New ES5 strict mode support: now with poison pills!


Don’t try to use the arguments or caller properties of functions created in strict mode code. Don’t try to use the callee or caller properties of arguments objects corresponding to invocations of functions in strict mode code. Don’t try to use the caller property of a function if it might be called from strict mode code. You are in for an unpleasant surprise (a thrown TypeError) if you do.

function strict() { "use strict"; return arguments; }
function outer() { "use strict"; return inner(); }
function inner() { return inner.caller; }

strict.caller;    // !!! BAD IDEA
strict.arguments; // !!! BAD IDEA
strict().caller;  // !!! BAD IDEA
strict().callee;  // !!! BAD IDEA
outer();          // !!! BAD IDEA

Really, it’s best not to access the caller of a function, the current function (except by naming it), or the arguments for a given function (except via arguments or by use of the named parameter) at all.

ES5 strict mode: self-limitation, not wish fulfillment

ES5 introduces the curious concept of strict mode. Strict mode, whose name and concept derive from the similar feature in Perl, is a new feature in ES5 whose purpose is to deliberately reduce the things you can do in JavaScript. Instead of a feature, it’s really more the absence of several features, within the scope of the strict-annotated code: with, particularly intrusive forms of eval, silent failure of writes to non-writable properties, silent failure of deletions of non-configurable properties, implicit creation of global-object properties, and so on. The goal of these removals is to simplify both the reasoning necessary to understand such code and the implementation of it in JavaScript engines: to sand away some rough edges in the language.

Magical stack-introspective properties of functions and arguments

Consider this code, and note the expected behavior (expected per the web, but not as part of ES3):

function getSelf() { return arguments.callee; }
assertEq(getSelf(), getSelf); // arguments.callee is the enclosing function

function outer()
  function inner() { return arguments.callee.caller; } // inner.caller === outer
  return inner();
assertEq(outer(), outer); // fun.caller === nearest function in stack that called fun, or null

function args2()
  return args2.arguments;
assertEq(args2(17)[0], 17); // fun.arguments === arguments object for nearest call to fun in stack, or null

Real-world JavaScript implementations take many shortcuts for top performance. These shortcuts are not (supposed to be) observable, except by timing the relevant functionality. Two common optimizations are function inlining and avoiding creating an arguments object. The above “features” play havoc with both of these optimizations (as well as others, one of which will be the subject of a forthcoming post).

Inlining a function should conceptually be equivalent to splatting the function’s contents in that location in the calling function and doing some α-renaming to ensure no names in the splatted body conflict with the surrounding code. The ability to access the calling function defeats this: there’s no function being invoked any more, so what does it even mean to ask for the function’s caller? (Don’t simply say you’d hard-code the surrounding function: how do you know which property lookups in the inlined code will occur upon precisely the function being called, looking for precisely the caller property?) It is also possible to access a function’s arguments through fun.arguments. While the “proper” behavior here is more obvious, implementing it would be a large hassle: either the arguments would have to be created when the function was inlined (in the general case where you can’t be sure the function will never be used this way), or you’d have to inline code in such a way as to be able to “work backward” to the argument values.

Speaking of arguments, in offering access to the corresponding function via arguments.callee it has the same problems as fun.caller. It also presents one further problem: in (some, mostly old) engines, arguments.caller provides access to the variables declared within that function when it was most recently called. (If you’re thinking security/integrity/optimization hazard, well, you now know why engines no longer support it.)

In sum these features are bad for optimization. Further, since they’re a form of dynamic scoping, they’re basically bad style in many other languages already.

Per ES5, SpiderMonkey no longer supports this stack-inspecting magic when it interacts with strict mode

As of the most recent Firefox nightly, SpiderMonkey now rejects code like that given above when it occurs in strict mode (more or less). (The properties in question are now generally implemented through a so-called “poison pill” mechanism, an immutable accessor property which throws a TypeError when retrieved or set.) The specific scenarios which we reject are as follows.

