Generics

The key motivation for generics is to provide meaningful type constraints between members. The members can be:

  • Class instance members
  • Class methods
  • function arguments
  • function return value

Motivation and samples

Consider the simple Queue (first in, first out) data structure implementation. A simple one in TypeScript / JavaScript looks like:

class Queue {
  private data = [];
  push = (item) => this.data.push(item);
  pop = () => this.data.shift();
}

One issue with this implementation is that it allows people to add anything to the queue and when they pop it - it can be anything. This is shown below, where someone can push a string onto the queue while the usage actually assumes that only numbers where pushed in:

class Queue {
  private data = [];
  push = (item) => this.data.push(item);
  pop = () => this.data.shift();
}

const queue = new Queue();
queue.push(0);
queue.push("1"); // Ops a mistake

// a developer walks into a bar
console.log(queue.pop().toPrecision(1));
console.log(queue.pop().toPrecision(1)); // RUNTIME ERROR

One solution (and in fact the only one in languages that don't support generics) is to go ahead and create special classes just for these contraints. E.g. a quick and dirty number queue:

class QueueNumber {
  private data = [];
  push = (item: number) => this.data.push(item);
  pop = (): number => this.data.shift();
}

const queue = new QueueNumber();
queue.push(0);
queue.push("1"); // ERROR : cannot push a string. Only numbers allowed

// ^ if that error is fixed the rest would be fine too

Of course this can quickly become painful e.g. if you want a string queue you have to go through all that effort again. What you really want is a way to say that whatever the type is of the stuff getting pushed it should be the same for whatever gets poped. This is done easily with a generic parameter (in this case on the class):

/** A class definition with a generic parameter */
class Queue<T> {
  private data = [];
  push = (item: T) => this.data.push(item);
  pop = (): T => this.data.shift();
}

/** Again sample usage */
const queue = new Queue<number>();
queue.push(0);
queue.push("1"); // ERROR : cannot push a string. Only numbers allowed

// ^ if that error is fixed the rest would be fine too

Another example that we have already seen is that of a reverse function, here the constraint is between what gets passed into the function and what the function returns:

function reverse<T>(items: T[]): T[] {
    var toreturn = [];
    for (let i = items.length - 1; i >= 0; i--) {
        toreturn.push(items[i]);
    }
    return toreturn;
}

var sample = [1, 2, 3];
var reversed = reverse(sample);
console.log(reversed); // 3,2,1

// Safety!
reversed[0] = '1';     // Error!
reversed = ['1', '2']; // Error!

reversed[0] = 1;       // Okay
reversed = [1, 2];     // Okay

In this section you have seen examples of generics being defined at class level and at function level. One minor addition worth mentioning is that you can have generics created just for a member function. As a toy example consider the following where we move the reverse function into a Utility class:

class Utility {
  reverse<T>(items: T[]): T[] {
      var toreturn = [];
      for (let i = items.length - 1; i >= 0; i--) {
          toreturn.push(items[i]);
      }
      return toreturn;
  }
}

TIP: You can call the generic parameter whatever you want. It is conventional to use T, U, V when you have simple generics. If you have more than one generic argument try to use meaningful names e.g. TKey and TValue (conventional to prefix with T as generics are also called templates in other languages e.g. C++).

Generics in TSX

Because .tsx / .jsx uses syntax like <div> to denote JSX blocks it offers a few unique challenges for Generics.

Quick Tip: Use as Foo syntax for type assertions as we mentioned before.

Generic functions

Something like the following works fine:

function foo<T>(x: T): T { return x; }

However using an arrow generic function will not:

const foo = <T>(x: T) => x; // ERROR : unclosed `T` tag

Workaround: Use extends on the generic parameter to hint the compiler that it's a generic, e.g.:

const foo = <T extends {}>(x: T) => x;

Generic Components

Since JSX doesn't have a syntax for providing a generic parameter you need to specialize the component using a type assertion before creating it, e.g.:

/** Generic component */
type SelectProps<T> = { items: T[] }
class Select<T> extends React.Component<SelectProps<T>, any> { }

/** Specialization */
interface StringSelect { new (): Select<string> };
const StringSelect = Select as StringSelect;

/** Usage */
const Form = ()=> <StringSelect items={['a', 'b']} />;

Useless Generic

I've seen people use generics just for the heck of it. The question to ask is what constraint are you trying to describe. If you can't answer it easily you probably have a useless generic. E.g. people have attempted to type the nodejs require function as:

declare function require<T>(name: string): T;

In this case you can see that the type T is only used in one place. So there is not constraint between members. You would be better off with a type assertion in this case:

declare function require(name: string): any;

const something = require('something') as TypeOfSomething;

This is just an example, if you are considering on using this require typings you don't need to cause:

  1. It's already there in node.d.ts you can install using npm install @types/node --save-dev.
  2. You should consider using the type definitions for your library e.g. for jquery npm install @types/jquery --save-dev instead of using raw require.

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