Dmitri Pavlutin
Thoughts on Frontend development

5 Differences Between Arrow and Regular Functions

In JavaScript, you can define functions in many ways.

The first, usual way, is by using the function keyword:

// Function declaration
function greet(who) {
  return `Hello, ${who}!`;
}
// Function expression
const greet = function(who) {
  return `Hello, ${who}`;
}

The function declaration and function expression I’m going to reference as regular function.

The second way, available starting ES2015, is the arrow function syntax:

const greet = (who) => {
  return `Hello, ${who}!`;
}

While both the regular and arrow syntaxes define functions, when would you choose one instead of another? That’s a good question.

In this post, I’m going to show the main differences between the two, so you could choose the right syntax for your needs.

1. this value

1.1 Regular function

Inside of a regular JavaScript function, this value (aka the execution context) is dynamic.

The dynamic context means that the value of this depends on how the function is invoked. In JavaScript, there are 4 ways you can invoke a regular function.

During a simple invocation the value of this equals to the global object (or undefined if the function runs in strict mode):

function myFunction() {
  console.log(this);
}

// Simple invocation
myFunction(); // logs global object (window)

During a method invocation the value of this is the object owning the method:

const myObject = {
  method() {
    console.log(this);
  }
};
// Method invocation
myObject.method(); // logs myObject

During an indirect invocation using myFunc.call(thisVal, arg1, ..., argN) or myFunc.apply(thisVal, [arg1, ..., argN]) the value of this equals to the first argument:

function myFunction() {
  console.log(this);
}

const myContext = { value: 'A' };

myFunction.call(myContext);  // logs { value: 'A' }
myFunction.apply(myContext); // logs { value: 'A' }

During a constructor invocation using new keyword this equals to the newly created instance:

function MyFunction() {
  console.log(this);
}

new MyFunction(); // logs an instance of MyFunction

1.2 Arrow function

The behavior of this inside of an arrow function differs considerably from the regular function’s this behavior.

No matter how or where being executed, this value inside of an arrow function always equals this value from the outer function. In other words, the arrow function resolves this lexically. In another words, the arrow function doesn’t define its own execution context.

In the following example, myMethod() is an outer function of callback() arrow function:

const myObject = {
  myMethod(items) {
    console.log(this); // logs myObject    const callback = () => {
      console.log(this); // logs myObject    };
    items.forEach(callback);
  }
};

myObject.myMethod([1, 2, 3]); 

this value inside the arrow function callback() equals to this of the outer function myMethod().

this resolved lexically is one of the great features of arrow functions. When using callbacks inside methods you are sure the arrow function doesn’t define its own this: no more const self = this or callback.bind(this) workarounds.

Contraty to a regular function, the indirect invocation of an arrow function using myArrowFunc.call(thisVal) or myArrowFunc.apply(thisVal) doesn’t change the value of this: the context value is always resolved lexically.

2. Constructors

2.1 Regular function

As seen in the previous section, the regular function can easily construct objects.

For example, the Car() function creates instances of a car:

function Car(color) {
  this.color = color;
}

const redCar = new Car('red');
redCar instanceof Car; // => true

Car is a regular function, and when invoked with new keyword, it creates new instances of Car type.

2.2 Arrow function

A consequence of this resolved lexically is that an arrow function cannot be used as a constructor.

If you try to invoke an arrow function prefixed with new keyword, JavaScrip throws an error:

const Car = (color) => {
  this.color = color;
};

const redCar = new Car('red'); // TypeError: Car is not a constructor 

Invoking new Car('red'), where Car is an arrow function, throws TypeError: Car is not a constructor.

3. arguments object

3.1 Regular function

Inside the body of a regular function, arguments is a special array-like object containing the list of arguments with which the function has been invoked.

Let’s invoke myFunction function with 2 arguments:

function myFunction() {
  console.log(arguments);}

myFunction('a', 'b'); // logs { 0: 'a', 1: 'b'}

arguments array-like object contains the invocation arguments: 'a' and 'b'.

3.2 Arrow function

On the other side, no arguments special keyword is defined inside an arrow function.

Again (same as with this value), the arguments object is resolved lexically: the arrow function accesses arguments from the outer function.

