Why “for…in” shouldn’t be used for array iteration? | JavaScript [Answered]

Query:

I’ve been told not to use for...in with arrays in JavaScript. Why not?

Why “for…in” shouldn’t be used for array iteration? Answer #1:

The reason is that one construct:

var a = []; // Create a new empty array.
a[5] = 5;   // Perfectly legal JavaScript that resizes the array.

for (var i = 0; i < a.length; i++) {
    // Iterate over numeric indexes from 0 to 5, as everyone expects.
    console.log(a[i]);
}

/* Will display:
   undefined
   undefined
   undefined
   undefined
   undefined
   5
*/

can sometimes be totally different from the other:

var a = [];
a[5] = 5;
for (var x in a) {
    // Shows only the explicitly set index of "5", and ignores 0-4
    console.log(x);
}

/* Will display:
   5
*/

Also consider that JavaScript libraries might do things like this, which will affect any array you create:

// Somewhere deep in your JavaScript library...
Array.prototype.foo = 1;

// Now you have no idea what the below code will do.
var a = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5];
for (var x in a){
    // Now foo is a part of EVERY array and 
    // will show up here as a value of 'x'.
    console.log(x);
}

/* Will display:
   0
   1
   2
   3
   4
   foo
*/

Why is using “for…in” for array iteration a bad idea? Answer #2:

The for-in statement by itself is not a “bad practice”, however it can be mis-used, for example, to iterate over arrays or array-like objects.

The purpose of the for-in statement is to enumerate over object properties. This statement will go up in the prototype chain, also enumerating over inherited properties, a thing that sometimes is not desired.

Also, the order of iteration is not guaranteed by the spec., meaning that if you want to “iterate” an array object, with this statement you cannot be sure that the properties (array indexes) will be visited in the numeric order.

For example, in JScript (IE <= 8), the order of enumeration even on Array objects is defined as the properties were created:

var array = [];
array[2] = 'c';
array[1] = 'b';
array[0] = 'a';

for (var p in array) {
  //... p will be "2", "1" and "0" on IE
}

Also, speaking about inherited properties, if you, for example, extend the Array.prototype object (like some libraries as MooTools do), that properties will be also enumerated:

Array.prototype.last = function () { return this[this.length-1]; };

for (var p in []) { // an empty array
  // last will be enumerated
}

As I said before to iterate over arrays or array-like objects, the best thing is to use a sequential loop, such as a plain-old for/while loop.

When you want to enumerate only the own properties of an object (the ones that aren’t inherited), you can use the hasOwnProperty method:

for (var prop in obj) {
  if (obj.hasOwnProperty(prop)) {
    // prop is not inherited
  }
}

And some people even recommend calling the method directly from Object.prototype to avoid having problems if somebody adds a property named hasOwnProperty to our object:

for (var prop in obj) {
  if (Object.prototype.hasOwnProperty.call(obj, prop)) {
    // prop is not inherited
  }
}

Answer #3:

There are three reasons why you shouldn’t use for..in to iterate over array elements:

  • for..in will loop over all own and inherited properties of the array object which aren’t DontEnum; that means if someone adds properties to the specific array object (there are valid reasons for this – I’ve done so myself) or changed Array.prototype (which is considered bad practice in code which is supposed to work well with other scripts), these properties will be iterated over as well; inherited properties can be excluded by checking hasOwnProperty(), but that won’t help you with properties set in the array object itself
  • for..in isn’t guaranteed to preserve element ordering
  • it’s slow because you have to walk all properties of the array object and its whole prototype chain and will still only get the property’s name, ie to get the value, an additional lookup will be required

Answer #4:

Because for…in enumerates through the object that holds the array, not the array itself. If I add a function to the arrays prototype chain, that will also be included. I.e.

Array.prototype.myOwnFunction = function() { alert(this); }
a = new Array();
a[0] = 'foo';
a[1] = 'bar';
for(x in a){
 document.write(x + ' = ' + a[x]);
}

This will write:

0 = foo
1 = bar
myOwnFunction = function() { alert(this); }

And since you can never be sure that nothing will be added to the prototype chain just use a for loop to enumerate the array:

for(i=0,x=a.length;i<x;i++){
 document.write(i + ' = ' + a[i]);
}

This will write:

0 = foo
1 = bar

Answer #5:

As of 2016 (ES6) we may use for…of for array iteration, as already mentioned above.

I would just like to add this simple demonstration code, to make things clearer:

Array.prototype.foo = 1;
var arr = [];
arr[5] = "xyz";

console.log("for...of:");
var count = 0;
for (var item of arr) {
    console.log(count + ":", item);
    count++;
    }

console.log("for...in:");
count = 0;
for (var item in arr) {
    console.log(count + ":", item);
    count++;
    }

The console shows:

for...of:

0: undefined
1: undefined
2: undefined
3: undefined
4: undefined
5: xyz

for...in:

0: 5
1: foo

In other words:

  • for...of counts from 0 to 5, and also ignores Array.prototype.foo. It shows array values.
  • for...in lists only the 5, ignoring undefined array indexes, but adding foo. It shows array property names.

Answer #6:

Short answer: It’s just not worth it.


Longer answer: It’s just not worth it, even if sequential element order and optimal performance aren’t required.


Long answer: It’s just not worth it…

  • Using for (var property in array) will cause array to be iterated over as an object, traversing the object prototype chain and ultimately performing slower than an index-based for loop.
  • for (... in ...) is not guaranteed to return the object properties in sequential order, as one might expect.
  • Using hasOwnProperty() and !isNaN() checks to filter the object properties is an additional overhead causing it to perform even slower and negates the key reason for using it in the first place, i.e. because of the more concise format.

For these reasons an acceptable trade-off between performance and convenience doesn’t even exist. There’s really no benefit unless the intent is to handle the array as an object and perform operations on the object properties of the array.

Answer #7:

In isolation, there is nothing wrong with using for-in on arrays. For-in iterates over the property names of an object, and in the case of an “out-of-the-box” array, the properties corresponds to the array indexes. (The built-in propertes like lengthtoString and so on are not included in the iteration.)

However, if your code (or the framework you are using) add custom properties to arrays or to the array prototype, then these properties will be included in the iteration, which is probably not what you want.

Some JS frameworks, like Prototype modifies the Array prototype. Other frameworks like JQuery doesn’t, so with JQuery you can safely use for-in.

If you are in doubt, you probably shouldn’t use for-in.

An alternative way of iterating through an array is using a for-loop:

for (var ix=0;ix<arr.length;ix++) alert(ix);

However, this have a different issue. The issue is that a JavaScript array can have “holes”. If you define arr as:

var arr = ["hello"];
arr[100] = "goodbye";

Then the array have two items, but a length of 101. Using for-in will yield two indexes, while the for-loop will yield 101 indexes, where the 99 has a value of undefined.

Hope you learned something from this post.

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