First, attempts to access the caller or arguments (except by directly naming the object) of a strict mode function throw a TypeError, because these properties are poison pills:

function strict()
  "use strict";
  strict.caller;    // !!! TypeError
  strict.arguments; // !!! TypeError
  return arguments; // direct name: perfectly cromulent

Second, attempts to access the enclosing function or caller variables via the arguments of a strict mode function throw a TypeError. These properties too are poison pills:

function strict()
  "use strict";
  arguments.callee; // !!! TypeError
  arguments.caller; // !!! TypeError

Third (and most trickily, because non-strict code is affected), attempts to access a function’s caller when that caller is in strict mode will throw a TypeError. This isn’t a poison pill, because if the "use strict" directive weren’t there it would still “work”:

function outer()
  "use strict";
  return inner();
function inner()
  return inner.caller; // !!! TypeError

But if there’s no strict mode in sight, nothing will throw exceptions, and what worked before will still work:

function fun()
  assertEq(fun.caller, null); // global scope
  assertEq(fun.arguments, arguments);
  assertEq(arguments.callee, fun);
  arguments.caller; // won't throw, won't do anything special
  return arguments;


With these changes, which are required by ES5, stack inspection is slowly going the way of the dodo. Don’t use it or rely on it! Even if you never use strict mode, beware the third change, for it still might affect you if you provide methods for other code to call. (But don’t expect to be able to avoid strict mode forever: I expect all JavaScript libraries will adopt strict mode in short order, given its benefits.)

(For those curious about new Error().stack, we’re still considering what to do about it. Regrettably, we may need to kill it for information-privacy reasons too, or at least censor it to something less useful. Nothing’s certain yet; stay tuned for further announcements should we make changes.)

You can experiment with a version of Firefox with these changes by downloading a TraceMonkey branch nightly; these changes should also make their way into mozilla-central nightlies shortly, if you’d rather stick to trunk builds. (Don’t forget to use the profile manager if you want to keep the settings you use with your primary Firefox installation pristine.)


Now in SpiderMonkey and Firefox: ES5‘s Function.prototype.bind

This is just a brief note to point out that, as of the August 29th Firefox nightly (and I think as of the latest beta, but don’t quote me), SpiderMonkey (and Firefox) now implements ES5‘s new Function.prototype.bind method — native support for creating functions bound to a pre-specified this value:

var property = 42;
var obj =
    property: 17,
    method: function() { return this.property; }

var bound = obj.method.bind(obj);
assertEq(bound(), 17);

…or with pre-specified leading arguments:

function multiply()
  var product = 1;
  for (var i = 0, sz = arguments.length; i < sz; i++)
    product *= arguments[i];
  return product;

var productTimesFive = multiply.bind(null /* this */, 5);
assertEq(productTimesFive(4, 3, 2, 1), 120);

…and, in a feature present only in the ES5 bind implementation (and not in any of the numerous precursors), they even work with new:

function Vector()
  var args = arguments;
  this.length = arguments.length;
  this.get = function(i) { return args[i]; };
  this.set = function(i, v) { args[i] = v; };

var PartialVector = Vector.bind(null /* this, ignored with new */, 3, 7);

var threeSevenTen = new PartialVector(10); // new Vector(3, 7, 10)

For more information, see the article on Function.prototype.bind on MDC. For the utmost information, see the ES5 specification for the method.

As always, you can experiment with a version of Firefox with Function.prototype.bind by downloading a nightly from nightly.mozilla.org. (Don’t forget to use the profile manager if you want to keep the settings you use with your primary Firefox installation pristine.)


Incompatible ES5 change: literal getter and setter functions must now have exactly zero or one arguments

ECMAScript accessor syntax in SpiderMonkey

For quite some time SpiderMonkey and Mozilla-based browsers have supported user-defined getter and setter functions (collectively, accessors), both programmatically and syntactically. The syntaxes for accessors were once legion, but SpiderMonkey has pared them back almost to the syntax recently codified in ES5 (and added new syntax where required by ES5).

// All valid in ES5
var a = { get x() { } };
var b = { get "y"() { } };
var c = { get 2() { } };

var e = { set x(v) { } };
var f = { set "y"(v) { } };
var g = { set 2(v) { } };

SpiderMonkey has historically parsed literal accessors using a slightly-tweaked version of its function parsing code. Therefore, as previously explained SpiderMonkey would accept essentially anything which could follow function in a function expression as valid accessor syntax in object literals.

