Understanding the ECMAScript spec, part 2

Published · tagged with ECMAScript

Let’s practice our awesome spec reading skills some more. If you haven’t had a look at the previous episodes, now it’s a good time to do so!

In part 1 of this series we read through a simple method — Object.prototype.hasOwnProperty — and abstract operations it invokes. We familiarized ourselves with the shorthands ? and ! related to error handling. We encountered language types, specification types, internal slots, and internal methods.

Ready for part 2? #

A fun way to get to know the spec is to start with a JavaScript feature we know is there, and find out how it’s specified.

Warning! This episode contains copy-pasted algorithms from the ECMAScript spec as of February 2020. They’ll eventually be out of date.

We know that properties are looked up in the prototype chain: if an object doesn’t have the property we’re trying to read, we walk up the prototype chain until we find it (or find an object which no longer has a prototype).

For example:

const o1 = { foo: 99 };
const o2 = {};
Object.setPrototypeOf(o2, o1);
o2.foo;
// → 99

Where’s the prototype walk defined? #

Let’s try to find out where this behavior is defined. A good place to start is a list of Object Internal Methods.

There’s both [[GetOwnProperty]] and [[Get]] — we’re interested in the version that isn’t restricted to own properties, so we’ll go with [[Get]].

Unfortunately, the Property Descriptor specification type also has a field called [[Get]], so while browsing the spec for [[Get]], we need to carefully distinguish between the two independent usages.

[[Get]] is an essential internal method. Ordinary objects implement the default behavior for essential internal methods. Exotic objects can define their own internal method [[Get]] which deviates from the default behavior. In this post, we focus on ordinary objects.

The default implementation for [[Get]] delegates to OrdinaryGet:

[[Get]] ( P, Receiver )

When the [[Get]] internal method of O is called with property key P and ECMAScript language value Receiver, the following steps are taken:

  1. Return ? OrdinaryGet(O, P, Receiver).

We’ll see shortly that Receiver is the value which is used as the this value when calling a getter function of an accessor property.

OrdinaryGet is defined like this:

OrdinaryGet ( O, P, Receiver )

When the abstract operation OrdinaryGet is called with Object O, property key P, and ECMAScript language value Receiver, the following steps are taken:

  1. Assert: IsPropertyKey(P) is true.
  2. Let desc be ? O.[[GetOwnProperty]](P).
  3. If desc is undefined, then
    1. Let parent be ? O.[[GetPrototypeOf]]().
    2. If parent is null, return undefined.
    3. Return ? parent.[[Get]](P, Receiver).
  4. If IsDataDescriptor(desc) is true, return desc.[[Value]].
  5. Assert: IsAccessorDescriptor(desc) is true.
  6. Let getter be desc.[[Get]].
  7. If getter is undefined, return undefined.
  8. Return ? Call(getter, Receiver).

The prototype chain walk is inside step 3: if we don’t find the property as an own property, we call the prototype’s [[Get]] method which delegates to OrdinaryGet again. If we still don’t find the property, we call its prototype’s [[Get]] method, which delegates to OrdinaryGet again, and so on, until we either find the property or reach an object without a prototype.

Let’s look at how this algorithm works when we access o2.foo. First we invoke OrdinaryGet with O being o2 and P being "foo". O.[[GetOwnProperty]]("foo") returns undefined, since o2 doesn’t have an own property called "foo", so we take the if branch in step 3. In step 3.a, we set parent to the prototype of o2 which is o1. parent is not null, so we don’t return in step 3.b. In step 3.c, we call the parent’s [[Get]] method with property key "foo", and return whatever it returns.

The parent (o1) is an ordinary object, so its [[Get]] method invokes OrdinaryGet again, this time with O being o1 and P being "foo". o1 has an own property called "foo", so in step 2, O.[[GetOwnProperty]]("foo") returns the associated Property Descriptor and we store it in desc.

Property Descriptor is a specification type. Data Property Descriptors store the value of the property directly in the [[Value]] field. Accessor Property Descriptors store the accessor functions in fields [[Get]] and/or [[Set]]. In this case, the Property Descriptor associated with "foo" is a data Property Descriptor.

The data Property Descriptor we stored in desc in step 2 is not undefined, so we don’t take the if branch in step 3. Next we execute step 4. The Property Descriptor is a data Property Descriptor, so we return its [[Value]] field, 99, in step 4, and we’re done.

What’s Receiver and where is it coming from? #

The Receiver parameter is only used in the case of accessor properties in step 8. It’s passed as the this value when calling the getter function of an accessor property.

OrdinaryGet passes the original Receiver throughout the recursion, unchanged (step 3.c). Let’s find out where the Receiver is originally coming from!

Searching for places where [[Get]] is called we find an abstract operation GetValue which operates on References. Reference is a specification type, consisting of a base value, the referenced name, and a strict reference flag. In the case of o2.foo, the base value is the Object o2, the referenced name is the String "foo", and the strict reference flag is false, since the example code is sloppy.

Side track: Why is Reference not a Record? #

Side track: Reference is not a Record, even though it sounds like it could be. It contains three components, which could equally well be expressed as three named fields. Reference is not a Record only because of historical reasons.

Back to GetValue #

Let’s look at how GetValue is defined:

GetValue ( V )

  1. ReturnIfAbrupt(V).
  2. If Type(V) is not Reference, return V.
  3. Let base be GetBase(V).
  4. If IsUnresolvableReference(V) is true, throw a ReferenceError exception.
  5. If IsPropertyReference(V) is true, then
    1. If HasPrimitiveBase(V) is true, then
      1. Assert: In this case, base will never be undefined or null.
      2. Set base to ! ToObject(base).
    2. Return ? base.[[Get]](GetReferencedName(V), GetThisValue(V)).
  6. Else,
    1. Assert: base is an Environment Record.
    2. Return ? base.GetBindingValue(GetReferencedName(V), IsStrictReference(V))

The Reference in our example is o2.foo, which is a property reference. So we take branch 5. We don’t take the branch in 5.a, since the base (o2) is not a primitive value (a Number, String, Symbol, BigInt, Boolean, Undefined, or Null).

