Ryan Kennedy Ryan Kennedy - 1 year ago 67
Javascript Question

Can a pure function return a Symbol?

This may border on philosophical, but I thought it would be the right place to ask.

Suppose I have a function that creates a list of IDs. These identifiers are only used internally to the application, so it is acceptable to use ES2015


My problem is that, technically, when you ask for a Symbol, I'd imagine the JS runtime creates a unique identifier (random number? memory address? unsure) which, to prevent collisions, would require accessing global state. The reason I'm unsure is because of that word, "technically". I'm not sure (again, from a philosophical standpoint) if this ought to be enough to break the mathematical abstraction that the API presents.

tl;dr: here's an example--

function sentinelToSymbol(x) {
if (x === -1) return Symbol();
return x;

Is this function pure?

Answer Source

Not really, no, but it might not actually matter.

On the surface, (foo) => Symbol(foo) appears pure. While the runtime may do some operations with side effects, you will never see them, even if you call Symbol() at the same time with the same parameters. However, calling Symbol with the same arguments will never return the same value, which is one of the main criteria (#2, below).

From the MDN page:

Note that Symbol("foo") does not coerce the string "foo" into a symbol. It creates a new symbol each time:

Symbol("foo") === Symbol("foo"); // false

Looking solely at side effects, (foo) => Symbol(foo) is pure (above the runtime).

However, a pure function must meet more criteria. From Wikipedia:

Purely functional functions (or expressions) have no side effects (memory or I/O). This means that pure functions have several useful properties, many of which can be used to optimize the code:

  • If the result of a pure expression is not used, it can be removed without affecting other expressions.
  • If a pure function is called with arguments that cause no side-effects, the result is constant with respect to that argument list (sometimes called referential transparency), i.e. if the pure function is again called with the same arguments, the same result will be returned (this can enable caching optimizations such as memoization).
  • If there is no data dependency between two pure expressions, then their order can be reversed, or they can be performed in parallel and they cannot interfere with one another (in other terms, the evaluation of any pure expression is thread-safe).
  • If the entire language does not allow side-effects, then any evaluation strategy can be used; this gives the compiler freedom to reorder or combine the evaluation of expressions in a program (for example, using deforestation).

You could argue the preface to that list rules out everything in JavaScript, since any operation could result in memory being allocated, internal structures updated, etc. In the strictest possible interpretation, JS is never pure. That's not very interesting or useful, so...

This function meets criteria #1. Disregarding the result, (foo) => Symbol(foo) and (foo) => () are identical to any outside observer.

Criteria #2 gives us more trouble. Given bar = (foo) => Symbol(foo), bar('xyz') !== bar('xyz'), so Symbol does not meet that requirement at all. You are guaranteed to get a unique instance back every time you call Symbol.

Moving on, criteria #3 causes no problems. You can call Symbol from different threads without them conflicting (parallel) and it doesn't matter what order they are called in.

Finally, criteria #4 is more of a note than direct requirement, and is easily met (the JS runtimes shuffle everything around as they go).


  • strictly speaking, nothing in JS can be pure.
  • Symbol() is definitely not pure, thus the example is not either.
  • If all you care about is side effects rather than memoization, the example does meet those criteria.