ES5 requires accessors have exact numbers of arguments

A consequence of parsing accessors using generalized function parsing is that SpiderMonkey accepted some nonsensicalities, such as no-argument setters or multiple-argument getters or setters:

var o1 = { get p(a, b, c, d, e, f, g) { /* why have any arguments? */ } };
var o2 = { set p() { /* to what value? */ } };
var o3 = { set p(a, b, c) { /* why more than one? */ } };

ES5 accessor syntax sensibly deems such constructs errors: a conforming ES5 implementation would reject all of the above statements.

SpiderMonkey is changing to follow ES5: getters require no arguments, setters require one argument

SpiderMonkey has now been changed to follow ES5. There seemed little to no gain in continuing to support bizarre numbers of arguments when the spec counseled otherwise, and any code which does end up broken is easily fixed.

As always, you can experiment with a version of Firefox with these changes to accessor syntax by downloading a nightly from nightly.mozilla.org. (Don’t forget to use the profile manager if you want to keep the settings you use with your primary Firefox installation pristine.)


More SpiderMonkey changes: ancient, esoteric, very rarely used syntax for creating getters and setters is being removed


We’ve removed support for a handful of obsolete getter/setter syntaxes in SpiderMonkey and Mozilla. This does not include { get property() { return "value"; }, set property(v) { } }, which is widely used and which is part of the latest standard. If you don’t get any syntax errors with your code, you don’t need to worry about this. If you do, skip to the end for details on how to adjust your code to cope. But really, you should read it all for the sheer joy of learning about all sorts of awful syntax you didn’t even know existed before it went away. [Or at least empathize with us liberated SpiderMonkey hackers. :-D])

Properties in JavaScript and ECMAScript 3

The fundamental data structure in JavaScript is the object: a container mapping names to values through properties. You can add, remove, or change the value associated with any property, so long as the property may be modified. All user-defined properties are infinitely modifiable in any of these ways; only a few properties defined by ECMAScript (the standard on which JavaScript is based) are not fully modifiable.

var obj1 = {};
obj.property = 17; // add
var obj2 = { property: 42 }; // add from birth
obj2.property = 17; // change it
delete obj2.property; // remove it

Properties which store values are useful, but what if you want properties which can do things when you interact with them? What if you want to have properties which map strings to lazily-computed values? Or what if you want setting a property to have side effects (as, for example, setting an array’s length to 0 removes all elements in it)?

Properties with getters and setters in JavaScript

If you want properties which have functionality beyond just holding a value, you need getters and setters, stored within accessor properties. (Properties which hold values are called data properties.) JavaScript has long included extensions to ECMAScript to create accessor properties, both syntactic:

var o1 =
    get property() { print("gotten!"); return "get"; },
    set property(v) { print("sotten!  " + v); }
var v1 = o1.property; // prints "gotten!", v1 === "get"
o1.property = "new"; // prints "sotten!  new"

…and programmatic:

var o2 = {};
o2.__defineGetter__("property", function() { print("gotten!"); return "get"; });
o2.__defineSetter__("property", function(v) { print("sotten!  " + v); });
var v2 = o2.property; // prints "gotten!", v2 === "get"
o2.property = "new"; // prints "sotten!  new"

Getters and setters are now part of ES5. The syntax demonstrated above is valid ES5; a different API, Object.defineProperty, provides more flexible support for specifying getters and setters dynamically. Developers using the old-school APIs should begin updating to use the new API as browsers make new releases supporting it. Firefox in particular will include support for Object.defineProperty in its next major release, likely to occur in the latter half of the year.

Examining antediluvian accessor syntax

Unbeknownst to the vast majority of web developers, extension developers, and even Mozilla developers, in the past JavaScript has included other getter and setter syntaxes.

Named ES5-like getters and setters

If you look up the function that acts as the getter given ES5-standard getter syntax, what’s the name of that function?

var o = { get property() { return "get"; } };
print(Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor(o, "property").get.name);

There are a couple plausible answers here: “anonymous“, “property” (the property name), or “” (the empty string) might be reasonable. JavaScript and ES5 arbitrarily create the getter or setter as a function whose name is the empty string. What if you wanted to name that function? (Bear with me for a moment and pretend this is a compelling need, and that adding a named getter or setter programmatically is absolutely unacceptable.)

