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What you should know about JavaScript arrays

Let me make a bold statement: for loops are often useless and make the code hard to read. When it comes to iterating over an array, finding elements, sorting it or whatever you want, there’s probably an array method out there that you can use.

However, some of them are still not that known and used despite their usefulness. I’ll do the hard work for you by giving you the useful methods. Consider this article as your guide to JavaScript arrays methods.

Note: Before starting, you have to know one thing: I’m biased by functional programming. So I tend to use methods that don’t mutate directly the original array. That way, I avoid side effects. I’m not saying you should never mutate an array, but at least know that some methods do it and that it can leads to side-effects. Side-effects can lead to unwanted changes and unwanted changes lead to bugs!

Knowing that, let’s get started.

The essentials

There are four things that you’ll want to know when working with arrays: map, filter, reduce and the spread operator. They are powerful and useful.

map

You’ll use that one a lot. Basically, every time you need to modify the elements of your array, think of using map.

It takes one parameter: a function that is called on every element of the array. And it returns a new array, so no side effects here.

const numbers = [1, 2, 3, 4]

const numbersPlusOne = numbers.map(n => n + 1) // Adds one to every element
console.log(numbersPlusOne) // [2, 3, 4, 5]

You can also create a new array that keeps only one particular property of an object:

const allActivities = [
  { title: 'My activity', coordinates: [50.123, 3.291] },
  { title: 'Another activity', coordinates: [1.238, 4.292] },
  // etc.
]

const allCoordinates = allActivities.map(activity => activity.coordinates)
console.log(allCoordinates) // [[50.123, 3.291], [1.238, 4.292]]

So, remember, whenever you need to transform an array, think of using map.

filter

The name of this method is pretty explicit here: Use it when you want to filter an array.

Just like map does, it takes a function as its only parameter that is called on every element of the array. This function needs to return a boolean:

  • true if you want to keep the element in the array
  • false if you don’t want to keep it.

Then you’ll have a shiny new array with the elements you wanted to keep.

For example, you can keep just the odd numbers in an array:

const numbers = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
const oddNumbers = numbers.filter(n => n % 2 !== 0)
console.log(oddNumbers) // [1, 3, 5]

Or you can also use it to remove a particular item in an array:

const participants = [
  { id: 'a3f47', username: 'john' },
  { id: 'fek28', username: 'mary' },
  { id: 'n3j44', username: 'sam' },
]

function removeParticipant(participants, id) {
  return participants.filter(participant => participant.id !== id)
}

console.log(removeParticipant(participants, 'a3f47')) //  [{ id: 'fek28', username: 'mary' }, { id: 'n3j44', username: 'sam' }];

reduce

Most difficult method to understand in my opinion. But once you master it, it’s crazy how many things you can do with it.

Basically, reduce is about taking an array of values and combine them into one value. It takes two parameters, a callback function which is our reducer and an optional initial value (which is the first item of the array by default). The reducer itself takes four parameters:

  • The accumulator: it accumulates the returned values in your reducer.
  • The current value of the array
  • The current index
  • The array reduce was called upon

Most of the time, you’ll just use the first two parameters: the accumulator and the current value.

Let’s not be too theoretical. Here is the most common example of reduce:

const numbers = [37, 12, 28, 4, 9]
const total = numbers.reduce((total, n) => total + n)
console.log(total) // 90

On the first iteration, the accumulator, which is total, takes an initial value of 37. The returned value is 37 + n and n is equal to 12, thus 49. On the second iteration, the the accumulator is equal to 49, the returned value is 49 + 28 = 77. And so on and so forth.

reduce is so powerful that you can actually use it to build a lot of array methods like map or filter:

const map = (arr, fn) => {
  return arr.reduce((mappedArr, element) => {
    return [...mappedArr, fn(element)]
  }, [])
}

console.log(map([1, 2, 3, 4], n => n + 1)) // [2, 3, 4, 5]

const filter = (arr, fn) => {
  return arr.reduce((filteredArr, element) => {
    return fn(element) ? [...filteredArr, element] : [...filteredArr]
  }, [])
}

console.log(filter([1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6], n => n % 2 === 0)) // [1, 3, 5]

Basically, we gave reduce an initial value of []: our accumulator. For map, we ran a function whose result is added at then end of the accumulator thanks to the spread operator (we’ll see it just after, don’t worry.). For filter, it’s nearly the same except that we ran the filter function on the element. If it returns true, we return the previous array, otherwise we add the element to the end of the array.