Let’s try to access arguments inside of an arrow function:

function myRegularFunction() {
  const myArrowFunction = () => {    console.log(arguments);  }
  myArrowFunction('c', 'd');
}

myRegularFunction('a', 'b'); // logs { 0: 'a', 1: 'b' }

The arrow function myArrowFunction() is invoked with the arguments 'c', 'd'. Still, inside of its body, arguments object equals to the arguments of myRegularFunction() invocation: 'a', 'b'.

If you’d like to access the direct arguments of the arrow function, then you can use the rest parameters feature:

function myRegularFunction() {
  const myArrowFunction = (...args) => {    console.log(args);  }
  myArrowFunction('c', 'd');
}

myRegularFunction('a', 'b'); // logs { 0: 'c', 1: 'd' }

...args rest parameter collects the execution arguments of the arrow function: { 0: 'c', 1: 'd' }.

4. Implicit return

4.1 Regular function

Just use return expression statement to return a result from a function:

function myFunction() {
  return 42;
}

myFunction(); // => 42

If the return statement is missing, or there’s no expression after return statement, the regular function implicitely returns undefined:

function myEmptyFunction() {
  42;
}

function myEmptyFunction2() {
  42;
  return;
}

myEmptyFunction();  // => undefined
myEmptyFunction2(); // => undefined

4.2 Arrow function

You can return values from the arrow function the same way as from a regular function, but with one useful exception.

If the arrow function contains one expression, and you omit the function’s curly braces, then the expression is implicitely returned. These are the inline arrows function.

const increment = (num) => num + 1;

increment(41); // => 42

The increment() arrow consists of only one expression: num + 1. This expression is implicitly returned by the arrow function without the use of return keyword.

5. Methods

5.1 Regular function

The regular functions are the usual way to define methods on classes.

In the following class Hero, the method logName() is defined using a regular function:

class Hero {
  constructor(heroName) {
    this.heroName = heroName;
  }

  logName() {    console.log(this.heroName);  }}

const batman = new Hero('Batman');

Usually, the regular functions as methods are the way to go.

Sometimes you’d need to supply the method as a callback, for example to setTimeout() or an event listener. In such cases, you might encounter difficulties to access this value.

For example, let’s use use logName() method as a callback to setTimeout():

setTimeout(batman.logName, 1000);
// after 1 second logs "undefined"

After 1 second, undefined is logged to console. setTimeout() performs a simple invocation of logName (where this is the global object). That’s when the method is separated from the object.

Let’s bind this value manually to the right context:

setTimeout(batman.logName.bind(batman), 1000);
// after 1 second logs "Batman"

batman.logName.bind(batman) binds this value to batman instance. Now you’re sure that the method doesn’t lose the context.

Binding this manually requires boilerplate code, especially if you have lots of methods. There’s a better way: the arrow functions as a class field.

5.2 Arrow function

Thanks to Class fields proposal (at this moment at stage 3) you can use the arrow function as methods inside classes.

Now, in contrast with regular functions, the method defined using an arrow binds this lexically to the class instance.

Let’s use the arrow function as a field:

class Hero {
  constructor(heroName) {
    this.heroName = heroName;
  }

  logName = () => {    console.log(this.heroName);  }}

const batman = new Hero('Batman');

Now you can use batman.logName as a callback without any manual binding of this. The value of this inside logName() method is always the class instance:

setTimeout(batman.logName, 1000);
// after 1 second logs "Batman"

6. Summary

Understanding the differences between regular and arrow functions helps choose the right syntax for specific needs.

this value inside a regular function is dynamic and depends on the invocation. But this inside the arrow function is bound lexically and equals to this of the outer function.

arguments object inside the regular functions contains the list of arguments. The arrow function, on the opposite, doesn’t define arguments (but you can easily access the arrow function arguments using a rest parameter ...args).

If the arrow function has one expression, then the expression is returned implicitly, even without using the return keyword.

Last but not least, you can define methods using the arrow function syntax inside classes. Fat arrow methods bind this value to the class instance.

Anyhow the fat arrow method is invoked, this always equals to the class instance, which is useful when the methods are used as callbacks.

What other differences between arrow and regular functions do you know?

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About Dmitri Pavlutin

I'm a passionate software developer, tech writer and coach. My daily routine consists of (but not limited to) drinking coffee, coding, writing, coaching, overcoming boredom 😉.