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What You May Not Know About TypeScript (Part 1)

Explore the hidden depths of TypeScript in this blog series. Discover its lesser obvious details, expanding your understanding.

Tags: Programming, TypeScript

Published on

Introduction

It's April, and I've successfully built a few projects with TypeScript. While working on these projects, a question would often arise in my mind: "Do you understand TypeScript?" During development, I frequently resorted to my browser for answers about TypeScript, which made me question if I truly grasped the language beyond using type annotations, creating interfaces, and type aliasing. Yeah, searching out stuff while you build isn't necessarily wrong, however, relying too heavily on it for basic aspects of the programming language you're working with, is a sign that you may need a deeper understanding of the language. I said, "Enough is enough, it's high time I learn this language from the people building it." TypeScript's documentation was my next destination.

How did you learn TypeScript to build those projects in the first place? You might ask. I started with the typical "TypeScript 101" classes from YouTube. After watching a few videos, I felt confident enough to start building. However, as you know now, I built those projects with pain, an experience I could have avoided if I had taken the time to learn from the documentation after learning from YouTube. YouTube can only cover so much of the basics needed for development, and then you find yourself scratching your head while something you thought should work isn't working, and something you thought shouldn't work is working.

Meticulously reading through TypeScript's documentation to gain a deeper understanding of the language, I found myself jotting down numerous concepts I was oblivious to during development. Alas, it became clear that the answer to the recurring question about my understanding of TypeScript was "No". So I thought: "Why not post about these things you've jotted down? Your future self might need it. Developers sharing a similar story of how they got into TypeScript might need it. Even the veterans might need it." This blog post was born.

This blog post is just me "copy-pasting" some part of TypeScript's documentation that may not be immediately apparent to "shallow" users of TypeScript. So, the words are not mine, but those of the numerous contributors to TypeScript's documentation; I'm only a compiler, heh. However, I added my explanation and examples whenever I thought the wording from the documentation was verbose, not easily understandable, or lacked a simpler example. To get the most out of this, treat it as reference material.

What is TypeScript?

TypeScript is JavaScript's runtime with additional features and a compile-time type checker.

  • JavaScript's runtime: Your program would run the same way as it was before you added TypeScript to it. Or said another way, TypeScript programs are JavaScript programs with "types added"; these types are erased after compilation to produce JavaScript programs. This means that your existing working JavaScript code is also TypeScript code, and adding types to them won't change the runtime behaviour of your programs.

  • Additional features: TypeScript provides additional features to JavaScript, that are not part of the ECMAScript language specification, from which JavaScript is built. Some popular examples are tuples and enums. However, you can use these features and the compiled code will be valid JavaScript.

  • Compile-time type checker: TypeScript as a type checker runs before your code runs (static) and ensures that the types of your program are correct (type-checked).

TypeScript doesn't provide any additional runtime libraries.

This means your programs will use the same standard library (or external libraries) as JavaScript programs, so there's no additional TypeScript-specific framework to learn.

In TypeScript, you can use a tsconfig.json file to specify the root files and the compiler options required to compile the project.

The presence of a tsconfig.json file in a directory indicates that the directory is the root of a TypeScript project.

The tsconfig.json file specifies the root files and the compiler options required to compile the project. JavaScript projects can use a jsconfig.json file instead, which acts almost the same but has some JavaScript-related compiler flags enabled by default.

Read more about the tsconfig.json in TypeScript from the documentation.

TypeScript's core value among others is that much of the time, you will know better than TypeScript.

TypeScript doesn't get in your way, hence by default types are optional, inference takes the most lenient types, there's no checking for potentially null/undefined values, and tsc, the Typescript compiler, emits the compiled code in the face of errors. These defaults are put in place to stay out of your way. This is very useful when migrating JavaScript code over to TypeScript and introducing type-checking errors, as it allows you to clean things up for the type-checker, while your original JavaScript code is still working.

To be a bit more defensive against mistakes and make TypeScript act a bit more strictly, you can use the several type-checking strictness flags that can be turned on or off, from using the --strict flag in the CLI, or "strict": true in tsconfig.json, which toggles them all on simultaneously, but you can opt out of them individually. A new codebase should always turn these strictness checks on.

