WDI Fundamentals

WDI Fundamentals Unit 8

Expressions with Variables

One major calculator function we haven't mentioned yet is memory. Many calculators have buttons that can be used to store the results of calculations for later use. JavaScript's answer to this is variables.

Suppose we wanted to save the result of our expression, (99 * 746) - (837 * 23), and then multiply the whole thing by 2. We could store our first result in a variable, x, using = (the "assignment" operator) as follows:

var x = (99 * 746) - (837 * 23);

The keyword var stands for variable and is used to declare a variable the first time we use it. A variable can be declared without using the keyword var, but this has major implications as to where that variable is stored and what code can access it. You'll learn more about this when you cover the concept of scope. For now, always declare your variables using var.

HINT As mentioned above, = is called the assignment operator. An interesting fact to note is that it actually returns a value after it's finished with its "assignment" work. In particular, the = operator evaluates to whatever the expression to the right of the = evaluates to. In other words, the expression x = 2; returns 2.

When we want to then use this result, we simply substitute x for wherever our original expression might have gone. For instance, we could write x * 2; and this expression would evaluate to double the value stored in x.

Like before, to figure out how to evaluate an expression containing variables, we simply draw a tree. The only difference is that x (or any other variable we might be using) evaluates to the value it is storing at the time.

Test Yourself

Assume that x is equal to 10. What values do the following expressions evaluate to? Save x as a variable in the JS Bin console, and check your answers.

  • x + 20;
  • x * x;
  • 3 * (x * x) - 2 * x + 5;

We can redefine our variable x as many times as we want. However, only the most recent value of x is retained Once x is redefined, its original value is lost forever.

Consider the following JavaScript code in a JS Bin console.

var x = 1;
// => 1
x = 2 + x;
// => 3
// => 3

On the first line, we are assigning the variable x as equal to the integer 1. Then, on the next line, we are reassigning the variable x and setting it as equal to the following: 2 plus the most recent value of x (in this case, 1). x would now be equal to the integer 3.

Beginners often confuse the assignment operator (=) and the equality operators (==, ===). Remember, if you want to compare two values, you use a double equal or triple equal sign. Using a single equal sign, as described above, does not compare values; instead, a single equal sign assigns a value to a variable. See below:

// => 3
x == 4;
// => false
x = 4;
// => 4
x == 4;
// => true

Suppose we ran the following lines of code in order, one by one.

var x = 10;
x = 1;
x = 5;
x = 15;
2 * x;

What does that last expression evaluate to? Or, put differently, what is the most recent value of x (as of that line) multiplied by 2? If you guessed 30, you're correct!

Sometimes, we find variables on both sides of the =. Suppose we have two variables, x and y, like the example below:

var x = 5;
var y = 10;
x = y + 10;

What happens in that third line? For starters, everything to the right of the = must be evaluated before any kind of assignment can happen. y + 10; evaluates to 20, so what we're left with is the expression x = 20;. This assigns the value 20 to x, and the entire expression evaluates to 20.

Let's look at one more example using the same two variables, x and y.

var x = 1;
var y = 10;
x = y * 2;
y = x + 1;
x = y + 1;
y = 2 * x;

Feeling dizzy? Don't worry, we'll step through this one together.

Line 1: We declare a new variable x and assign it the value 1.

Line 2: We declare another new variable y and assign it the value 10.

Line 3: As of this point in the code, y has a value of 10. We multiply that by 2, resulting in 20. We assign that resulting value to x.

Line 4: x now has a value of 20, so y gets assigned a new value of 21 (20 + 1).

Line 5: y was just changed to 21, so x becomes 22 (21 + 1).

Line 6: x is now 22, so y becomes 2 * 22, or 44.

One important thing to mention here is that at no point is any lasting relationship established between x and y (unlike math equations). We are simply evaluating the expression on the right and assigning the result to the variable on the left.

Test Yourself

Give these a try — see if you can predict the final values of x, y, and z. Check your answers in JS Bin by copying the entire chunk of code into the editor window, running it, and then checking x,y, and z in the JS Bin console.

Challenge #1
var x = 1;
var y = 2;
var z = 3;
x = y;
y = z;
z = x;
Challenge #2
var x = 1;
var y = 0;
var z = -1;
x = y + z;
y = z * x;
z = x - y;
x = y * y;
y = z * z;
z = z - 1;

Whoa! That last one's pretty weird — how can z be on both sides of the =? What do you think happens there?

The key is remembering how the = operator works. Before it assigns anything to the variable on the left, it first evaluates the expression on the right. This means that, if we have any expression like x = x + 1;, what we are doing is taking the old value of x, adding 1 to it, and storing this new result back in x. In short, we are "incrementing" x: increasing its value by 1, no matter its original value.

A Few Shortcuts

The need to operate "in place" (in other words, storing the result back inside the original variable) is quite common in programming — so common that most languages include shorthand syntax for these kind of operations. Some examples are shown below:

Longhand Syntax Shorthand Syntax
x = x + 1; x += 1;
x = x - 5; x -= 5;
x = x * 2; x *= 2;
x = x / 10; x /= 10;
x = x % 10; x %= 10;
x = x + 1; x++;

Your turn!