Style guides are great for showing programmers, new and old, the proper usage of a language. Guides cover many facets of a language and can often be too much for new programmers.

Airbnb, the online marketplace for housing rentals, has a high quality and ‘mostly reasonable’ style guide for JavaScript, a language used for web development.

This “Explain Like I’m 50” (ELI50) series will act as a plain English companion-guide to the Airbnb style guide, because good design principles shouldn’t be out of anyone’s reach.

Each post will cover a section of the style guide and will explain terminology, techniques, and the reason behind the rules.

What the heck is ESLint and JSCS?

In these posts you’ll often see links labeled with ESLint and JSCS. These are two popular linting programs, which check for errors, style mistakes, and bad practices.If you’re doing anything more than trivial programming you should be using a linter. For JavaScript I recommend ESLint.

Section 1: Types

1.1 Primitives: When you access a primitive type you work directly on its value.

In JavaScript a data type is a way of storing information. A primitive type is the most basic form of this.

  • string: Words. Some languages use a data type for individual characters and another for strings of characters. For simplicity, JavaScript only has strings.

  • number: Many languages have different data types for different kinds of numbers. They might have one for integers, large numbers, or numbers with decimals. JavaScript has only one type of number, the 64 bit floating point number. To learn more about it read this w3schools guide on JavaScript Numbers.

  • boolean: A boolean can only hold a value of either True or False only.

  • undefined: It often makes sense to declare a variable without setting its value. To show that the variable is empty,JavaScriptgives it the placeholder value of undefined.

  • null: Like undefined for pointers. Pointers are explained below. If you create a pointer without pointing it anywhere then it’s given the value null as a placeholder.

  • symbol: A new primitive that’s added in the latest release of JavaScript (ES6) which you can read more about from this Keith Cirkel article.

What the heck is a pointer?

Think of a pointer like a house address. Instead of building an all new house, which can be expensive, I give you the address to the original. Now if you want to use the kitchen, read the books in the study, or use other functions of the house you can. However, if someone makes a change, then everyone who has that address will see them. If we make a copy of the house instead (with a different address) we could change one without affecting the other.

1.2 Complex: When you access a complex type you work on a reference to its value.

What the heck is a reference?

When you work with any of the following types you are working with reference to their values. This is often indistinguishable from working with their values directly but trouble can arises when you try to make a copies. Remember the house analogy from earlier? If you try to make a copy like this:

let copyHouse = myHouse;

you aren’t creating a whole new house like you might expect. Instead you are giving the ‘address’ from before another name. Now, if you try to add a room to copyHouse it will be in myHouse too because they’re the same house.

  • object: An object is a data type that contains information and methods for accessing that information.
  • array: An array is a numbered list. In JavaScript, as well as most other languages, arrays are 0 indexed meaning that the first object in an array has the number 0 instead of the number 1.
  • function: A function is a way of storing instructions for the computer.

Why Should I Care?

It’s important to have a clear understanding of how you access values with primitive and complex types. Say I have two variables and I set one equal to the other. If they are both primitives and I later change one of them then the other doesn’t change. The two variables aren’t linked in any way.

On the other hand if the first variable was an array, a complex type, and I set my second variable equal to the first, JavaScript doesn’t make a copy of the array. Instead it uses a pointer as we discussed earlier to point to the place in memory that the array exists in. Now if I change the value in one of the variables, since they are both looking at the same place in memory, they both will have their values changed.

This is an important concept to grasp because it’s often the cause of strange behavior in complex programs.

Next Up: References

In the next post I’ll explain why you should avoid using var to declare variables.

If you enjoyed this post, are excited about this series, have a criticism, or want to say hi, leave a post in the comments section.