Mutates or not? We need both versions but there is a problem.

The problem

In Javascript, arrays are without a doubt one of the most broadly used data structures. That’s why we need as many built-in methods as possible to manipulate the arrays the way we want. Javascript evolves and almost every new ES specification brings us some new array methods making it easier and easier to work with arrays. One of my favorite new ones is Array.prototype.at which makes getting the last element of an array so simple!

Instead of

const lastElement = array[array.length - 1]

we can do:

const lastElement = array.at(-1)

The problem with array methods is well known to every developer. The thing is, some array methods mutate the original array but some don’t. I challenge you to guess if Array.prototype.slice mutates or not? And what about Array.prototype.splice? I can check it every single time I use one of those methods. And even if I use other methods that I am almost sure to mutate, I still check it just to be sure. If someone doesn’t know Does it mutate, it’s a great resource to reference array methods.

But having to remember whether the array method mutates or not it’s not the only drawback. What if there is a need to use one of the mutating methods like Array.prototype.sort but without changing the original array? We need to copy the original array and then apply the method to a cloned array. And what if we want to apply an immutable method like Array.prototype.filter but instead of creating a new array we want to filter the existing one?

Luckily there is some noise about that in the Javascript world. So let’s take a look at one of the proposals.

The proposal

TC39 committee came up with an interesting proposal that introduces immutable versions of mutable methods. Change Array by copy.

And being more specific we talk about reverse, sort, splice and at.

    Array.prototype.withReversed() -> Array
    Array.prototype.withSorted(compareFn) -> Array
    Array.prototype.withSpliced(start, deleteCount, ...items) -> Array
    Array.prototype.withAt(index, value) -> Array

Now, let’s take a look at some examples and see how these immutable versions behave.

const sequence = [1, 2, 3];
sequence.withReversed(); // => [3, 2, 1]
sequence; // => [1, 2, 3]

As we can see, applying withReversed methods return a new reversed array, without modifying the original one. By that, with this method, we no longer have to clone the original array manually.

Same principle applies to withSored and withAt:

const outOfOrder = [3, 1, 2];
outOfOrder.withSorted(); // => [1, 2, 3]
outOfOrder; // => [3, 1, 2]

const correctionNeeded = [1, 1, 3];
correctionNeeded.withAt(1, 2); // => [1, 2, 3]
correctionNeeded; // => [1, 1, 3]

Both of them return new arrays without modifying original ones.

Everything looks clear and these kinds of immutable methods would be useful. So, what’s the problem?

The problem with the proposal

Well, it’s not a problem with the proposal itself. But if we have immutable versions of mutable methods it would be great to have mutable versions of immutable ones?

For example what if there is a need to filter array out of specific items without creating a new array and allocate a new memory block?

By now we have to do it that way:

const numbers = [24, 41, 12, 7, 4, 50];
const greaterThanTen = numbers.filter((number) => {
    return number > 10;
})

By doing that I have an original array and a new filtered one. I can imagine specific needs when a new array is not necessary at all.

So how to approach that kind of problem? How to name those mutable methods?

Solution?

If we would take Change Array by copy proposal by a starting point we would have a naming pattern like that:

    // Reverse
    Array.prototype.withReversed()

    // Sort
    Array.prototype.withSorted()

    // Splice
    Array.prototype.withSpliced()

    // withAt
    Array.prototype.withAt()

In this case with modifier makes mutable method immutable.

So how to approach the immutable method to make them mutable? What kind of modifier or keyword would be appropriate? First of all, we have to consider if this pattern (withSomething) is intuitive? To be honest for me, it’s not the clearest way to communicate that this method is immutable. Are there any other ideas? Sure. Let’s take a look at these examples:

Idea 1

Immutable -> Mutable

// Filter
const numbers = [24, 41, 12, 7, 4, 50];
numbers.filter((number) => {
    return number > 10;
}) // mutates

// Flat
const array = [1, 2, [3, 4]];
array.flat() //mutates

Mutable -> Immutable

// Filter
const numbers = [24, 41, 12, 7, 4, 50];
const numbersReversed = numbers.reversed(); // doesn't mutate

const numbers = [1, 30, 4, 21, 100000];
const numbersSorted = numbers.sorted(); // doesn't mutate

Explanation

This concept assumes that applying the method in imperative form like sort, filter, reverse, etc would always modify the original array. It’s closer to natural language because we can read it as “Let’s take numbers array and sort it”. On the other hand applying method in pasts forms like sorted, filtered, reversed would return a new copy of the original array. We can read it as “Let’s return a new array with sorted items based on numbers array. For me it’s almost perfect and intuitive. Where is the catch? Because it’s always a catch isn’t it?

This approach has a really serious drawback and its… Backwards compatibility.

This approach assumes that the behavior of existing methods should be changed. By doing that it would break all existing applications so unfortunately, it won’t happen… ever. Let’s find another solution.

Idea 2

This idea introduces copy modifier making it easier and more natural

const numbers = [24, 41, 12, 7, 4, 50];
const numbersReversed = numbers.copy().reverse(); // doesn't mutate

const numbers = [1, 30, 4, 21, 100000];
const numbersSorted = numbers.copy().sorted(); // doesn't mutate

It’s not exactly a new immutable method name but rather a chainable array modifier that acts as a copy helper. So it’s not exactly the ultimate solution but would be nice to have in future versions of JS anyways. The benefit of this copy helper method is that it doesn’t break anything because the naming of array methods would stay the same.

Conclusion

We have analyzed three concepts of making it more clear if the method is mutable or immutable. As we saw it’s not easy because it’s easy because it is either unintuitive or breaks backward compatibility or is a half-hearted solution. I’m sure people would have more interesting ideas on how to solve this problem and I’m really curious about the final shape of this proposal.


© Copyright 2021 Michał Kuncio