calls apply_identity_scale.

Scope refers to what variables/functions may be accessed. We say that my_scale is the parent function of apply_identity_scale. A given function has access to all variables/functions within its parent function, and all ancestors – including the global scope, or the main entry point from which the code is ran. This is how x_base (global scope) is accessible from within apply_identity_scale.


Now consider the following:

function my_scale(x)  {
   function apply_shift_scale(x1)  {
      return x+x1;
   return apply_shift_scale;

shift_scale_1 = my_scale(10);
shift_scale_2 = my_scale(20);

When we call function my_scale, it returns another function, but one that has not been executed. From here, we can call shift_scale_1(10) and shift_scale_2(10) and this will return 20 and 30, respectively. This might seem odd: what is happening to the variable x? You might think that after the first function call (e.g. my_scale(10)), x is destroyed. However, due to the presence of the inner function, all variables / functions within the scope of my_scale persist, and all of this information is bound to the inner function. Hence, shift_scale_1 and shift_scale_2 have unique x values, that we do not have direct access to in the global scope.

This is known as a closure: a function that references, and retains, bindings from the local scope. It is useful to think of this in terms of the environment in which the function is created, rather than the environment in which the function is called.

A powerful feature about closures, frequently employed in D3, is that we can associate functions with the returned inner function. Since functions are objects, we can assign a property to a function. Due to the closure, these properties have access to variables / functions in the outer scope as well:

function my_scale(x)  {
   var domain = [0,1];

   var the_scale = function(x1)  {
      return x+x1;

   the_scale.set_domain = function(d_min,d_max)  {
      domain[0] = d_min;
      domain[1] = d_max;
   the_scale.update_x = function(new_x)  {
      x = new_x;
   the_scale.print_domain = function()  {

   return the_scale;

shift_scale = my_scale(10);
shift_scale.print_domain(); // prints 0,10

A couple notes:

The Arrow

An alternative syntax for defining an anonymous function is by using the arrow. Recall the sort example:

arr.sort(function(a,b)  {
   return a.MPG-b.MPG;

We can rewrite this as the following:

arr.sort((a,b) => {
   return a.MPG-b.MPG;

For single-line functions we can be even more succinct:

arr.sort((a,b) => a.MPG-b.MPG)

Are there any differences between the arrow and the traditional function expression? Yes. But we will return to these differences later in the semester, when they become relevant.