Everything about functions Parameters, return values, local variables

Reading from Javascript & jQuery: The Missing Manual - Functions (pp 100 - 114).
For more interactive examples, check the W3Schools pages: Functions.
For a more in-depth discussion of functions and using objects with functions, read Chapter 4 of Head First HTML5 Programming.

Functions in Mathematics

As you know, in Mathematics, functions are an important concept that refer to the relation between a set of inputs and a set of outputs, so that every input has exactly one output. A well-known example is the function that relates every real number x to its square x2. If the output is named y and the input x, one can write their relation as y = f(x), which is read as: y is a function of x. The Wikipedia image below shows a schematic representation for such a relation.

function schematic
Figure 1: A function as a black box: input x to get as output f(x). Source: Wikipedia

A function can be represented through a formula (usually in math), an algorithm (in programming), or other ways (tables, graphs, etc., not relevant to us). How a function is represented is not always important, what matters is that such a representation allows us to map every input to an output, over and over again.

We can see this principle in the Pythagorean theorem shown below. If we want to calculate the hypotenuse of many right triangles, we can write a computer program to do that, by exploiting the fact that the hypotenuse is a function of the two triangle sides (catheti).

pythagorean theorem
Figure 2: Representing the Pythagorean theorem as a function.

The Javascript function we can write to calculate the hypotenuse and the calculation results for the three triangles shown in the image are given below. Open the console in your browser and then click the "Execute it" button.

Anatomy of a function

The following image from the Head First HTML5 book summarizes what goes into a function definition.

anatomy of a function
Figure 3: All parts that you can find in a function definition.

Notice how the variables level and score in the function definition addScore are called parameters. However, when we invoke the function like in:

addScore(3, 10) or addScore(6, 20)

the values are called arguments. Here is an important lesson:

You define a function with parameters, you call a function with arguments.

Other important things to remember:

  1. A function can have zero parameters. You still have to use the parentheses to define it.
  2. A function might have no return statements. In this case we say that the function returns undefined.

In the diagram below, we show all possible ways in which a function can be defined. As you can imagine, input corresponds to parameters and output to returned values

function diagrams
Figure 4: The four different ways of defining a function:
A) function has parameters and return value
B) function has no parameters, but has return value
C) function has parameters and no return value (but produces side effects)
D) function has no parameters and no return value (but produces side effects)

After discussing methods as a special kind of functions, we will look at a group of functions to categorize them in one of the four groups shown in the graphics.

Methods are Functions too

From what we have seen so far, we can say that a function is a block of code that has a name, that requires zero or more parameters, may return a value or not, and can be invoked an unlimited number of times taking as many arguments as needed. Based on this definition, what do you think of the following code examples?


var today = new Date();

var myClasses = ["JPN101", "ECON101", "CS110"];


All the methods indeed conform to the function description: they have a name, they may return a value, and we can invoke them several times with different arguments. (Since these are methods defined by Javascript, we don't see the parameters, but the fact that we can call them with arguments, indicates that there are parameters in their definition)

Syntactically, we can tell functions from methods apart because a method is usually invoked using the dot notation:

objectName.methodName(optional parameters);
Without such a notation, the Javascript interpreter will complain that it doesn't recognize the method name. Also, it will not make sense to use these methods without an object. What is the thing we would like to sort, if we simply write sort()? By providing the object name, we are also providing the context (object state) within which the method will operate (either by changing this state, or querying it).

Some Javascript built-in functions are methods

We emphasized the word usually above, because there are special cases in Javascript where methods are invoked without the dot notation. This is done to simplify writing code. In fact, many of the built-in functions we have been using so far, such as: alert, prompt, confirm are actually methods of the object window. The object window represents the open window on the browser, where our HTML code is being rendered. You can verify that alert, etc. are methods by typing on the console: window.alert(). To read more about this object, refer to the Window object notes on W3Schools.

Global vs. Local Variables

We have seen variables in many contexts so far. Here is a summary:

var age = prompt("How old are you?");         // at the program level

for (var i = 0; i < 5; i++) {alert("i="+i);}; // inside a for loop

function addScore(level, score) { };          // as parameters in a function definition

function displayDate(){
  var today = new Date();                     //inside the body of a function
  document.querySelector("#date").innerHTML = today.toLocaleDateString();

No matter where in the program we define them, variables work always in the same way: they reserve some place in the computer memory where they store their value and provide a name in able to refer to that value later on. However, the location in the program where we define a variable influences its visibility by other parts of the program. In fact we will be distinugishing betwen global variables and local variables in the following way:

If a variable is defined outside a function, it's GLOBAL, if it's declared inside a function, it's LOCAL.

Thus, in the examples shown above, the variables age and i are global, because they are outside any function. While the variables level, score, and today are local.

Knowing where a variable is defined allows us to know its scope, that is, where the variable is visible or not. Local variables are visible (or exist) only within the body of the function where they were defined. Global variables are visible everywhere in the program. What this means is that while we can refer to global variables everywhere by their name and expect to get their value back, we will be able to refer to local variables only within the body of their function. Attempts to refer to them from outside the function will result in the Javascript error message: ReferenceError: variableName is not defined.

To get a more in-depth understanding for the differences between global and local variables, read pages 123-127 of the recommended reading.

Examples of Functions/Methods

In the following, there is a variety of function and method calls/definitions. Using the four groups of functions depicted in Figure 4, assign each of these functions/methods to one of the four groups.

var age = prompt("How old are you?"); // prompt

alert("You are " + age + " old.");      // alert

function displayDate(){               // displayDate
  var today = new Date();                     
  document.querySelector("#date").innerHTML = today.toLocaleDateString();

document.querySelector("#date");       // querySelector

Math.random();                         // random

function isEligibleToVote(age, citizenship){  //isEligibleToVote
   if (age < 18) {return false;}
   else {
      if (citizenship == "US") {return true;}
      else {return false;}

function allowInBar(){                // allowInBar
   var birthdate = prompt("Enter your birthdate (e.g., 03/29/1994)");
   var age = Math.floor((new Date() - new Date(birthdate))/(365*24*3600*1000));
   if (age < 21)  {return false;}
   else {return true;}