Let’s see a more advanced example: deeply flatten an array, that is to say transforming something like [1, 2, 3, [4, [[[5, [6, 7]]]], 8]] into [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8].

function flatDeep(arr) {
  return arr.reduce((flattenArray, element) => {
    return Array.isArray(element)
      ? [...flattenArray, ...flatDeep(element)]
      : [...flattenArray, element]
  }, [])
}

console.log(flatDeep([1, 2, 3, [4, [[[5, [6, 7]]]], 8]])) // [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8]

This example is similar to map except that here we make use of recursion. I won’t explain it because it’s outside the scope of this article. However, if you want to know more about recursion, check out this excellent resource.

Spread operator (ES2015)

I agree, this is not a method. However, using the spread operator can help you achieve many things when working with arrays. In fact, you can use it to expand the values of an array in another array. From that point, you can make a copy of an array or concatenate multiple arrays.

const numbers = [1, 2, 3]
const numbersCopy = [...numbers]
console.log(numbersCopy) // [1, 2, 3]

const otherNumbers = [4, 5, 6]
const numbersConcatenated = [...numbers, ...otherNumbers]
console.log(numbersConcatenated) // [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

Caution: the spread operator does a shallow copy of the original array. But what does shallow mean? 🤔

Well, a shallow copy will duplicate the original elements as little as possible. So when you have an array containing numbers, strings or booleans (primitive types), there’s no problem, values are really duplicated. However, this is not the same for objects or arrays. Only the reference to the original value will be copied! Therefore, if you make a shallow copy of an array containing an object and that you modify the object in the copied array, it will also modify the object in the original array since they have the same reference.

const arr = ['foo', 42, { name: 'Thomas' }]
let copy = [...arr]

copy[0] = 'bar'

console.log(arr) // No mutations: ["foo", 42, { name: "Thomas" }]
console.log(copy) // ["bar", 42, { name: "Thomas" }]

copy[2].name = 'Hello'

console.log(arr) // /!\ MUTATION ["foo", 42, { name: "Hello" }]
console.log(copy) // ["bar", 42, { name: "Hello" }]

So, if you want to make a “real” copy of an array that contains object or arrays, you can use a lodash function like cloneDeep. But don’t feel like you have to do such a thing. The goal here is to be aware of how things work under the hood.

Good to know

You’fll find below other methods that are good to know and that can help you with some problems such as searching an element in an array, taking a portion of an array and more.

includes (ES2016)

Have you ever used indexOf to know if something is in an array or not? Awful way to do it right? Luckily for us, includes does that for us. Give a parameter to includes and it will search in the array if the element exists.

const sports = ['football', 'archery', 'judo']
const hasFootball = sports.includes('football')
console.log(hasFootball) // true

concat

The concat method can be used to merge two or more arrays.

const numbers = [1, 2, 3]
const otherNumbers = [4, 5, 6]

const numbersConcatenated = numbers.concat(otherNumbers)
console.log(numbersConcatenated) // [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

// You can merge as many arrays as you want
function concatAll(arr, ...arrays) {
  return arr.concat(...arrays)
}

console.log(concatAll([1, 2, 3], [4, 5, 6], [7, 8, 9], [10, 11, 12])) // [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12]

forEach

Whenever you want to execute something for each array element, you’ll want to use forEach. It takes a function as a parameter that takes itself three parameters: the current value, the index and the array:

const numbers = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]
numbers.forEach(console.log)
// 1 0 [ 1, 2, 3 ]
// 2 1 [ 1, 2, 3 ]
// 3 2 [ 1, 2, 3 ]

indexOf

It is used to return the first index at which a given element can be found in the array. indexOf was also widely used to check whether an element is in an array or not. To be honest, I don’t use it that much as of today.

const sports = ['football', 'archery', 'judo']

const judoIndex = sports.indexOf('judo')
console.log(judoIndex) // 2

find

The find method is quite similar to the filter method. You have to provide it a function that test each array’s element. However, find stops testing elements as soons as it finds one that passes the test. Not filter. filter will iterate over the whole array no matter what.

const users = [
  { id: 'af35', name: 'john' },
  { id: '6gbe', name: 'mary' },
  { id: '932j', name: 'gary' },
]

const user = users.find(user => user.id === '6gbe')
console.log(user) // { id: '6gbe', name: 'mary' }

