Zach Snoek
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Zach Snoek's Blog

JavaScript Quirks, Vol. 1: The typeof operator

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Zach Snoek
·Jun 25, 2022·

3 min read

JavaScript is a language full of wonderful quirks. In this post, I want to explore a few quirks about the typeof operator.

The typeof operator

As a reminder, JavaScript has eight types:

  • Undefined
  • Null
  • Boolean
  • String
  • Number
  • BigInt
  • Symbol
  • Object

JavaScript provides us with a handy typeof operator to check the type of a value. It returns a string indicating the type of the operand. For example, checking the type of 0 returns "number":

typeof 0 === 'number'; // true

1. typeof null

For every type in the list above, we’d expect to check a value of the type and get something appropriate back. For example, typeof false should return "boolean", and so on:

typeof false === 'boolean'; // true
typeof {} === 'object'; // true
typeof undefined === 'undefined' // true

However, when we check the type of null, we see that null's type is apparently not null:

typeof null === 'null'; // false
typeof null === 'object'; // true

Because of a bug in the first version of JavaScript, typeof null returns 'object' instead of 'null'. This is confusing because null is indeed a primitive value, not an object, and its type is null.

This means two things for the developer:

  1. Checking if a value is null with typeof won’t work; use strict equality instead
  2. typeof === 'object' checks can unexpectedly accept null values; ensure that the value is also not equal to null

2. typeof functions

Interestingly, typeof returns a string that doesn’t correspond to one of the eight types listed above: "function".

typeof (() => {}) === 'function'; // true

This is somewhat confusing because there is no function type; a function is just a callable object. However, it can sometimes be useful to differentiate between a function and some other value because function calling has its own syntax. Consider the following contrived example:

function sayWord(word) {
    console.log(typeof word === 'function' ? word() : word);
}

sayWord('Zach');

sayWord(() => 'Computing the string with a function');

3. typeof undeclared variables

How would you check if a variable is undeclared? You might think that you could check to see if its value is undefined, but that throws a ReferenceError:

zach === undefined; // Uncaught ReferenceError: zach is not defined

typeof works for this though; it returns undefined if the operand is not declared:

typeof zach === 'undefined'; // true

So, typeof returns undefined if the operand’s value is undefined or if the operand is undeclared.

4. typeof in the temporal dead zone

The temporal dead zone (TDZ) exists for variables declared with let and const. It starts at the beginning of the variable’s enclosing block and ends when it is declared. Accessing a variable in its TDZ throws a ReferenceError:

{
    // start of TDZ

    console.log(zach); // Uncaught ReferenceError: Cannot access 'zach' before initialization

    const zach = 'zach'; // end of TDZ
}

Similarly, checking the typeof a variable in its TDZ throws a ReferenceError:

{
    console.log(typeof zach === 'string'); // Uncaught ReferenceError: Cannot access 'zach' before initialization

    const zach = 'zach';
}

Dr. Axel Rauschmayer explains that zach isn’t undeclared when we try to check its type, it’s uninitialized. Thus, “you should be aware of its existence, but aren’t. Therefore, being warned seems desirable.”

The interesting bit here is that before the addition of block-scoped variables in ES6, typeof always returned a string regardless of the operand. Now, it can throw an error in this one case.

You can learn more about let, const, and the TDZ in my article about hoisting.

Further reading

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