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Functional JavaScript using Lo-Dash, an underscore.js alternative

7.1.2013 | 8 minutes of reading time

Functional programming concepts and functional programming itself are currently all over the news. Languages such as Clojure are leading the way by providing interoperability and state of the art CASE tools. With existing libraries and frameworks, an alternative approach to state management and concurrency as well as growing groups of advocates, you could think that this is yet again the answer to all your problems. Many languages are adopting some functional concepts like functions as first class values, type inference and others to please developers and (hopefully) improve the languages’ expressiveness.

In my few adventures with Clojure I was reasonably happy to try something new and to solve problems differently, but I am uncertain whether this programming paradigm really is a good choice for the diverse set of attitudes which you find in the software field.

Maybe one should try a different approach. Instead of going full hog functional, apply it to a few problems in your language of choice first (provided your language has a reasonable support for functional programming, e.g., not Java below version eight). In this blog post I describe a simple experiment in JavaScript using Lo-Dash .

The Task

The task is something relatively simple and commonly done in the web development field: Fill a table with information. For the purpose of this article we are not going to use a templating or data binding facility, but instead we interact with the raw DOM interface directly. As a starting point we assume that we get data in the following form from an unspecified data source.

1var Person = function Person(name, email, occupation) {
2 = _.uniqueId();
3 = name;
4 = email;
5  this.occupation = occupation;
8var data = [
9  new Person("Tom Mason", "", "History professor"),
10  new Person("Sheldon Cooper", "", "Theoretical physicist"),
11  new Person("Luke Skywalker", "", "Saviour of the universe"),
12  new Person("Barney Stinson", "", "?")

As you can see we define a simple class called Person with four properties: an ID, name, email and the person’s occupation. Nothing fancy here except for Lo-Dash’s utility function uniqueId which returns a unique number (sequentially incremented). The data variable is an array of four persons that will be used as input for the generation of the table rows. As a foundation for the generation we assume that the following HTML structure is available in the document’s body.

1<table id="people">
2  <thead>
3    <tr>
4      <th>Id</th>
5      <th>Name</th>
6      <th>Email</th>
7      <th>Occupation</th>
8    </tr>
9  </thead>
10  <tbody></tbody>

Imperative Approach

Let us first start with the imperative solution to see the desired result and to completely understand the task. I am assuming here that you have an ECMAScript 5 compatible browser that at least supports the Array.prototype.forEach function. This function considerably improves readability when it comes to iteration over arrays. If you do not have such a browser or are in a situation in which you need to support older browsers (which is likely since Internet Explorer < v9 has no support), you may want to use the polyfill which is available through the MDN .

1// Try this on CodePen:
2var output = document.querySelector("#people tbody");
3data.forEach(function(person) {
4  var row = document.createElement("tr");
6  ["id", "name", "email", "occupation"].forEach(function(prop) {
7    var td = document.createElement("td");
8    td.appendChild(document.createTextNode(person[prop]));
9    row.appendChild(td);
10  });
12  output.appendChild(row);
1_(data).map(function(person) {
2  // we take care of this in a few seconds
3  return document.createElement("tr");
4}).reduce(append, document.querySelector("#people tbody"));

Step by step: We start a function call chain using Lo-Dash’s _ (underscore) function. As part of this call chain we call the aforementioned map function which will transform every Person instance to a table row node. Once the map function call returns, we have a collection of table row nodes which can be added to the DOM. We do this using the reduce function. reduce reduces a collection of values to a single value by taking a function as its parameter which describes how two values can be combined. The reduce function continues to reduce values until only one value is left. As parameters to reduce we use append, a function which appends a child node to a parent node, and an initial value. The initial value is the table’s tbody node.

2 * Appends the child node to the parent node (both DOM nodes).
3 *
4 * @param {Node} parent The parent node
5 * @param {Node} child The child node
6 * @returns {Node} The given parent node.
7 */
8var append = function(parent, child) {
9  parent.appendChild(child);
10  return parent;

As you can see the append function is pretty straightforward. It simply appends the child to the parent and returns the parent node. It is very important that the parent node is returned, as only this enables a usage with the reduce function.

