4.4. More On Variables

The previous section covered creating, evaluating, and reassigning variables. This section will cover some additional, more nuanced topics related to variables.

4.4.1. Creating Constants With const

One of the key features of variables that we have discussed so far is their ability to change value. We can create a variable with one value, and then reassign it to another value.

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let programmingLanguage = "JavaScript";
programmingLanguage = "Python";

In some situations, we want to create variables that cannot change value. Many programming languages, including JavaScript, provide mechanisms for programmers to make variables that are constant.

For example, suppose that we are writing a to-do list web application, named "Get It Done!" The title of the application might appear in multiple places, such as the title bar and the main page header.

A to-do list web application with application name in the title bar and main header.

An example to-do list web application

We might store the name of our application in a variable so that it can be referenced anywhere we want to display the application name.

let appName = "Get It Done!";

This allows us to simply refer to the appName variable any time we want to use it throughout our application. If we change the name of the application, we only have to change one line of code, where the appName variable is initialized.

One problem with this approach is that an unwitting programmer might change the value of appName later in the code, leading to inconsistent references to the application name. In other words, the title bar and main page header could reference different names.

Using const rather than let to create a variable ensures that the value of the declared variable cannot be changed.

const appName = "Get It Done!";

Such an unchangeable variable is known as a constant, since its value is just that.

How does JavaScript prevent a programmer from changing the value of a constant? Let's find out. Try running the following code in an editor. What happens?

Example

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const appName = "Get It Done";
appName = "Best TODO application Ever!";

Console Output

TypeError: Assignment to constant variable.

As we've seen with other examples---such as trying to declare a variable twice, using incorrect syntax, or failing to enclose strings in quotes---JavaScript prevents undesired code from executing by throwing an error.

4.4.2. Naming Variables

4.4.2.1. Valid Variable Names

As you may have discovered already, not just any sequence of characters is a valid variable name. For example, if we try to declare a variable with a name containing a space, JavaScript complains.

Example

let application name;

Console Output

SyntaxError: Unexpected identifier

In this case, "identifier" is another term for variable name, so the error message is saying that the variable name is not valid, or is "unexpected".

JavaScript provides a broad set of rules for naming variables, but there is no reason to go beyond a few easy-to-remember guidelines:

  1. Use only the characters 0-9, a-z, A-Z, and underscore. In other words, do not use special characters or whitespace (space, tab, and so on).
  2. Do not start a variable name with a number.
  3. Avoid starting a variable name with an underscore. Doing so is a convention used by some JavaScript developers to mean something very specific about the variable, and should be avoided.
  4. Do not use keywords, which are words reserved by JavaScript for use by the language itself. We'll discuss these in detail in a moment.

Following these guidelines will prevent you from creating illegal variable names. While this is important, we should also strive to create good variable names.

4.4.2.2. Good Variable Names

Writing good code is about more than writing code that simply works and accomplishes the task at-hand. It is also about writing code that can be read, updated, and maintained as easily as possible. How to write code that achieves these goals is a theme we will return to again and again.

One of the primary ways that code can be written poorly is by using bad variable names. For example, consider the following program. While we haven't introduced each of the components used here, you should be able to come to a general understanding of the new components.

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let x = 5;
const y = 3.14;
let z = y * x ** 2;
console.log(z);

Understanding what this program is trying to do is not obvious, to say the least. The main problem is that the variable names x, y, and z are not descriptive. They don't tell us anything about what they represent, or how they will be used.

Variable names should be descriptive, providing context about the data they contain and how they will be used.

Let's look at an improved version of this program.

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let radiusOfCircle = 5;
const pi = 3.14;
let areaOfCircle = pi * radiusOfCircle ** 2;
console.log(areaOfCircle);

With improved variable names, it now becomes clear that the program is calculating the area of a circle of radius 5.

Tip

When considering program readability, think about whether or not your code will make sense to another programmer. It is not enough for code to be readable by only the programmer that originally wrote it.

4.4.2.3. Camel Case Variable Names

There is one more aspect of naming variables that you should be aware of, and that is conventions used by professional programmers. Conventions are not formal rules, but are informal practices adopted by a group.

Example

In the United States, it is common for two people to greet each other with a handshake. In other countries and cultures, such as some in east Asia, the conventional greeting is to bow.

Failing to follow a social convention is not a violation of the law, but is considered impolite nonetheless. It is a signal that you are not part of the group, or do not respect its norms.

There are a variety of types of conventions used by different groups of programmers. One common type of convention is that programmers that specialize in a specific language will adopt certain variable naming practices.

In JavaScript, most programmers use the camel case style, which stipulates that variable names consist of names or phrases that:

  • are joined together to omit spaces,
  • start with a lowercase letter, and
  • capitalize each internal word.

In the example from the previous section, the descriptor "area of circle" became the variable name areaOfCircle. This convention is called camel case because the capitalization of internal words is reminiscent of a camel's humps. Another common name for this convention is lower camel case, since names start with a lowercase letter.

Note

Different programming languages often have different variable-naming conventions. For example, in Python the convention is to use all lowercase letters and separate words with underscores, as in area_of_circle.

We will use the lower camel case convention throughout this course, and strongly encourage you to do so as well.

4.4.3. Keywords

Our last note on naming variables has to do with a collection of words that are reserved for use by the JavaScript language itself. Such words are called keywords, or reserved words.

Any word that is formally part of the JavaScript language syntax is a keyword. So far, we have seen only four keywords: let, const, var, and typeof.

Warning

While console and console.log may seem like keywords, they are actually slightly different things. They are entities (an object and a function, respectively) that are available by default in most JavaScript environments.

Attempting to use a keyword for anything other than it's intended use will result in an error. To see this, let's try to name a variable const.

Example

let const;

Console Output

let const
^^^^^

SyntaxError: Unexpected token const

Tip

Most code editors will highlight keywords in a different color than variables or other parts of your code. This serves as a visual cue that a given word is a keyword, and can help prevent mistakes.

We will not provide the full list of keywords at this time, but rather point them out as we learn about each of them. If you are curious, the full list is available at MDN.

4.4.4. Check Your Understanding

Question

Which is the best keyword for declaring a variable in most situations?

  1. var
  2. let
  3. const
  4. (no keyword)