Then we call [[Get]] in step 5.b. The Receiver we pass is GetThisValue(V). In this case, it’s just the base value of the Reference:

GetThisValue( V )

  1. Assert: IsPropertyReference(V) is true.
  2. If IsSuperReference(V) is true, then
    1. Return the value of the thisValue component of the reference V.
  3. Return GetBase(V).

For o2.foo, we don’t take the branch in step 2, since it’s not a Super Reference (such as super.foo), but we take step 3 and return the base value of the Reference which is o2.

Piecing everything together, we find out that we set the Receiver to be the base of the original Reference, and then we keep it unchanged during the prototype chain walk. Finally, if the property we find is an accessor property, we use the Receiver as the this value when calling it.

In particular, the this value inside a getter refers to the original object where we tried to get the property from, not the one where we found the property during the prototype chain walk.

Let’s try it out!

const o1 = { x: 10, get foo() { return this.x; } };
const o2 = { x: 50 };
Object.setPrototypeOf(o2, o1);
o2.foo;
// → 50

In this example, we have an accessor property called foo and we define a getter for it. The getter returns this.x.

Then we access o2.foo - what does the getter return?

We found out that when we call the getter, the this value is the object where we originally tried to get the property from, not the object where we found it. In this case the this value is o2, not o1. We can verify that by checking whether the getter returns o2.x or o1.x, and indeed, it returns o2.x.

It works! We were able to predict the behavior of this code snippet based on what we read in the spec.

Accessing properties — why does it invoke [[Get]]? #

Where does the spec say that the Object internal method [[Get]] will get invoked when accessing a property like o2.foo? Surely that has to be defined somewhere. Don’t take my word for it!

We found out that the Object internal method [[Get]] is called from the abstract operation GetValue which operates on References. But where is GetValue called from?

Runtime semantics for MemberExpression #

The grammar rules of the spec define the syntax of the language. Runtime semantics define what the syntactic constructs “mean” (how to evaluate them at runtime).

If you’re not familiar with context-free grammars, it’s a good idea to have a look now!

We’ll take a deeper look into the grammar rules in a later episode, let’s keep it simple for now! In particular, we can ignore the subscripts (Yield, Await and so on) in the productions for this episode.

The following productions describe what a MemberExpression looks like:

MemberExpression :
PrimaryExpression
MemberExpression [ Expression ]
MemberExpression . IdentifierName
MemberExpression TemplateLiteral
SuperProperty
MetaProperty
new MemberExpression Arguments

Here we have 7 productions for MemberExpression. A MemberExpression can be just a PrimaryExpression. Alternatively, a MemberExpression can be constructed from another MemberExpression and Expression by piecing them together: MemberExpression [ Expression ], for example o2['foo']. Or it can be MemberExpression . IdentifierName, for example o2.foo — this is the production relevant for our example.

Runtime semantics for the production MemberExpression : MemberExpression . IdentifierName define the set of steps to take when evaluating it:

Runtime Semantics: Evaluation for MemberExpression : MemberExpression . IdentifierName

  1. Let baseReference be the result of evaluating MemberExpression.
  2. Let baseValue be ? GetValue(baseReference).
  3. If the code matched by this MemberExpression is strict mode code, let strict be true; else let strict be false.
  4. Return ? EvaluatePropertyAccessWithIdentifierKey(baseValue, IdentifierName, strict).

The algorithm delegates to the abstract operation EvaluatePropertyAccessWithIdentifierKey, so we need to read it too:

EvaluatePropertyAccessWithIdentifierKey( baseValue, identifierName, strict )

The abstract operation EvaluatePropertyAccessWithIdentifierKey takes as arguments a value baseValue, a Parse Node identifierName, and a Boolean argument strict. It performs the following steps:

  1. Assert: identifierName is an IdentifierName
  2. Let bv be ? RequireObjectCoercible(baseValue).
  3. Let propertyNameString be StringValue of identifierName.
  4. Return a value of type Reference whose base value component is bv, whose referenced name component is propertyNameString, and whose strict reference flag is strict.

That is: EvaluatePropertyAccessWithIdentifierKey constructs a Reference which uses the provided baseValue as the base, the string value of identifierName as the property name, and strict as the strict mode flag.

Eventually this Reference gets passed to GetValue. This is defined in several places in the spec, depending on how the Reference ends up being used.

MemberExpression as a parameter #

In our example, we use the property access as a parameter:

console.log(o2.foo);

In this case, the behavior is defined in the runtime semantics of ArgumentList production which calls GetValue on the argument:

Runtime Semantics: ArgumentListEvaluation

ArgumentList : AssignmentExpression

  1. Let ref be the result of evaluating AssignmentExpression.
  2. Let arg be ? GetValue(ref).
  3. Return a List whose sole item is arg.

o2.foo doesn’t look like an AssignmentExpression but it is one, so this production is applicable. To find out why, you can check out this extra content, but it’s not strictly necessary at this point.

The AssignmentExpression in step 1 is o2.foo. ref, the result of evaluating o2.foo, is the above mentioned Reference. In step 2 we call GetValue on it. Thus, we know that the Object internal method [[Get]] will get invoked, and the prototype chain walk will occur.

Summary #

In this episode, we looked at how the spec defines a language feature, in this case prototype lookup, across all the different layers: the syntactic constructs that trigger the feature and the algorithms defining it.