TypeScript can rewrite code from newer versions of ECMAScript to older ones.

This process of moving from a newer or "higher" version of ECMAScript, say ECMAScript 6, down to an older or "lower" one say ECMAScript 3 or ECMAScript 5 is sometimes called "downleveling." By default, TypeScript targets ECMAScript 3, an old version of ECMAScript.

While the default target is ES3, most current browsers support ES2015. Developers can therefore safely specify ES2015, using the --target es2015 compiler option, or above as a target, unless compatibility with certain ancient browsers is important.

TypeScript never changes the runtime behaviour of JavaScript code.

This means that if you move code from JavaScript to TypeScript, it is guaranteed to run the same way, even if TypeScript thinks the code has type errors.

Consider the example below:

let a; // a = "undefined"
 
if (4 / []) {
  // Error: The right-hand side of an arithmetic operation must be of type 'any', 'number', 'bigint' or an enum type.
  a = Infinity;
} else {
  a = 1;
}
 
console.log(a); // Infinity

The expression 4 / [] in TypeScript would throw an error, however, if you configure your TypeScript settings, either using compiler flags or in tsconfig.json, to allow emitting JavaScript output despite errors, a will have the value of Infinity at runtime, even when TypeScript detects an error.

TypeScript has corresponding primitive types for the built-in types in JavaScript with a few added ones.

Type in JavaScriptType in TypeScripttypeof return valueExplanationPredicate
Nullnull"object"Equivalent to the unit type.
Undefinedundefined"undefined"Equivalent to the unit type.typeof undefined === "undefined"
Booleanboolean"boolean"true and false.typeof b === "boolean"
Numbernumber"number"A double-precision IEEE 754 floating point.typeof n === "number"
BigIntbigint"bigint"Integers in the arbitrary precision format.typeof m === "bigint"
Stringstring"string"true and false.typeof s === "string"
Symbolsymbol"symbol"A unique value usually used as a key.typeof g === "symbol"
Objectobject"object"Similar to records.
unknown"undefined"The top type.
neverThe bottom type.
object literal"object"e.g. { property: Type } .
void"undefined"For functions with no documented return value.typeof o === "object"
T[]"object"Mutable arrays, also written Array<T>.Array.isArray(a)
[T, T]"object"Tuples, which are fixed-length but mutable.Array.isArray(a)
(t: T) => U"function"functionstypeof f === "function"

In TypeScript, you can use the any type to turn off the type checker.

TypeScript uses the type any whenever it can't tell what the type of an expression should be. It just turns off the type checker wherever it appears, making you access any properties of a value (which will in turn be of type any), call it like a function, assign it to (or from) a value of any type, or pretty much anything else that's syntactically legal; so it's assumed you know the environment better than TypeScript.

For example, none of the following lines of code will throw compiler errors, as any disables further type checking:

let obj: any = { x: 0 };
 
obj.foo();
 
obj();
 
obj.bar = 100;
 
obj = "hello";
 
const n: number = obj;

You can push any value into an array with type any[] without marking the value in any way:

const anys: any = [];
 
anys.push(1);
anys.push("oh no");
anys.push({ anything: "goes" });
 
console.log(anys); // [ 1, 'oh no', { anything: 'goes' } ]

And you can use an expression of type any anywhere:

anys.map(anys[1]);

any is contagious, too — if you initialise a variable with an expression of type any, the variable has type any too:

// Hovering over `sepsis` in your TypeScript-compatible editor will show this: let helloWorld: any
let sepsis = anys[0] + anys[1];

The any type is useful when you don't want to write out a long type just to convince TypeScript that a particular line of code is okay.

TypeScript knows the JavaScript language and will generate types for you in many cases.

In many cases, TypeScript can even just infer (or "figure out") the types for you even if we omit them. This is known as "types by inference." For example in creating a variable and assigning it to a particular value, TypeScript will use the value as its type:

// Hovering over `helloWorld` in your TypeScript-compatible editor will show this: let helloWorld: string
let helloWorld = "Hello World";
 
// Hovering over `obj` in your TypeScript-compatible editor will show this: obj: {name: string; age: number }
let obj = { name: "John Doe", age: 48 };

TypeScript never changes the behavior of your program based on the types it infers.