Solely by accident of implementation, in the past SpiderMonkey has parsed the following syntax to assign names to getter and setter functions:

var o = { get property getter() { return "get"; } };
// Prints "Name: getter" in past versions of SpiderMonkey (or would if
// Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor existed; __lookupGetter__ is a
// simple workaround); previous line is syntax error elsewhere
print("Name: " + Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor(o, "property").get.name);

SpiderMonkey internally implemented the parsing of literal getters and setters by parsing them as though the start of a function expression had just been parsed:

// Faked-up parser state when parsing normal getters/setters
var o = { get property () { } };
function () { }

Function expressions may be named or unnamed, but this wasn’t originally considered, so in the above example getter is treated as the name of the function created to correspond to the getter:

// Faked-up parser state when parsing named-getter-function syntax
var o = { get property getter() { } };
function getter() { }

No other JS engine accepts this unintentional accessor-method name token.

Getters and setters in object literals

Possibly the best-known additional syntax is for specifying getters and setters in object literals. This syntax was the original Netscape invention for getters and setters; in practice it was superseded by the newer, more function-looking syntax. SpiderMonkey is again the only engine to implement it.

function g() { print("gotten!"); return "get"; }
var o1 =
    property getter: g,
    property setter: function(v) { print("sotten!  " + v); }
var v1 = o1.property; // prints "gotten!", v1 === "get"
o1.property = "new"; // prints "sotten!"

This accessor property syntax has one large advantage over the more-common syntax previously demonstrated (and even over the unintentional named-accessor mistake shown in the previous section). Where you see property in the object literal above, you could instead see a numeric literal, or a string literal — just as you might see either in any object literal without getters or setters, e.g. { 1: "value", "o": "hai" }. Historically, in get property() { ... }, property was required to be an identifier, thus excluding numbers and non-identifier accessor properties from representation. The syntax here had the further advantage of allowing serialization to “source” (more accurately, a reasonable but not always equivalent facsimile) of objects containing non-identifier-named accessor properties, through another Netscape extension in JavaScript.

This syntax also has a few disadvantages. Since the getter and setter contextual keywords follow the property name, the eye must scan past the property name to determine whether a portion of a literal represents a data property or an accessor property. This special-case check also complicates parsing, because now the parser has to check for something beyond just a colon at such locations. (To be sure, this problem exists with get foo() { }, but it’s restricted to the single leading token get, not to all leading tokens.) Since the value assigned to the getter is parsed as an arbitrary expression, there’s no guarantee the value must be a function — that must be checked at runtime.

Assigning getters and setters to properties

This accessor syntax provides the same functionality as Object.defineProperty(obj, propname, { get: fun, enumerable: true, configurable: true }) (mutatis mutandis for setters), except as part of the language syntax rather than as part of its standard library. Again, no other engine has implemented this syntax.

var o = {};
o.property getter = function() { print("gotten!"); return "get" };
o.property setter = function() { print("sotten!"); };
var v = o.property; // prints "gotten!", v === "get"
o.property = "new"; // prints "sotten!"

This syntax is also obscure: outside SpiderMonkey source and test files, only a single file in the Mozilla source code uses it. Strangely, a trawl through AMO shows half a dozen extensions have managed to discover this syntax, despite its near-complete disuse in Mozilla itself.

Assigning getters and setters to names rather than properties

Syntactically, this is just a different flavor of the previous example:

varname getter = function() { return "get"; };
var q = varname; // "get"

Semantically, however, it’s a rather different beast. The problem is that not all names are alike in SpiderMonkey. While ECMAScript specifies all name accesses in terms of objects (pure-JS objects in ES3, tighter spec-internal artifacts in ES5), most if not all JS engines out there optimize name access based on the type of the name. Local and enclosing variable access may be some number of pointer jumps, comparisons, and an offset, rather than some sort of hash table lookup in a more general case. Global variable access can in many circumstances skip lookups in enclosing scopes, going to the global object directly. (Last and certainly least, variable access inside with almost necessarily must be essentially unoptimized and dog-slow. Friends don’t let friends use with!) These sorts of optimizations rely on names always being plain old values, not accessors (except in the global case, where the type of optimizations implemented are qualitatively quite different). Slowing down local or enclosing variable accesses just to support this very rare case would be insane.

