Doug Stephen Doug Stephen - 15 days ago 6
Javascript Question

What are the benefits to using anonymous functions instead of named functions for callbacks and paramaters in JavaScript event code?

I'm new-ish to JavaScript. I understand many of the concepts of the language, I've been reading up on the prototype inheritance model, and I'm whetting my whistle with more and more interactive front-end stuff. It's an interesting language, but I'm always a bit turned off by the callback spaghetti that is typical of many non-trivial interaction models.

Something that has always seemed strange to me is that in spite of the readability nightmare that is a nest of JavaScript nested callbacks, the one thing that I very rarely see in many examples and tutorials is the use of predefined named functions as callback arguments. I'm a Java programmer by day, and discarding the stereotypical jabs about Enterprise-y names for units of code one of the things I've come to enjoy about working in a language with a strong selection of featureful IDE's is that using meaningful, if long, names can make the intent and meaning of code much clearer without making it more difficult to actually be productive. So why not use the same approach when writing JavaScript code?

Giving it thought, I can come up with arguments that are both for and against this idea, but my naivety and newness to the language impairs me from reaching any conclusions as to why this would be good at a technical level.

Pros:




  • Flexibility. An asynchronous function with a callback paramater could be reached by one of many different code paths and it could be harried to have to write a named function to account for every single possible edge case.

  • Speed. It plays heavily in to the hacker mentality. Bolt things on to it until it works.

  • Everyone else is doing it

  • Smaller file sizes, even if trivially so, but every bit counts on the web.

  • Simpler AST? I would assume that anonymous functions are generated at runtime and so the JIT won't muck about with mapping the name to instructions, but I'm just guessing at this point.

  • Quicker dispatching? Not sure about this one either. Guessing again.



Cons:




  • It's hideous and unreadable

  • It adds to the confusion when you're nested nuts deep in a swamp of callbacks (which, to be fair, probably means you're writing poorly constructed code to begin with, but it's quite common).

  • For someone without a functional background it can be a bizarre concept to grok



With so many modern browsers showing the ability to execute JavaScript code much faster than before, I'm failing to see how any trivial sort of performance gain one might get out using anonymous callbacks would be a necessity. It seems that, if you are in a situation where using a named function is feasible (predictable behavior and path of execution) then there would be no reason not to.

So are there any technical reasons or gotchas that I'm not aware of that makes this practice so commonplace for a reason?

Answer

I use anonymous functions for three reasons:

  1. If no name is needed because the function is only ever called in one place, then why add a name to whatever namespace you're in.
  2. Anonymous functions are declared inline and inline functions have advantages in that they can access variables in the parent scopes. Yes, you can put a name on an anonymous function, but that's usually pointless if it's declared inline. So inline has a significant advantage and if you're doing inline, there's little reason to put a name on it.
  3. The code seems more self-contained and readable when handlers are defined right inside the code that's calling them. You can read the code in almost sequential fashion rather than having to go find the function with that name.

I do try to avoid deep nesting of anonymous functions because that can be hairy to understand and read. Usually when that happens, there's a better way to structure the code (sometimes with a loop, sometimes with a data table, etc...) and named functions isn't usually the solution there either.

I guess I'd add that if a callback starts to get more than about 15-20 lines long and it doesn't need direct access to variables in the parent scope, I would be tempted to give it a name and break it out into it's own named function declared elsewhere. There is definitely a readability point here where a non-trivial function that gets long is just more maintainable if it's put in its own named unit. But, most callbacks I end up with are not that long and I find it more readable to keep them inline.

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