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Recursion in JavaScript with ES6, destructuring and rest/spread

The latest ECMA standard for JavaScript (ECMAScript 6) makes JavaScript more readable by encouraging a more declarative style with functional constructs and new operators.

Table of Contents

Destructuring

One of my favourite ES6 features is destructuring. It allows you to extract data from one variable to another by using structure. For arrays this means for example:

var [first, second] = [1, 2, 3, 4];
// first: 1
// second: 2

There’s more you can do, like skip some members of the array on the right-hand side of the operation.

var [first, , third, fourth] = [1, 2, 3, 4];
// first: 1
// third: 3
// fourth: 4

This is actually quite easily back-ported to the equivalent ES5

var arr = [1, 2, 3, 4];
var first = arr[0];
var second = arr[1];
// etc ...

Rest

This is where ES6 features become more interesting. With destructuring we can also assign what is called the rest of the array. We indicate rest with the … notation.

var [first, ...notFirst] = [1, 2, 3, 4];
// first: 1
// notFirst: [ 2, 3, 4 ]

Naming conventions lead to code that is more akin to the following:

var [first, second, ...rest] = [1, 2, 3, 4];
// first: 1
// second: 2
// rest: [ 3, 4 ]

The rest operator has some interesting properties:

var [first, ...rest] = [1];
// first: 1
// rest: []

It always returns an array. Which means even in defensive JavaScript land, it’s ok to do things like check .length of rest without guards.

The equivalent in ES5 (and below) is to use theArray.slice function.

var arr = [1, 2, 3, 4];
var first = arr[0];
var rest = arr.slice(1);
// first: 1
// rest: [ 2, 3, 4 ]

Two things to note here:

  • the ES5 version is more verbose

  • the ES5 version is more imperative, we tell JavaScript how to do something instead of telling it what we want.

Now I also think that the structure-matching version (with rest) is more readable.

Parameter destructuring

We can use destructuring on the parameters of a function definition:

function something([first, ...rest]) {
  return {
    first: first,
    rest: rest
  };
}
var result = something([1, 2, 3]);
// result: { first: 1, rest: [ 2,3 ] }

Equivalent ES5:

function something(arr) {
  var first = arr[0];
  var rest = arr.slice(1);
  return {
    first: first,
    rest: rest
  };
}

Again it’s more verbose and more imperative.

Spread

Spread uses the same notation as rest: …. What it does is quite different.

var arr = [1, 2, 3];
var newArr = [...arr];
// newArr: [ 1, 2, 3]

ES5 equivalent:

var arr = [1, 2, 3];
var newArr = [].concat(arr);

Things to note, the contents of the array are copied. So newArr is not a reference to arr.

We can also do things like appending or prepending an array.

var arr = [1, 2, 3];

var withPrepend = [...arr, 3, 2, 1];
var withAppend = [3, 2, 1, ...arr];
// withPrepend: [ 1, 2, 3, 3, 2, 1]
// withAppend: [ 3, 2, 1, 1, 2, 3 ]

Functional Programming: lists & recursion

In functional programming when we run functions recursively over lists we like to model the list as a head and a tail.

The head is the first element of the list, the tail is the list composed of the list minus the head.

arr = [1, 2, 3];
// head(arr): 1
// tail(arr): [ 2, 3 ]

In ES6 we can do this just by naming the variable appropriately with destructuring and rest:

var [head, ...tail] = [1, 2, 3];
// head: 1
// tail: [ 2, 3 ]

We can also trivially implement the head and tail functions using ES6:

function head([head, ...tail]) {
  return head;
}
function tail([head, ...tail]) {
  return tail;
}
// or with arrow function syntax
var head = ([head, ...tail]) => head;
var tail = ([head, ...tail]) => tail;

(Tail) Recursion

We can implement functions that operate over arrays (or lists as they tend to be called in functional programming) using parameter destructuring* *and recursion.

For example, map can be implemented in the following manner:

Map is a function that takes a list and a function and returns a list containing the result of a function application to each element of the list.

function map([head, ...tail], fn) {
  if (head === undefined && !tail.length) return [];
  if (tail.length === 0) {
    return [fn(head)];
  }
  return [fn(head)].concat(map(tail, fn));
}

The tail.length === 0 checks whether there is still a tail to recurse over. Otherwise, the recursion stops there.

This is not necessarily the most efficient version of map both in terms of memory usage and speed but it’s a good illustration of ES6.

We can further simplify it by replacing concat with the spread operator and using a single return statement with a ternary operator.

Very ES6 map

Our ES6 recursive/destructuring map can be simplified to:

function map([head, ...tail], fn) {
  if (head === undefined && !tail.length) return [];
  return tail.length ? [fn(head), ...map(tail, fn)] : [fn(head)];
}

Or if we want to abuse ES6 and allow ourselves to forget that we’re actually doing JavaScript:

const map = ([head, ...tail], fn) =>
  head !== undefined && tail.length
    ? tail.length
      ? [fn(head), ...map(tail, fn)]
      : [fn(head)]
    : [];

ES5 equivalent

function map(arr, fn) {
  var head = arr[0];
  var tail = arr.slice(1);
  if (head === undefined && tail.length === 0) return [];
  if (tail.length === 0) {
    return [fn(head)];
  }
  return [].concat(fn(head), map(tail, fn));
}

All the features add up and while recursive map in ES6 is essentially a one-liner, in ES5 it’s a clunky, long, hard to read function.

Reimplementing list manipulation functions

Now you can have a go at reimplementing filter, reduce and join using the above techniques.

Solutions below the fold :).

ES6 allows us to write code in a functional style more tersely and effectively.

Recursive list operations in ES6 with rest/spread and destructuring

Filter implementation using ES6, destructuring and recursion:

function filter([head, ...tail], fn) {
  const newHead = fn(head) ? [head] : [];
  return tail.length ? [...newHead, ...filter(tail, fn)] : newHead;
}

Reduce implementation using ES6, destructuring and recursion:

function reduce([head, ...tail], fn, initial) {
  if (head === undefined && tail.length === 0) return initial;
  if (!initial) {
    const [newHead, ...newTail] = tail;
    return reduce(newTail, fn, fn(head, newHead));
  }
  return tail.length
    ? reduce(tail, fn, fn(initial, head))
    : [fn(initial, head)];
}

Join implementation using ES6, destructuring and recursion:

function join([head, ...tail], separator = ",") {
  if (head === undefined && !tail.length) return "";
  return tail.length ? head + separator + join(tail, separator) : head;
}

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Author

Hugo Di Francesco

A Software Engineer and recovering Frontend Engineer who is big on Node.js, queues and Vue(s). He shares practical JavaScript tips for the developer who wants to get things done on Code with Hugo. University College London (UCL), MEng Mathematical Computation Graduate.

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