TypeScript explained in JavaScript: keyof

TypeScript explained in JavaScript: keyof

Photo by Samantha Lam

This is the first post in a series aimed at exploring powerful but potentially confusing aspects of TypeScript using more familiar patterns in JavaScript to provide analogies. This series will assume you have some familiarity with Javascript but only the basics of TypeScript. If you’ve gone through TypeScript Tooling in 5 minutes and were able to understand most of it, you should be in the perfect place!

This series will start with keyof since it will be a necessary building block for many other concepts.

JavaScript

But before talking about that, let’s start with some JavaScript:

const user = {
  firstName: "Type",
  lastName: "Script"
};

const properties = Object.keys(user);

console.log(properties); // [ "firstName", "lastName" ]

Here we are defining a user object and giving that user a first and last name. We are then using the Object.keys method available since ES5. This returns an array of the object’s properties (or keys). In this example that will be ["firstName", "lastName"].

How could this be used in practice? Let’s say you have a helper method that accepts an object and property name and will return the value for the given object and key. However, you only want to allow valid keys that exist for the given object. To handle this, it may look something like the following:

const getProperty = (obj, key) => {
  const keys = Object.keys(obj);

  if (keys.indexOf(key) === -1) {
    throw new Error(`Unexpected key "${key}" does not exist in keys: ${keys}`);
  }

  return obj[key];
};

console.log(getProperty(user, "firstName"));
// "Type"

console.log(getProperty(user, "lastName"));
// "Script"

console.log(getProperty(user, "middleName"));
// Unexpected key "middleName"" does not exist in keys: firstName,lastName

This getProperty helper only accepts a key argument that exists in the passed obj. However, this is a runtime check, meaning this error isn’t seen until the code actually runs. Could we move this earlier, to compile time before even running the code?

TypeScript

This is where the keyof operator comes in. It conceptually behaves identical to the Object.keys method, but is a type instead of a literal value. To start, let’s define a User interface that describes the user object.

interface User {
  firstName: string;
  lastName: string;
}

const user: User = {
  firstName: "Type",
  lastName: "Script"
};

Now translating the JavaScript Object.keys(user) from above to TypeScript would now be keyof User.

type Keys = keyof User; // "firstName" | "lastName"

This returns the union type of all the properties in the User interface. The pipe operator (|) can be thought of as “or”, so this says that Keys will be firstName or lastName. This is exactly what we want to enforce at compile time. So building off this, the getProperty method can be updated to take advantage of this.

const getProperty = <Obj, Key extends keyof Obj>(obj: Obj, key: Key) =>
  obj[key];

This getProperty method now has two generic types: Obj and Key that correspond to the two arguments. However, this definition is constraining Key by saying it must extend the value of keyof Obj. In the case of passing user to this method, keyof Obj is firstName or lastName. This means Key must be firstName or lastName. A later post will cover extends in more depth.

Now using it catches the same error, but now at compile time! This means you can get this feedback directly in your editor, one of the great values of TypeScript.

console.log(getProperty(user, "firstName"));
// "Type"

console.log(getProperty(user, "lastName"));
// "Script"

console.log(getProperty(user, "middleName"));
// Argument of type '"middleName"' is not assignable to parameter of type '"firstName" | "lastName"'

Definition

Now that we have a rough analogy of behavior, what’s the formal definition?

For any type T, keyof T is the union of known, public property names of T

Or, for the type User, keyof User is the union of known, public properties of User, which are: "firstName" | "lastName".

The keyof operator (also known as the index type query operator) was originally introduced in TypeScript 2.1.

Conclusion

In summary, you can roughly relate TypeScript’s keyof behavior to JavaScript’s Object.keys behavior. The keyof operator is one of the building blocks for more complex typings used in conjunction with other concepts such as conditional types or mapped types that will be covered in later posts.

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