programming JavaScript Feb 06, 2016

Navigating the ECMAScript® 2015 Language Specification

Reading a language specification is not an easy thing. I thought it would be interesting to show how you can use it to explain some JavaScript questions.

Here is one I encountered a few minutes ago on IRC:

why can't we access an array property as xs.0 xs.1 xs.2?

Well, explaining the reason why — the design decisions which led to this "limitation" is not so easy. Finding what the specification says, on the other hand, is not so hard.

We'll start here: and we're looking for the part which talks about accessing properties (accessing any properties, in fact).

If you don't know where to look, quickly find the corresponding MDN page (opens new window) and see that it's called a "property accessor" and that it's a left-hand-side expression.

Back to the ECMAScript specification, find the index at the beginning of the page. 12.3 Left-Hand-Side Expressions, good. 12.3.2 Property Accessors (opens new window), perfect!

Now, we want to know what can be used as name in the following syntax:, right? It's pretty clear:

MemberExpression . IdentifierName.

But what is an IdentifierName? A quick search in the page brings us to the following section: 11.6.1 Identifier Names (opens new window).

IdentifierName ::
    IdentifierName IdentifierPart

We now know that an IdentifierName has to start with an IdentifierStart, let's look for IdentifierStart in the page...

IdentifierStart ::
    \ UnicodeEscapeSequence


UnicodeIDStart ::
    any Unicode code point with the Unicode property “ID_Start”

An IdentifierStart is either a Unicode code point with the Unicode property "ID_Start" or $ or _ or a Unicode escape sequence.

Back to the original question: why can't we do xs.0?

Here, '0' is our IdentifierName and its IdentifierStart is 0. Since 0 is not $, _ or a Unicode escape sequence, it has to be a UnicodeIDStart to be a valid property accessor when used with the dot notation.

0 is the Unicode code point U+0030. Let's see what's in there using (opens new window):

ID Start? ✘

There it is. 0 does not have the property "ID_Start". No ID_Start ⇒ not a valid IdentifierStart ⇒ not a valid IdentifierName ⇒ not a valid property accessor using the dot notation.

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