This means that while you might see type errors during compilation, the type system itself has no bearing on how your program works when it runs. It accomplishes this by erasing the types to produce the resulting "compiled" code once TypeScript's compiler has completely checked your code. Consequently, once your code is compiled, the resulting plain JavaScript code contains no type information.

For example, the TypeScript code below fails because it contains a duplicate implementation. The compiled code won't have any type information to determine which function to call at runtime. That is, TypeScript’s type system is not reified. Therefore, there's nothing at runtime that can tell us whether num is of type number or string, as the type annotation is not present in any form at runtime.

function addHundred(num: number) {
  // Error: Duplicate function implementation.
  return num + 100;
}
 
function addHundred(num: string) {
  // Error: Duplicate function implementation.
  return num + "-hundred";
}

The compiled JavaScript code from the above TS code is:

"use strict";
function addHundred(num) {
  return num + 100;
}
function addHundred(num) {
  return num + "-hundred";
}

Suppose we push the above JavaScript code to production and call addHundred(15). Which addHundred implementation should be executed at runtime? If you're familiar with JavaScript, you would correctly answer "It's the last one." However, was that what you intended when you wrote the initial TypeScript code? Do you see the point? Therefore, we can agree that "It's a bug!"

TypeScript does not have a runtime mechanism for identifying the types of values other than primitives.

For some values, such as the primitives string and number, we can identify their type at runtime using the typeof operator. However, for other things like functions, there's no corresponding runtime mechanism to identify their types. For example, consider this function:

function fn(x) {
  return x.flip();
}

By reading the code, we can observe that this function will only work if given an object with a callable flip property. However, JavaScript doesn't surface this information in a way that we can check while the code is running. The only way in pure JavaScript to determine what fn does with a particular value is to call it and see what happens. This kind of behaviour makes it hard to predict what the code will do before it runs, which means it's harder to know what your code is going to do while you're writing it.

TypeScript doesn't consider any JavaScript code to be an error because of its syntax.

This means you can take any working JavaScript code and put it in a TypeScript file without worrying about how it is written.

// Works in TS just as it would have in JS
let a = Number("3.1425").toExponential(2);
 
// Fails in TS just as it would have in JS
let a = (4 // Error: ')' expected.

TypeScript might consider a JavaScript code to be an error because of how a value is used.

TypeScript is a typed superset; hence, it adds rules about how different kinds of values can be used. Therefore, some syntactically legal programs that would run without an error in JavaScript during runtime might issue an error in TypeScript during its compile-time type-checking.

Using the code below as an example, in JavaScript, the variable area would be assigned NaN, the result from the operation obj.width * obj.height; in TypeScript, this results in an error:

const obj = { width: 10, height: 15 };
 
const area = obj.width * obj.heigth; // Error: Property 'heigth' does not exist on type '{ width: number; height: number; }'. Did you mean 'height'?

As another example from the code below, in JavaScript, Infinity would be logged to the console; in TypeScript, this results in an error:

console.log(4 / []); // Error: The right-hand side of an arithmetic operation must be of type 'any', 'number', 'bigint', or an enum type.

In TypeScript, there are only two syntaxes for building types: Interfaces and Types.

interface Country {
  name: string;
  currency: string;
}
 
type Person = {
  name: string;
  age: number;
};

You should prefer interface over type. Use type when you need specific features.

TypeScript enables creating complex types by combining simple ones.

There are two popular ways to do so: with unions and with generics.

With a union, you can declare that a type could be one of many types. For example, you can describe a boolean type as being either true or false:

type WindowStates = "open" | "closed" | "minimized";
type LockStates = "locked" | "unlocked";
type PositiveOddNumbersUnderTen = 1 | 3 | 5 | 7 | 9;

Generics provide variables to types. A common example is an array. An array without generics could contain anything. An array with generics can describe the values that the array contains.

type StringArray = Array<string>;
type NumberArray = Array<number>;
type ObjectWithNameArray = Array<{ name: string }>;

In TypeScript, for assignability purposes, there's no difference between a type alias and an interface type if they both have the same shape.

