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Primitive Values, Objects and References in JavaScript Made Simple

alexdevero profile image Alex Devero ・8 min read

Primitive data types, values, objects and references are among the most misunderstood topics in JavaScript. They can cause a lot of headaches. In this tutorial, you will learn about primitive data types, values, objects, references, the differences between them and how they work.

A short introduction

In JavaScript, there are the two categories of data types you can work with. The first category are primitive data types. At this moment, there exist [seven primitive types]. These primitive data types are number, string, boolean, null, undefined, BigInt and Symbol. The BigInt and Symbol are newer data types.

Symbol was introduced in ES6 specification. The BigInt was introduced later, in ES2020 specification. When something is not one of these primitive data types it is technically an object. This applies to actual objects as well as arrays and even functions. From the view of JavaScript, these are all objects.

This distinction between primitive data types and objects is important because JavaScript handles each differently.

// Primitive data types:
const numberVal = 5
const strVal = 'Hello!'
const boolVal = true
const nullVal = null
const undefinedVal = undefined
const bigIntVal = 9007123254550972n
const symbolVal = Symbol('label')

// Objects:
const myObjLiteral = {
  name: 'Toby'
}

const myArray = [9, 'book', true, null]

function myFunction(num1, num2) {
  return num1 / num2
}
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Primitive data types and primitive values

Let's start with the first category, primitive data types. Values that contain these primitive data types are called static data. As static data, JavaScript stores them on the stack. One important thing about these primitive values is that their size is fixed. JavaScript knows how much memory these data types need.

Let's say you assign some variable a primitive data type as a value. From now on, this variable will contain that value. If you manipulate with that variable, you manipulate directly with the value you assigned to it. A simple way to test this, and the consequences, is assigning the variable to another variable.

When you assign one variable to another, and the value of first is primitive data type, JavaScript will copy that value. When you do this you are copying the values "by value". So, now, if you change the value of the first variable, the second will remain the same. This is because even though you created one variable from another they both have their own, separate, values.

So, if you change the value of one variable it will not change the second. The second variable is a separate entity. Let's go back to the stack. When you assign the first variable, JavaScript will store its value on the stack. When you assign the variable to another variable its value will be also added on the stack.

At this moment, the stack will now contain two values, one for each variable. It doesn't matter that both values are the same. Nor does it matter that you created the second variable from the first. For JavaScript, these are two separate entities. These two variables have no relationship with each other.

This is also why you can safely work with each of these variables as you want. It is why you can change one variable without changing the other.

// Create a variable and assign it
// a primitive value:
let x = 'Hello'

// Assign "x" to another variable:
let y = x

// Change the value of "x":
// NOTE: this will not change "y".
x = 'Bye'

// Log the value of "x":
console.log(x)
// Output:
// 'Bye'

// Log the value of "x":
console.log(y)
// Output:
// 'Hello'

// Assign "y" to another variable:
let z = y

// Assign "z" to another variable:
let w = z

// Change the value of "y":
// NOTE: this will not change "z" and "w".
y = 'Eloquent'

// Log the value of "x":
console.log(z)
// Output:
// 'Hello'

// Log the value of "x":
console.log(w)
// Output:
// 'Hello'
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Objects and references

Objects are a different story. When you assign variable an object JavaScript will handle it differently. The value, the object, will not be added to the stack. Instead, it will be added to memory heap. There is another very important difference. That variable will not contain the value, the object, but a reference to that object.

Think about this reference as a link, or chain. It is a link that connects specific variable with specific object. This has one major consequence. If you manipulate with that variable, you work with the reference and, through this reference, with the object itself. What if you copy that object by assigning that variable to another variable?

You may think that this will create another object, copy of the first, just like in case of primitive value. This is not what will happen. What will actually happen is that JavaScript will create new reference. JavaScript will only create new reference, or link, to the original object.

There will be still only one object in the memory heap, the original. This is called copying "by reference" and it happens every time you copy an object. Copying this way, by reference, results in creating shallow copies of objects. This type of copying also has one serious consequence.

If you manipulate with any of these variables you also manipulate with the same object. So, if you change the object by changing one variable you change the other variable as well. They are both different variables, but they both reference, or link to, the same object.