Generating Columns

The table is now getting a few additional rows when executing the code that we currently have. Now let us fill these rows with some data! For each column we need to get the value, create a Text node, put it in a td Element and append this element to the row. Even though you might not yet understand how the following code actually generates the columns, you can see how well each step translates to a line in the program.

1// Try this on CodePen:
2_(data).map(function(person) {
3  return _(["id", "name", "email", "occupation"])  // for each column
4    .map(prop(person))                             // get the property's value
5    .map(textNode)                                 // create a Text node
6    .map(wrap("td"))                               // put it in a td Element
7    .reduce(append, document.createElement("tr")); // append to row
8}).reduce(append, document.querySelector("#people tbody"));

As you can see map and reduce are really powerful functions that can be combined in various ways. While we previously used map to transform each Person in a single step, we are now using map in a multi-step process! As so often with functional programming, you need to build up a set of utility functions first before you become really productive. Once you have them though, you only need to find ways to combine them in order to achieve what you want.

One such new function is prop. prop generates a function through which an object’s properties can be accessed. The interesting and powerful aspect here is that the object is bound to the function and therefore the object does not need to be passed around. Also see the example in the JsDoc if you find yourself having troubles understanding the purpose of this function.

2 * Create a new property accessor function.
3 *
4 * @param {Object} obj The object from which properties should be accessed.
5 * @returns {Function} The accessor function. Basically a single-argument
6 *   function which returns the value of the property. The property name is
7 *   denoted by the generated function's first argument.
8 *
9 * @example
10 * var tom = { name: "Tom Mason" };
11 * var tomAccessor = prop(tom);
12 * tomAccessor("name") // results in "Tom Mason"
13 */
14var prop = function(obj) {
15  return function(name) {
16    return obj[name];
17  };

After this mapping we will therefore have a collection of property values, i.e., the actual data which should be displayed. Text cannot be directly added to a DOM node through a function like setValue(myText), but instead needs to be added through a specific node type – the Text node. The next transformation step therefore transforms the collection of Strings into a collection of Text nodes with the help of the textNode function.

2 * @function
3 * Create a new DOM Text node.
4 *
5 * @param {String} content Textual content.
6 * @returns {Text} A DOM Text node with the content set.
7 */
8var textNode = document.createTextNode.bind(document);

Text nodes are commonly generated through document.createTextNode and we could directly pass the createTextNode function to map, but this would not work as the identifier this would not point to the document inside the createTextNode function as I explained earlier in my blog post on JavaScript function contexts . As a result, we need to create a new function which enforces a specific function context. Luckily, ECMAScript 5 introduced a new function called Function.prototype.bind which does exactly this: enforce a context. You may want to check out the documentation on the MDN for more information and a polyfill.

The last utility function is wrap. We use it to wrap a node in a given node type. Specifically, we wrap the Text nodes in columns, i.e., td nodes.

2 * Create a new function which wraps the child node in a new node of the
3 * given type.
4 *
5 * @param {String} elementType Type type of the wrapping node, e.g., "div".
6 * @returns {Function} A function with a single argument. Pass a DOM Node to
7 * wrapped and it will be wrapped in a new DOM node of the given elementType.
8 *
9 * @example
10 * var divWrapper = wrap("div");
11 * var p = document.createElement("p");
12 * divWrapper(p); // results in "<div><p></p></div>"
13 */
14var wrap = function(elementType) {
15  return function(child) {
16    var parent = document.createElement(elementType);
17    parent.appendChild(child);
18    return parent;
19  };

The wrap function is pretty straightforward: Whenever the generated function is called, it will wrap its first argument in a new node of the given type. Where in our case the given type is “td” and the given node is a Text node. When the map call finishes we will thus have a collection of td nodes which are then added to a tr node just like we added tr nodes to the tbody node, i.e., using the reduce function.


Finished the article? Good work! The mentioned principles and techniques are certainly no basics and require a different mindset. Functional programming is different and not quite intuitive when you have a strong object-oriented background.

As for the example, of course this is not a good use for functional programming as you can do this in fewer lines of code and a more maintainable way with data binding or a templating engine, but I hope to have shown you how versatile functional programming can be. Especially once you have built up a nice tool belt with functions like append, wrap and many more, you can combine those in interesting ways.

If you made some experiences with functional programming with or without JavaScript, please let me know through the comments. I would be very happy to hear about the good and bad parts.

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