So use filter when you want to… well filter your whole array. Use find when you’re sure you’re searching for a unique element in your array.

findIndex

It’s exactly the same as the find method except that it returns the index of the first element found instead of the element directly.

const users = [
  { id: 'af35', name: 'john' },
  { id: '6gbe', name: 'mary' },
  { id: '932j', name: 'gary' },
]

const user = users.findIndex(user => user.id === '6gbe')
console.log(user) // 1

You may think that findIndex is the same as indexOf. Well… not exactly. The first parameter of indexOf is a primitive value (boolean, number, string, null, undefined or a symbol) while the first parameter of findIndex is a callback function.

So when you need to search the index of an element in an array of primitive values, you can use indexOf. If you have more complex elements such as objects, use findIndex.

slice

Whenever you need to take a portion of an array or copy an array, you can use slice. But be careful, just like the spread operator, slice returns a shallow copy of that portion!

const numbers = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]
const copy = numbers.slice()

I said at the beginning of an article that for loops were often useless. Let me give you an example of how you can get rid of one.

Let’s say you want to retrieve a certain amount of chat messages from an API and you want to display only five of them. You’ll find below two approches: one with a for loop the other with slice.

// The "traditional way" to do it:
// Determine the number of messages to take and use a for loop
const nbMessages = messages.length < 5 ? messages.length : 5
let messagesToShow = []
for (let i = 0; i < nbMessages; i++) {
  messagesToShow.push(posts[i])
}

// Even if "arr" has less than 5 elements,
// slice will return an entire shallow copy of the original array
const messagesToShow = messages.slice(0, 5)

some

If you want to test that at least one element of an array passes a test, well you can use some. Just like map, filter or find, some takes a callback function as its only parameter. It returns true if at least one element pass the test, false otherwise.

You can use some when you are dealing with permissions for example:

const users = [
  {
    id: 'fe34',
    permissions: ['read', 'write'],
  },
  {
    id: 'a198',
    permissions: [],
  },
  {
    id: '18aa',
    permissions: ['delete', 'read', 'write'],
  },
]

const hasDeletePermission = users.some(user =>
  user.permissions.includes('delete')
)
console.log(hasDeletePermission) // true

every

Similar to some except that every tests if all elements pass the condition (instead of at least one).

const users = [
  {
    id: 'fe34',
    permissions: ['read', 'write'],
  },
  {
    id: 'a198',
    permissions: [],
  },
  {
    id: '18aa',
    permissions: ['delete', 'read', 'write'],
  },
]

const hasAllReadPermission = users.every(user =>
  user.permissions.includes('read')
)
console.log(hasAllReadPermission) // false

flat (ES2019)

These are the brand new methods that are coming in the JavaScript world. Basically, flat creates a new array by concatenating all sub-array elements into it. It accepts one parameter, a number, which represents how deep you want to flatten your array:

const numbers = [1, 2, [3, 4, [5, [6, 7]], [[[[8]]]]]]

const numbersflattenOnce = numbers.flat()
console.log(numbersflattenOnce) // [1, 2, 3, 4, Array[2], Array[1]]
// Note: Array[2] means it's a two-dimensional array

const numbersflattenTwice = numbers.flat(2)
console.log(numbersflattenTwice) // [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, Array[2], Array[1]]

const numbersFlattenInfinity = numbers.flat(Infinity)
console.log(numbersFlattenInfinity) // [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8]

flatMap (ES2019)

Can you guess what this method does? I bet you can just with the name.

First it runs a mapping function on each element. Then it flattens the array once. Easy peasy!

const sentences = [
  'This is a sentence',
  'This is another sentence',
  "I can't find any original phrases",
]

const allWords = sentences.flatMap(sentence => sentence.split(' '))
console.log(allWords) // ["This", "is", "a", "sentence", "This", "is", "another", "sentence", "I", "can't", "find", "any", "original", "phrases"]

In this example, you have many sentences in an array and you want to get all the words. Instead of using map to split all the sentences into words and then flatten the array, you can directly use flatMap.

