Const, Let, and Var

August 2017 ยท 5 minute read

JavaScript ES6

One of the very first things I noticed when I took up JavaScript ECMAScript 2015, or more commonly known as ES6, were the new types of variable declarations. Whereas I had previously only used var to declare a variable, I could now declare variables using let and const.

But how are let and const different from var? And in what situations are they each appropriate to use?

Scope

Each of the the three variable declarations deal with different levels of scope: global, function, and block level scopes. const is used on the global scope level, let is used on the function scope level, and var is used on the block scope level.

Global Level Scope

On the global level, variables are accessible anywhere inside the script, including inside any child scopes like functions and blocks. These variables are usually the ones declared at the very top of a script.

var number = 3; //  Global level
console.log(number) // Returns 3

Function Level Scope

On the function level, variables are accessible inside of functions and their child scopes but not anywhere outside of the function. You would not be able to access a function level scope on the global level.

function addOne() {
  var number = 3; // Function level
  if (number = 3 ) {
    number = number + 1;
    console.log(number); // Returns 4
  }
  console.log(number); // Returns 4
}
console.log(number); // Returns undefined

As you can see in this example, the variable number is defined on both the function level and the child block level but not on the global level.

Block Level Scope

The block level is essentially anything in between two curly braces { block level scope }. Variables declared inside of the block level with var are not only accessible inside of this block.

function addOne() {
  var number = 3; // Function level
  if (number = 3 ) {
    sum = number + 1; // Block level
    console.log(sum); // Returns 4
  }
  console.log(sum) // Returns 4
}
console.log(sum) // Returns undefined

In this example, we stored the value of number + 1 in a new variable called sum on the block level yet it’s still somehow accessible on the function level outside of the block. This is because JavaScript does not have block level scope with var.

Var

The original variable declaration in JavaScript was var. With it, you could assign a value to a variable to store it and use later. However, as we saw above, var is weak. var cannot give us block level scope.

So this is where we turn to ES6’s new let and const signals.

Let

The way to create block level scope in JavaScript is with let. With let, variables declared within statement or expression will only be defined inside of that block and not its parent function.

var apple = "apple";
var orange = "orange";

if (apple != orange) {
  var apple = "crispy";
  let orange = "juicy";

  console.log(apple); // Returns crispy
  console.log(orange); // Returns juicy
}

console.log(apple); // Returns crispy
console.log(orange); // Returns orange

In this example, we see that we changed the values of both fruits inside of the if statement using var for apple and let for orange. When we used var, the value for apple changed outside of the block level also. However, when we used let for orange the value of orange changed only inside of the if statement but remained what it was initially outside of that statement.

For this reason, let is the best signal for declaring variables that should have a block level scope and/or are frequently reassigned, like in loops and algorithms.

Const

Like let but unlike var, const can have block level scope. However, unlike let, variables cannot be reassigned and recycled throughout your code. For this reason, const variables must be assigned a value when initialized whereas let and var variables can be initialized without value.

const fruit; // Attempt to intialize const variable without value will throw and error
const fruit = "apples";
const fruit = "oranges"; // Attempt to reassign const variable will throw an error

Variable declared with const can still be mutable. This means that array values and object keys and object values are not protected and can still be changed.

// Declare an object with two key value pairs using const
const person = {
  firstName: "Jon",
  lastName: "Snow"
};

// Attempt to reassign const variable by adding new key will throw an error
const person = {
  firstName: "Jon",
  lastName: "Snow",
  title: "King in the North"
};

// Change key value in object
person.lastName = "Targaryen";
console.log(person.lastName); // Returns Targaryen
console.log(person); // Returns { firstName: "Jon", lastName: "Targaryen" }

// Add key value in object
person.title = "King in the North";
console.log(person); // Returns { firstName: "Jon", lastName: "Targaryen", title: "King in the North" }

Most frequently, I have seen const used when declared as global variables at the beginning of a script. However, const is almost always the ideal way to declare a variable inside of functions. More often than not, you will run into errors or bugs caused by a variable being changed somewhere in the code without you realizing.

It’s best to use const to prevent variable reassignments and use let inside of loops and statements where you want to reuse the same variable name.