SpiderMonkey actually hasn’t supported this syntax for awhile. I only mention it because SpiderMonkey includes code specifically to exclude it. If this syntax is seen and varname can be resolved to a var, it’s a compile-time syntax error. Otherwise, if varname resolves to a var at runtime (possible in the presence of with or eval), it’s a runtime TypeError. Last, if it doesn’t, it “works” — and you are most likely Jesse, combining syntax and features in obscure and evil ways solely to make SpiderMonkey developers’ lives hard. 😉 In sufficiently old versions of Firefox where these restrictions weren’t in place, it’s entirely conceivable this syntax may have resulted in security vulnerabilities (one large factor in its removal from SpiderMonkey).

Prefixed function expressions

Perhaps the most bizarre getter/setter syntax is a modification of the syntax for function expressions and statements. As with all the others, this syntax has only been implemented by SpiderMonkey.

getter function foo() { return "foo getter"; };
var v = foo; // "foo getter"
var q = setter function bar(v) { };

When the prefixed function is a statement in the global scope, the syntax is equivalent to Object.defineProperty(globalObject, "foo", { get: function foo() { /* ... */ }, enumerable: true, configurable: true }) (mutatis mutandis for setter). If it’s a statement in a function scope or an expression that’s not a statement, the prefix serves no purpose that I can discern, except that it affects Function.prototype.toString()‘s behavior by including the prefix in the returned string.

None of these old getter/setter syntaxes provide value

Now that ES5 has codified The One True Syntax and The One True Programmatic API, these older syntaxes bring little to the table.

  • The mistaken ES5-like named accessor get property funname() { } syntax doesn’t satisfy a compelling need.
  • property getter: in object literals provides one compelling feature: the ability to have non-identifier-named properties. As ES5’s get property() { } syntax includes these further extensions beyond what engines have already implemented, this advantage no longer exists:
    var o =
        get name() { return "names valid"; },
        set break() { this.x = "keywords too"; },
        set 1() { this.y = "numeric literals also accepted"; },
        get "custom string"() { return "arbitrary string literals too!"; }

    (property getter: has a final advantage with respect to an ancient Netscape extension, but given that extension’s dubious future I will omit the details. Suffice it to say the use case is highly esoteric, and reasonably graceful degradation is possible without property getter:.)

  • getter = and getter function are fully subsumed by Object.defineProperty.
  • varname getter = was already gone.

In sum: these syntaxes make some things slightly easier, but they don’t provide anything you can’t do with ES5’s standardized accessor support.

These syntaxes were the source of numerous bugs

In addition to not being particularly useful, these syntaxes imposed notable costs on development. Supporting so many different getter and setter syntaxes isn’t easy, and the relevant code paths are quite complicated, attempting to decide when which syntax is correct and when not (particularly as far as object serialization is concerned). This has resulted in a multitude of accessor bugs usually found by Jesse‘s fuzz-testing and almost never by real-world scripts: bugs which, in C or C++, can often lead to memory-unsafety and, in the extreme, arbitrary code execution. By my count SpiderMonkey has sixteen separate tests (corresponding to the same number of bugs) dedicated to edge cases and corner behaviors with these syntaxes: syntaxes no one uses, syntaxes superseded by newer and better ones, and syntaxes which no other JS engine currently supports, nor ever will support.

These syntaxes continue to impose costs on development. Not all related bugs have been fixed, and changes to nearby code do have to take account of this syntax. We have had at least one long-standing (but believed “mostly harmless”, in that a sanity-check fails but surrounding defensive code completely contains the problem) bug involving this syntax, which due to its relative harmlessness has gone unfixed for nearly three years (and, almost as bad, undiscovered for two of them). Recent implementation work on ES5’s strict mode support required adjustments to the area of parsing object literals (for ES5’s strict mode rejection of duplicate property names), adjustments required to work around support for these syntaxes.

In short, TANSTAAFL. We’ve paid a large cost to keep these syntaxes around, and we continue to pay to keep them around — sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, but unavoidably if support is worthwhile.

