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const is not always constant

Published August 2, 2019

const is one of the new variable types introduced with ES6 to replace var and all of its eccentricities. The oddities of var, its problems, and why we needed to replace it are beyond the scope of this writing. Instead, I want to focus on the oddities of const. Don’t get me wrong, const is my go-to variable type, but there are some things that may trip up beginning JavaScript developers.

const is short for constant. Whenever you write a variable that doesn’t need to change, you store it in a const variable. This is my default choice when declaring JavaScript variables; I only use let when absolutely necessary. I find it makes the code more understandable at first glance, and may catch unexpected issues before it’s too late. Most discussions of const stop at immutability, but that’s only a half-truth.

#Immutable Constants

With simple test cases, const definitely appears immutable.

const isMutable = false;
isMutable = !isMutable;
console.log(isMutable); //returns false

When assigning a boolean to a variable via const, it cannot be changed. In the example above, isMutable continues to be false, even though we tried to flip it to be true. Doing so, in fact, returns the following error: Uncaught TypeError: Assigned to constant variable.

const immutableString = 'Hahaha you cannot alter me.'
immutableString = immutableString.substring(2, 4);
console.log(immutableString); //returns 'Hahaha you cannot alter me.'

The const keyword also protects strings from being rewritten. In the above example, if you had used let, ha would be returned to the console. Because of const though, immutableString remains what it was when it was first declared, and returns the same Uncaught TypeError we saw previously.

const money = 1200;
money = money * 3;
console.log(money); //returns 1200

I hope by now you’re seeing a pattern and asking why I’m wasting time demonstrating what should be obvious. As you saw in the examples above, when you assign a number to a variable declared via const, you cannot update that variable.

If you only ever work with these primitive types, you may think anything declared with the const keyword is safe from being altered later in the code. That is not true.

#Mutable Constants

More advanced types tell a different story. In the example below, we have a simple array.

const fruit = ["Apple", "Banana"]
console.log(fruit) //returns ["Apple", "Banana", "Blueberry"]

Given the examples above, you might think the array should not have been updated. fruit is supposed to be immutable, isn’t it? We declared it as a constant. That’s not what we see, though. We are still able to manipulate the array, even after declaring it with const.

const person = {
  name: 'Johnny',
  age: 5,
  isOnlyChild: true,
person.isOnlyChild = false;
console.log(person) //returns {name: 'Johnny', age: 5, isOnlyChild: false}

Objects behave similar to arrays: even when declared as a constant, you may update parts of that object later in the code.

#What’s Happening?

What’s actually happening here is that the const keyword creates a reference to a value. When the value of that reference is immutable (as we saw with the boolean, string, and integer), it cannot be changed in any way. When the value of that reference is mutable (such as the array and object examples), the contents may be changed, but the reference itself cannot.

Let’s go back to the object example. We declared a person named Johnny, and then updated isOnlyChild. That’s fine because we haven’t changed the reference, only the contents inside the reference value. If instead we tried to change the person entirely, it would fail.

person = {
  name: 'Waylon',
  age: 21,
  isOnlyChild: false,
//returns Uncaught TypeError: Assigned to constant variable.

This may seem small and nit-picky, but is fundamental to understanding the language. Hopefully this has helped illuminate some of the darker parts of JavaScript. Happy coding!