Nothing to do with flatMap, but you can then count the number of words with the reduce function (just to show you another use-case of reduce 🙂)

const wordsCount = allWords.reduce((count, word) => {
  count[word] = count[word] ? count[word] + 1 : 1
  return count
}, {})
console.log(wordsCount) // { This: 2, is: 2, a: 1, sentence: 2, another: 1, I: 1, "can't": 1, find: 1, any: 1, original: 1, phrases: 1, }

flatMap is also often used in Reactive Programming, you can see an example of it here.

join

If you need to create a string based on the array’s elements, you’re looking for join. It allows to create a new string by concatenating all the array’s elements, separated by a provided separator.

For example, you can display at a glance all the participants of an activity using join:

const participants = ['john', 'mary', 'gary']
const participantsFormatted = participants.join(', ')
console.log(participantsFormatted) // john, mary, gary

Here is a more real-word example where you may want to filter the participants before and get their name:

const potentialParticipants = [
  { id: 'k38i', name: 'john', age: 17 },
  { id: 'baf3', name: 'mary', age: 13 },
  { id: 'a111', name: 'gary', age: 24 },
  { id: 'fx34', name: 'emma', age: 34 },
]

const participantsFormatted = potentialParticipants
  .filter(user => user.age > 18)
  .map(user => user.name)
  .join(', ')

console.log(participantsFormatted) // gary, emma

from

This is a static method that creates a new Array from an array-like or iterable object like a string for example. It can be useful when you’re working with the dom.

const nodes = document.querySelectorAll('.todo-item') // this is an instance of NodeList, you can't use array methods with it
const todoItems = Array.from(nodes) // now, you can use map, filter, etc. as you're workin with an array!

Have you seen that we used Array instead of an array instance? That’s why from is called a static method.

Then you can have fun with these nodes and for example registering an event listener on each one of them with forEach:

todoItems.forEach(item => {
  item.addEventListener('click', function() {
    alert(`You clicked on ${item.innerHTML}`)
  })
})

isArray

While we’re at it, let’s talk about another static method of Array which is isArray. Without surprises, it tells you if the passed value is an array or not.

Based on the previous example, this is what we get:

const nodes = document.querySelectorAll('.todo-item')
console.log(Array.isArray(nodes)) // false
const todoItems = Array.from(nodes)
console.log(Array.isArray(todoItems)) // true

Good to know but mutating

You’ll find below other common array methods. The difference is that they modify the original array. There’s nothing wrong with mutating an array but it’s good to have it in mind!

For all these methods, if you don’t want to mutate the original array, just make a shallow copy or deep copy beforehand:

const arr = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]
const copy = [...arr] // or arr.slice()

sort

Yes, sort modifies the original array. In fact, it sorts the elements of an array in place. The default sorting method transforms all the elements into strings and sort them alphabetically:

const names = ['john', 'mary', 'gary', 'anna']
names.sort()
console.log(names) // ['anna', 'gary', 'john', 'mary']

So be careful if you come from a Python background for example, doing sort on a numbers array just won’t give you what you expected to:

const numbers = [23, 12, 17, 187, 3, 90]
numbers.sort()
console.log(numbers) // [12, 17, 187, 23, 3, 90] 🤔

Then, how to sort the array? Well, sort accepts one function, a comparison function. This function accepts two parameters: the first element (let’s call it a) and the second element for comparison (b). The comparison between these two elements need to return a number:

  • If it’s negative, a is sorted before b
  • If it’s positive, b is sorted before a
  • No changes if it’s 0.

Then you can sort numbers that way:

const numbers = [23, 12, 17, 187, 3, 90]
numbers.sort((a, b) => a - b)
console.log(numbers) // [3, 12, 17, 23, 90, 187]

Or you can sort dates by the most recent:

const posts = [
  {
    title: 'Create a Discord bot under 15 minutes',
    date: new Date(2018, 11, 26),
  },
  { title: 'How to get better at writing CSS', date: new Date(2018, 06, 17) },
  { title: 'JavaScript arrays', date: new Date() },
]
posts.sort((a, b) => a.date - b.date) // Substracting two dates returns the difference in millisecond between them
console.log(posts)
// [ { title: 'How to get better at writing CSS',
//     date: 2018-07-17T00:00:00.000Z },
//   { title: 'Create a Discord bot under 15 minutes',
//     date: 2018-12-26T00:00:00.000Z },
//   { title: 'Learn Javascript arrays the functional way',
//     date: 2019-03-16T10:31:00.208Z } ]

fill

fill modifies or fills all the elements of an array from a start index to an end index with a static value. A great use of fill is to fill a new array with static values.