Named types simply give a name to a type; for assignability purposes, there's no difference between the type alias One and the interface type Two below. They both have a property p: string:

type One = {
  p: string;
};
 
interface Two {
  p: string;
}
 
class Three {
  p = "Hello";
}
 
let x: One = { p: "Hi" };
 
let two: Two = x;
 
two = new Three();

Type aliases behave differently from interfaces concerning recursive definitions and type parameters, however.

TypeScript's type system is a structural type system (focuses on the shape that values have) and not a nominal type system (focuses on the name that values have).

Sometimes called "duck typing", in a structural type system, if two objects have the same shape, they are considered to be of the same type.

interface Point {
  x: number;
  y: number;
}
 
function logPoint(p: Point) {
  console.log(`${p.x}, ${p.y}`);
}
 
const point = { x: 12, y: 26 };
 
logPoint(point); // 12, 26

The point variable is never declared to be of type Point. However, TypeScript compares the shape of point to the shape of Point in the type-check. They have the same shape, so the code passes.

TypeScript considers objects or classes to match a type if and only if they have all the required properties, regardless of the implementation details.

This is because type compatibility in TypeScript is based on structural subtyping. This means that if an object's shape matches a type — i.e., if the object's fields have all the required fields of a type, regardless of the order in which the fields appear or if the object's fields contain other fields not specified in the type — TypeScript will say they match. For example:

interface Point {
  x: number;
  y: number;
  z?: number; // optional
}
 
function logPoint(p: Point) {
  if (p.z) {
    console.log(`x=${p.x}, y=${p.y}, z=${p.z}`);
  } else {
    console.log(`x=${p.x}, y=${p.y}`);
  }
}
 
// Object's shape matches type exactly
const point1 = { x: 12, y: 26, z: 40 };
logPoint(point1); // x=12, y=26, z=40
 
// Object's shape matches type regardless of having a different order of fields
const point2 = { z: 40, x: 12, y: 26 };
logPoint(point2); // x=12, y=26, z=40
 
// Object's shape matches type regardless of having fewer properties (i.e., only the required)
const point3 = { x: 12, y: 26 };
logPoint(point3); // x=12, y=26
 
// Object's shape matches type regardless of having more than required properties
const point4 = { w: 8, x: 12, y: 26 };
logPoint(point4); // x=12, y=26
 
class VirtualPoint {
  x: number;
  y: number;
 
  constructor(x: number, y: number) {
    this.x = x;
    this.y = y;
  }
}
 
const newVPoint = new VirtualPoint(13, 56);
logPoint(newVPoint); // x=13, y=56

Taking point4 as an example, the object literal { w: 8, x: 12, y: 26 } has a matching literal type { w: number, x: number, y: number }. That type is assignable to {x: number, y: number, z?: number} since it has all the required properties and those properties have assignable types. The extra property doesn't prevent assignment; it just makes it a subtype of { x: number, y: number, z?: number }. Read more about type compatibility in TypeScript from the language's documentation.

TypeScript requires the declaration of type parameters.

Like most C-descended languages, TypeScript requires the declaration of type parameters.

function liftArray<T>(t: T): Array<T> {
  return [t];
}

There is no case requirement, but type parameters are conventionally single uppercase letters. Type parameters can also be constrained to a type, which behaves a bit like type class constraints:

function firstish<T extends { length: number }>(t1: T, t2: T): T {
  return t1.length > t2.length ? t1 : t2;
}

TypeScript can usually infer type arguments from a call based on the type of the arguments, so type arguments are usually not needed.

Because TypeScript is structural, it doesn't need type parameters as much as nominal systems. Specifically, they are not needed to make a function polymorphic. Type parameters should only be used to propagate type information, such as constraining parameters to be the same type.

function length<T extends ArrayLike<unknown>>(t: T): number {}
 
function length(t: ArrayLike<unknown>): number {}

In the first length, T is not necessary; notice that it's only referenced once, so it's not being used to constrain the type of the return value or other parameters.

Conclusion

Remember, "hackers hack, crackers crack, and whiners whine. Be a hacker." Take care.


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