// Create a variable and assign it
// a simple object:
let a = { name: 'Stan' }

// Assign "a" to another variable:
let b = a

// Change the value of "a"
// by adding new property "age" to the object:
a.age = 44

// Log the value of "a":
// console.log(a)
// Output:
// { name: 'Stan', age: 44 }

// Log the value of "b":
// console.log(b)
// Output:
// { name: 'Stan', age: 44 }

// Assign "b" to another variable:
let c = b

// Assign "c" to another variable:
let d = c

// Change the value of "d"
// by adding another property
// "favoriteAnimal" to the object:
d.favoriteAnimal = 'elephant'

// Log the value of "a":
console.log(a)
// Output:
// {
//   name: 'Stan',
//   age: 44,
//   favoriteAnimal: 'elephant'
// }

// Log the value of "b":
console.log(b)
// Output:
// {
//   name: 'Stan',
//   age: 44,
//   favoriteAnimal: 'elephant'
// }

// Log the value of "c":
console.log(c)
// Output:
// {
//   name: 'Stan',
//   age: 44,
//   favoriteAnimal: 'elephant'
// }

// Log the value of "d":
console.log(c)
// Output:
// {
//   name: 'Stan',
//   age: 44,
//   favoriteAnimal: 'elephant'
// }
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Note: One way to understand how copying by reference works is by thinking about keys and houses. When you copy you key, you are not also creating a new house. There is still only one house, but there are now two keys that can unlock that house. Variables are those keys, object is that house.

Quick summary of primitive data types, objects, values and references

Now you know the difference between primitive values and references. When you assign primitive data types and then copy them you are copying by values. Each of these copies (variables) is a separate entity that has no relationship to another. You can change one without changing any other.

When you assign and then copy an object, you are copying by reference. You are creating new references for each copy. As a result, there are multiple references (variables). However, there is still only one object. If you change one of these variables, you change the original object. This will affect all references (variables).

Primitive values, references and comparison

Knowing the difference between value and reference is important when you want to compare things. Let's take a look at how comparison works with both, primitive values and objects.

Comparing primitive values

Comparing two primitive values is usually simple. The only catch is knowing the difference between equal and strict equal and which one to use (it will usually be strict equal). Comparing primitive values with strict equal will check for value and type. If both are the same, you will get true. If not, you will get false.

// One primitive value:
// Create one variable and assign it primitive value:
const str1 = 'JavaScript'

// Create another variable and assign it "str1":
const str2 = str1

// Compare "str1" and "str2":
console.log(str1 === str2)
// Output:
// true


// Two identical primitive values:
// Create two variables and assign them
// the same primitive values:
const num1 = 15
const num2 = 15

// Compare "num1" and "num2":
console.log(num1 === num2)
// Output:
// true
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Comparing objects and references

References work differently. If you compare two different objects, and the content is the same, the comparison will still result in false. Comparison will result in true only if you compare references to the same object.

// One object:
// Create a variable and assign it an object:
const a = { name: 'Jack' }

// Assign "a" to another variable:
const b = a

// Compare "a" and "b":
console.log(a === b)
// Output:
// true

// Two identical objects:
// Create a variable and assign it an object:
const a = { name: 'George' }

// Create another variable and assign it the same object:
const b = { name: 'George' }

// Compare "a" and "b":
console.log(a === b)
// Output:
// false
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Remember that arrays, and functions as well, are technically objects. This means that if you compare variables with identical arrays the result will be always false. Those variables will be the same only if they both reference the same array.

// One array:
// Create a variable and assign it an array:
const x = [1, 2, 3, 4]

// Create another variable and assign it "x":
const y = x

// Compare "x" and "y":
console.log(x === y)
// Output:
// true


// Two identical arrays:
// Create a variable and assign it an array:
const x = [1, 2, 3, 4]

// Create another variable and assign it the same array:
const y = [1, 2, 3, 4]

// Compare "x" and "y":
console.log(x === y)
// Output:
// false
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Functions and passing by value and by reference

Knowing the difference between value and reference is also useful when you work with functions. When you pass some primitive value stored in a variable to a function as an argument, you are passing it "by value". You are basically copying that value itself to a function. The consequence of this is the same as when you copy "by value".

If you try to change the value passed into the function it will have no effect on the variable itself. The value of that variable will remain the same. Change you created by the function will have no effect on it. Well, unless you access the variable itself and change it directly, but that is a different scenario.

// Create a variable and assign it a primitive value:
let personName = 'Andrei'

// Create a function that will attempt to modify
// the value it receives as an argument:
function changeNameFunc(name) {
  name = 'Viktor'
}

// Call the "changeNameFunc" function:
changeNameFunc(personName)

// Log the value of "name" variable:
console.log(personName)
// Output:
// 'Andrei' // <= The name is the same.
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If you try to do this with an object the result will be different. When you pass an object it is passed "by reference". In this case, JavaScript is not copying the object so the function can use it. It only gives you the reference to the original object. If you try to modify the object you will actually change the original object.

// Create a variable and assign it an object:
let person = { name: 'Andrei' }

// Create a function that will attempt to modify
// the value it receives as an argument:
function changeNameFunc(person) {
  person.name = 'Viktor'
}

// Call the "changeNameFunc" function:
changeNameFunc(person)

// Log the value of "name" variable:
console.log(person)
// Output:
// { name: 'Viktor' } // <= The name is different.
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Conclusion: Primitive values, objects and references in JavaScript made simple

Primitive data types, values, objects and references are topics that can be difficult to understand. This is especially true for beginners and junior JavaScript developers. I hope that this tutorial help you understand how they work, the differences between them and how they work.

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