What are higher order functions?

When working on some filtering and sorting functionality, there is something wished I would have learned much earlier in my career. Before that point I didn’t really understand what higher order functions were or why it would be useful to return a function from another function. So I hope that this might help someone find out about this a bit sooner than I did.

Why would you return a function from a functioin. Or rather what does this even do, and why is it useful:

const someFunction = (prop1) => (prop2) => {
    ...
}

Problem:

Working with the array methods filter and sort I quickly hit a wall where I wanted to pass custom arguments into my sorting function. But when you try:

const someFunction = (item, customProp) => {
    ...
}

someArray.filter(someFunction(???, 'custom arg'));

that doesn’t work because you are actually caling the function someFunction when you are adding the () at the end. The method needs a function reference.

So the function needs to look like this:

const someFunction = (item) => {
    ...
}

someArray.filter(someFunction);

or inline:

someArray.filter( (item) => {
    ...
})

But doing it that way means that you can’t really pass any othe parameters to the filter function.

In my usecase I wanted to add an option to filter objects based on different props.

You would be able to use .bind(), but in my opinion that is harder to understand and harder to maintain with multiple people on the team.

Solutoin:

The solution for me were functions that return other functoins.

If we look back at what we actually need to pass to the filter method, its a function that will be passed one prop, being the individual item in the array.

So why not make the return statement of our sorting function exactly that:

const someFunctioin = (customProp) => {
    return (item) => {
        // do something with the custom prop and item here
        ...
    }
}

or with a bit cleaner syntax:

const someFunction = (customProp) => (item) => {
    // do something with the custom prop and item here
    ...
}

with this we can access the customProp from inside the returned funcition. And because what we are returning is actually a function refference, as far as the filter or sort methods are concerned, we are just passiing it a function to sort.

So the final code I came up with:

const byProp = (searchTerm, propName) => element => {
    if (element[propName] === undefined) {
        throw new Error(`The prop "${propName}" doesn't exist`);
    }

    return searchTerm === element[propName];
};

And with it II am now able to use this function for filtering objects based on the contents of one of their props.

/*
 * filter an array named people for the ones that have
 * a prop called "name" with the value of "Harry"
 */
people.filter( byProp( "Harry", "name" ) );

One Reply to “What are higher order functions?”

  1. Rita Best says:

    Nice explanation! Thanks for sharing 😁

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