Support for all non-ES5 accessor syntaxes has been removed from SpiderMonkey

But for the many reasons previously given, support for these obsolete syntaxes is not worthwhile, so we have removed them from SpiderMonkey. get property funname() { } was an error from the start that no one will miss. SpiderMonkey has recently implemented support for ES5 numeric- and string-literal accessor property names (support for keyword names already exists), so the remaining important use case for property getter: has been eliminated. The getter = and getter function syntaxes never provided extra value, so they too have been removed without qualms.

To give an idea of the complexity eliminated by removing these syntaxes, the patch to remove them added 116 lines of code but removed 313 lines of code. Outside of code changes (that is, adjusting or removing tests which used these features), it added 133 lines but removed 1213 lines. It’s always great deleting code like this. 🙂

Updating existing code to adapt to these removals

One nice feature of removing syntax is that the failure mode when that syntax is encountered is blindingly obvious: the script will fail to parse. Parse errors show up in the JavaScript console, so it’s easy to tell when this is the problem; SpiderMonkey’s excellent error messages should point directly at the offending location.

If by chance you do actually use any of these syntaxes, the necessary fixes are simple. Suppose the existence of these helper functions:

function accessorDescriptor(field, fun)
  var desc = { enumerable: true, configurable: true };
  desc[field] = fun;
  return desc;

function defineGetter(obj, prop, get)
  if (Object.defineProperty)
    return Object.defineProperty(obj, prop, accessorDescriptor("get", get));
  if (Object.prototype.__defineGetter__)
    return obj.__defineGetter__(prop, get);

  throw new Error("browser does not support getters");

function defineSetter(obj, prop, set)
  if (Object.defineProperty)
    return Object.defineProperty(obj, prop, accessorDescriptor("set", set));
  if (Object.prototype.__defineSetter__)
    return obj.__defineSetter__(prop, set);

  throw new Error("browser does not support setters");

Here’s how you can update each old syntax to work again:

get property funname() { }
var o = defineGetter({}, "property", function funname() { });
property setter: fun
var o = defineSetter({}, "property", fun);
obj.prop getter = fun
defineGetter(obj, "prop", fun);
setter function prop() { } (when at global scope; otherwise just remove the setter prefix)
defineSetter(obj, "prop", fun);

You can experiment with a version of Firefox with support for these obsolete syntaxes removed by downloading a nightly from nightly.mozilla.org. (Don’t forget to use the profile manager if you want to keep the settings you use with your primary Firefox installation pristine.)

A brief word on __defineGetter__ and __defineSetter__

As you may have noticed, all examples here use Object.defineProperty in preference to either __defineGetter__ or __defineSetter__, using the latter two only as fallback when the former is absent. While many browsers support these methods, not all do. Object.defineProperty is the future, and it is the standard; Microsoft has even gone on the record to say that they will not implement __defineGetter__ or __defineSetter__ in IE given the existence of the standardized method (props to them for that choice, by the way). For greatest forward compatibility with all browsers, you should use Object.defineProperty if it exists, and only fall back to __define{G,S}etter__ if it does not.

In a distant future we would like to remove support for __defineGetter__ and __defineSetter__, after ES5 adoption has taken off, so as not to distract from the standardized support. The less new web developers have to know about legacy extensions superseded by standardized alternatives, the better. This action is at least several years in the future, likely longer; being able to make the change will require preparation and adjustment in anticipation of that time. Given upcoming releases of browsers supporting ES5 functionality, there’s no better time than the present to start gradually, and gracefully, adopting standardized methods over legacy alternatives.


Brief talk on ES5 and Mozilla support for it

Tags: , , , , , , — Jeff @ 12:32

I gave a three-minute not-actually-lightning-talk-but-let’s-call-it-that-anyway on ECMA-262 5th edition, what’s in it, and the state of Mozilla’s support for it at the Mozilla weekly meeting this week. It’s probably old hat if you’ve been following the standard closely, but if you haven’t it gives a short and sweet overview of what’s new; there’s a three-minute video of the actual talk on the meeting page (start at around 7:00 into the complete video). If you’re strapped for time, view the slides and turn off stylesheets (View > Page Style > No Style in Firefox) to see notes on what roughly accompanied each slide.

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