useful js: call & apply

02 Nov 2012

Javascript’s call and apply are two mysterious functions that can be difficult to understand, but it’s worth taking the time to learn about them becuase they’re ver useful. They’re also very similar, but with one subtle but important difference.


call, or more properly,, is a property of all Javascript functions.

It allows you to run a function and define what the value of this will be inside the function, and also supply arguments to the function you are running. For example:

var log_this = function () {

// This will log the default 'this' object.
// In a browser, that's the 'window'.

// Now we create an object that we will use as 'this'
var thing = {
  name: 'Big Hairy Thing'

// This will log the 'thing' created above, because
// using 'call' ensures that 'this' within log_this
// is the 'thing', not the default 'this' (window).;

Any other arguments you pass to call are passed to the function you are calling as its arguments. Like so:

var log_this_and_message = function (message) {
  console.log(this, message);

var thing = {
  name: 'Big Hairy Thing'
};, 'Hello!');

Neato, eh?


apply is very similar, and can be run on any functions. It runs your function, and the first argument you pass is the same as in call: it will become the value of this.

The difference is that you don’t pass the other arguments individually, you pass them as an array.

Here’s the example above using apply:

var log_this_and_message = function (message) {
  console.log(this, message);

// Now we create an object that we will use as 'this'
var thing = {
  name: 'Big Hairy Thing'

log_this_and_message.apply(thing, ['Hello!']);

See the difference? It’s subtle, but important.

In use

Here’s some great uses for call and apply


Did you know that the arguments variable inside all functions is not actually an array? That means you can’t use all the nice array methods like pop, push and slice on it! If you want to turn arguments into an array, use call:

var args = [], 0);

Here we’re using the slice method of an empty array.

slice copies elements out of one array and returns them as a new array. It starts at the index you supply in the first argument and finishes one before the index you supply in the second argument, or it goes all the way to the end if you don’t supply a second argument.

slice copies elements out of whatever object this refers to. Usually, inside slice, the value of this is the array we are calling slice on. In the above example, that would be the empty array. However, becase we are using call, this is in fact the array-like object arguments. slice copies each element out of arguments into a real array and returns it.


Log it all

Let’s say you’re passing a callback to someone else’s library and you’re expecting data back, but you don’t know how many arguments you’re going to get. There’s a simple trick to allow you to console.log everything that’s passed to your callback.

var args = [], 0);
console.log.apply(console, args);

Becuase apply takes an array of arguments to be passed to the function, you can sling it the array of arguments you recieved and have them logged out, all nicely formatted.

Note: you could actually just pass arguments as the second argument to apply, becuase it’s ‘array-like’ enough, but for now we’ll play it safe.


Here’s a bigger example.

I’ve put together a publisher/subscriber object called pubsub. It uses call and apply to implement some neat features. Take some time to run it, look through it and have a play.


 * the pubsub is a publisher/subscriber system to demonstrate
 * use of and Function.apply.

var pubsub = {};

 * pubsub.subscribers is an object where each key is an event
 * and each value is an array of callback functions associated
 * with a particular event.
pubsub.subscribers = {
  'some_event': [
    function () { console.log("some_event occured!"); }

 * pubsub.publish calls all the callbacks associated with a
 * particular event (the first argument), passing each callback
 * any further arguments supplied to publish.

pubsub.publish = function () {
  // arguments is not an array.
  // use `[]` to turn it into a proper one.
  // See:
  var args = [], 0);

  // pull the event off the front of the array of arguments.
  var event = args.shift();

  // If we have no subscribers to this event, initialise it.
  // Note, we could just return here.
  if( !pubsub.subscribers[event] ) pubsub.subscribers[event] = [];

  // Run through all the subscriber callbacks to the event and
  // fire them using `apply`. This runs the cb with a set of
  // arguments from the args array.
  // See:
  pubsub.subscribers[event].forEach(function (cb) {
    cb.apply(this, args);

 * pubsub.subscribe adds a callback an event's list

pubsub.subscribe = function (event, cb) {
  // first, if this is a new event, set up a new list in the
  // subscribers object.
  if( !pubsub.subscribers[event] ) {
    pubsub.subscribers[event] = [];
  // next, push the supplied callback into the list to be
  // called when the object is published

// Example use:


pubsub.subscribe('say_hello', function (name) {
  console.log('Hello, ' + name);

pubsub.subscribe('say_goodbye', function (name) {
  console.log('Goodbye, ' + name);

pubsub.subscribe('poke', function (name) {
  console.log(name + " was poked.");

pubsub.publish('say_hello', 'Tom');
pubsub.publish('poke', 'Paul');
pubsub.publish('say_goodbye', 'Mr Fish');

Once again, thanks for reading.