// Normally I would have called a function that generates ids and random names but let's not bother with that here.
function fakeUser() {
  return {
    id: 'fe38',
    name: 'thomas',
  }
}

const posts = Array(3).fill(fakeUser())
console.log(posts) // [{ id: "fe38", name: "thomas" }, { id: "fe38", name: "thomas" }, { id: "fe38", name: "thomas" }]

reverse

I think the method’s name is pretty clear here. However, keep in mind that just like sort does, reverse reverses the array in place!

const numbers = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

numbers.reverse()
console.log(numbers) // [5, 4, 3, 2, 1]

pop

That one removes the last element from an array and returns it.

const messages = ['Hello', 'Hey', 'How are you?', "I'm fine"]
const lastMessage = messages.pop()
console.log(messages) // ['Hello', 'Hey', 'How are you?']
console.log(lastMessage) // I'm fine

Methods you can replace

Finally, in this last section, you’ll find methods that mutates the original array and that can be easily replaced with something else. I’m not saying you should ditch these methods. I just want you to realize that some array methods has side effects and that there are alternatives for that 👍

push

This is a widely used method when working with arrays. In fact push allows you to add one or more elements to an array. It is also usually used to build a new array based on an old one.

const todoItems = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

const itemsIncremented = []
for (let i = 0; i < items.length; i++) {
  itemsIncremented.push(items[i] + 1)
}

console.log(itemsIncremented) // [2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

const todos = ['Write an article', 'Proofreading']
todos.push('Publish the article')
console.log(todos) // ['Write an article', 'Proofreading', 'Publish the article']

If you need to build an array based on another just like itemsIncremented, chances are that there is a method made for it like our good friends map, filter or reduce. In fact we can use map to do the same:

const itemsIncremented = todoItems.map(x => x + 1)

And if you want to use push when you need to add a new element, the spread operator got your back:

const todos = ['Write an article', 'Proofreading']
console.log([...todos, 'Publish the article']) // ['Write an article', 'Proofreading', 'Publish the article']

splice

splice is often used as a way to remove an element at a certain index. You can actually do the same with filter:

const months = ['January', 'February', 'March', 'April', ' May']

// With splice
months.splice(2, 1) // remove one element at index 2
console.log(months) // ['January', 'February', 'April', 'May']

// Without splice
const monthsFiltered = months.filter((month, i) => i !== 3)
console.log(monthsFiltered) // ['January', 'February', 'April', 'May']

And now you might think, yeah but If I need to remove many elements? Well, use slice:

const months = ['January', 'February', 'March', 'April', ' May']

// With splice
months.splice(1, 3) // remove three elements starting at index 1
console.log(months) // ['January', 'May']

// Without splice
const monthsSliced = [...months.slice(0, 1), ...months.slice(4)]
console.log(monthsSliced) // ['January', 'May']

shift

shift removes the first element of an array and returns it. To do it the functional way, you can use spread/rest:

const numbers = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

// With shift
const firstNumber = numbers.shift()
console.log(firstNumber) // 1
console.log(numbers) // [2, 3, 4, 5]

// Without shift
const [firstNumber, ...numbersWithoutOne] = numbers
console.log(firstNumber) // 1
console.log(numbersWithoutOne) // [2, 3, 4, 5]

unshift

Unshift allows you to add one or more elements to the beginning of an array. Well just like shift, you can use the spread operator to do such a thing:

const numbers = [3, 4, 5]

// With unshift
numbers.unshift(1, 2)
console.log(numbers) // [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

// Without unshift
const newNumbers = [1, 2, ...numbers]
console.log(newNumbers) // [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

TL;DR

  • Whenever you need to perform operations on an array, don’t go with a for-loop and don’t reinvent the wheel, there’s probably a method out there that does what you want to do.
  • Most of the time, you’ll use map, filter, reduce and the spread operator. They are essential tools for every developer.
  • There are a lot of array methods that are great to know like slice, some, flatMap, etc. Recognize them and use them when it’s appropriate!
  • Side-effects can lead to unwanted changes. Be aware of which methods mutate your original array.
  • slice and the spread operator make shallow copies. Thus, objects and sub-arrays will share the same reference. Be careful to that too.
  • “Old” mutating array methods can be replaced with new ones. It’s up to you to decide what to do with them.