Growing Functions in JavaScript

There are two more or less natural ways for functions to be introduced into programs.

The first is that you find yourself writing similar code multiple times. You’d prefer not to do that. Having more code means more space for mis­takes to hide and more material to read for people trying to understand the program. So you take the repeated functionality, find a good name for it, and put it into a function.

The second way is that you find you need some functionality that you haven’t written yet and that sounds like it deserves its own function. You’ll start by naming the function, and then you’ll write its body. You might even start writing code that uses the function before you actually define the function itself.

How difficult it is to find a good name for a function is a good indica­tion of how clear a concept it is that you’re trying to wrap. Let’s go through an example.

We want to write a program that prints two numbers: the numbers of cows and chickens on a farm, with the words Cows and Chickens after them and zeros padded before both numbers so that they are always three digits long.

007 Cows

011 Chickens

This asks for a function of two arguments—the number of cows and the number of chickens. Let’s get coding.

function printFarmInventory(cows, chickens) {

let cowString = String(cows);

while (cowString.length < 3) {

cowString = “0” + cowString;


console.log(‘${cowString} Cows’);

let chickenString = String(chickens);

while (chickenString.length < 3) {

chickenString = “0” + chickenString;


console.log(‘${chickenString} Chickens’);


printFarmInventory(7, 11);

Writing .length after a string expression will give us the length of that string. Thus, the while loops keep adding zeros in front of the number strings until they are at least three characters long.

Mission accomplished! Butjust as we are about to send the farmer the code (along with a hefty invoice), she calls and tells us she’s also started keeping pigs, and couldn’t we please extend the software to also print pigs?

We sure can. Butjust as we’re in the process of copying and pasting those four lines one more time, we stop and reconsider. There has to be a better way. Here’s a first attempt:

function printZeroPaddedWithLabel(number, label) {

let numberString = String(number);

while (numberString.length < 3) {

numberString = “0” + numberString;


console.log(‘${numberString} ${label}’);


function printFarmInventory(cows, chickens, pigs) {

printZeroPaddedWithLabel(cows, “Cows”);

printZeroPaddedWithLabel(chickens, “Chickens”);

printZeroPaddedWithLabel(pigs, “Pigs”);


printFarmInventory(7, 11, 3);

It works! But that name, printZeroPaddedWithLabel, is a little awkward. It conflates three things—printing, zero-padding, and adding a label—into a single function.

Instead of lifting out the repeated part of our program wholesale, let’s try to pick out a single concept.

function zeroPad(number, width) {

let string = String(number);

while (string.length < width) {

string = “0” + string;


return string;


function printFarmInventory(cows, chickens, pigs) {

console.log(‘${zeroPad(cows, 3)} Cows’);

console.log(‘${zeroPad(chickens, 3)} Chickens’);

console.log(‘${zeroPad(pigs, 3)} Pigs’);


printFarmInventory(7, 16, 3);

A function with a nice, obvious name like zeroPad makes it easier for someone who reads the code to figure out what it does. And such a function is useful in more situations than just this specific program. For example, you could use it to help print nicely aligned tables of numbers.

How smart and versatile should our function be? We could write any­thing, from a terribly simple function that can only pad a number to be three characters wide to a complicated generalized number-formatting sys­tem that handles fractional numbers, negative numbers, alignment of deci­mal dots, padding with different characters, and so on.

A useful principle is to not add cleverness unless you are absolutely sure you’re going to need it. It can be tempting to write general “frameworks” for every bit of functionality you come across. Resist that urge. You won’t get any real work done—you’ll just be writing code that you never use.

Source: Haverbeke Marijn (2018), Eloquent JavaScript: A Modern Introduction to Programming,

No Starch Press; 3rd edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *