New ES5 requirement: getters and setters in object literals must not conflict with each other or with data properties, even outside strict mode

Conflicting properties in object literals

Object literals in ECMAScript can contain the same property multiple times:

var obj = { prop: 42, prop: 17 };

How does this behave? The object, when fully initialized, has that property with its last assigned value:

var obj = { prop: 17 }; // same effect

The expression 42 is still evaluated in source order, but that value isn’t found in the final object when construction and initialization completes.

Are conflicting properties desirable?

Duplicating property names is at best innocuous, but at worst it’s the source of bugs. Repeated assignment of the same side effect-free expression is aesthetically unpleasing but harmless. But what if that expression has side effects? Or what if the two expressions are ever made to differ? (This needn’t be purely human error. For example, a conflict might be the result of a bad merge of your changes with changes made by others.) What if a developer accidentally changes the first instance of a property but doesn’t notice the second? You can see how this might cause bugs.


ES5 generally avoids breaking compatibility with ES3. For the sake of existing code, duplicate property names are a syntax error only in strict mode code.

function good() { return { p: 1, p: 2 }; } // okay
function bad() { "use strict"; return { p: 1, p: 2 }; } // ERROR

What about getters and setters?

ES5 standardizes syntax for getters and setters in object literals. Using getters and setters you can write properties which lazily compute their values only when asked. You can also write properties which post-process values assigned to them: to validate them, to transform them at time of assignment, and so on. Getters and setters are new in ES5, so they don’t present compatibility concerns.

Conflicts with accessors are worse than conflicts with data properties. What if a setter and a data property conflict? Properties in an initializer don’t invoke setters, so a conflicting data property might blow away an accessor pair entirely! Also, since getters and setters quite often involve side effects, or reliance on object structure and internals, errant fixes of one of a pair of getters or setters are likely to cause worse problems than conflicting data properties.

Therefore ES5 prohibits conflicting property getters and setters, either with each other or with existing data properties. You can’t have both an accessor and a data property, and you can’t have multiple getters or multiple setters for the same property. This applies even outside strict mode!

/* syntax errors in any code */
({ p: 1, get p() { } });
({ get p() { }, p: 1 });
({ p: 1, set p(v) { } });
({ set p(v) { }, p: 1 });
({ get p() { }, get p() { } });
({ set p(v) { }, set p(v) { } });
({ get p() { }, set p(v) { }, get p() { } });
({ set p(v) { }, get p() { }, set p(v) { } });

/* syntax error only in strict mode code */
function fail() { "use strict"; ({ p: 1, p: 2 }); }

SpiderMonkey and Firefox no longer permit conflicts involving accessor properties in object literals

Firefox 4 nightlies now reject any property-name conflicts in object literals. The only exception is when the object literal is outside strict mode and all assignments are for data properties. Previously we implemented accessor conflict detection only in strict mode, but now Firefox 4 fully conforms to the ES5 specification when parsing object literals. (While I’m here let me give a brief hat-tip to the ECMAScript 5 Conformance Suite for revealing this mistake, the result of spec misreading by multiple SpiderMonkey hackers.)

If you ever have conflicting properties in an object literal, odds are they were a mistake. If you’ve done this only with data properties, no sweat now — but you’ll have to fix that if you ever opt your code into strict mode. If you’ve done this with accessor properties (previously a non-standard, implementation-specific feature), you’ll need to change your code to eliminate the conflict. Conflicts are reported as syntax errors (but note the bug that syntax errors aren’t reported for JavaScript XPCOM components), and they should be easy to fix.


Object literals containing the same property multiple times are bug-prone, as only one of the properties will actually be respected when the code executes. That mistake can’t be fixed for data properties in normal code, but ES5 can prohibit new conflicts involving accessor properties; Firefox now properly treats such conflicts as syntax errors. You can experiment with a version of Firefox with these changes by downloading a nightly build. (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.


ECMA-262 ed. 5 backwards-incompatible change coming to SpiderMonkey and to Gecko-based browsers

(preemptive clarification: coming in Firefox 3.7 and not Firefox 3.6, which is to say, a good half year away from now rather than Real Soon Now)

ES5 and compatibility

The fifth edition of ECMA-262, the next iteration of the JavaScript language, is broadly backwards-compatible with existing JavaScript code. Generally, code that worked in past browsers that implemented the specification will continue to work in new browsers as they implement the new edition of the specification. However, there are a few exceptions. The most obvious one is ES5’s strict mode, where specially-tagged scripts and functions will cause parsing and execution of their contents to occur under stricter requirements than in the past. For example, this code would have executed “as intended” in ES3, but in ES5 the definition of a variable named “arguments” inside a function in strict mode is a syntax error (none of the code even executes):

function strictModeError()
  "use strict";
  var arguments = 17; // stupid, but permissible, in ES3
  return arguments;
if (strictModeError() !== 17)
  throw new Error("up is down");

The above isn’t more than a theoretical problem as it is expected old code wouldn’t have accidentally opted into strict mode. Not all of ES5’s incompatible changes, however, are so benign.

ES5 compatibility with ES3 extensions

One unusual area of compatibility concerns not ES3, but extensions to ES3. One of the more profound changes in ES5 is the introduction of getters and setters, in which what appears syntactically to be a property when used actually will invoke function calls “under the hood”. Most major JS engines support this extension to ES3:

var o =
    get field() { return this._field; },
    set field(f)
      if (typeof f != "number")
        throw new Error("not a number");
      this._field = f;
    _field: 0
print(o.field); // 0
o.field = 5;
print(o.field); // 5
try { o.field = "0"; } catch (e) { /* throws: not a number */ }
print(o.field); // 5
o.field = 17;
print(o.field); // 17

This syntax is in ES5, partly because it addresses a need in a reasonable way but mostly because many developers will already be familiar with it. (Getters and setters were also available programmatically; ES5’s solution is different but more flexible.) However, not all aspects of getters and setters are present in ES5 in the same way they were in extensions to ES3 engines.

Assigning to getter-only properties in ES5

Consider the previous example, slightly tweaked:

var o =
    get field() { return this._field; },
    _field: 17
print(o.field); // 17
o.field = 5;  // ???
print(o.field); // ???

In this case the field property is read-only: you could analogize it to element.childNodes.length, which has a value which it makes no sense to attempt to change. What should happen, then, if you attempt to change it? Current browsers throw a TypeError when you try this. ES5, however, chooses to remain (arguably) more faithful to ES3 and instead makes setting a property that only has a getter do nothing — except in strict mode, where a TypeError exception will be thrown.

SpiderMonkey, the JavaScript engine embedded in Gecko browsers, has just made the switch from its previous always-throw behavior to ES5’s only-throw-if-in-strict-mode behavior when an attempt is made to set a property that only has a getter. (This will also apply to DOM properties like the aforementioned element.childNodes.length.) In the future, if you try to set a property that only has a getter, no exception will be thrown unless you’ve opted into strict mode. This change is now in trunk builds of Firefox; download a nightly build from nightly.mozilla.org and test out the change for yourself (use the profile manager if you want to keep your current Firefox settings and install untouched). If your site relies on an exception being thrown, this change could break it, and we’re hoping that an extended period of time to test the change will help developers iron out any reliance on this non-standard behavior. This change will first appear in Firefox 3.7, which probably won’t be released until the second half of 2010 or so. Firefox 3.6 preserves current behavior where an exception is always thrown, so you should have plenty of time to update your site in response to this change.

The bottom line

Firefox 3.6 and earlier throw an exception whenever you attempt to set a property represented only by a getter (this includes DOM properties defined as readonly). Firefox 3.7 will only throw a TypeError when assigning to a property represented by only a getter if the assignment occurs in ES5 strict mode code. This change will also apply to attempts to set readonly DOM properties like element.childNodes.length. If you’re relying on an exception being thrown in either case, change the assignment location code so that it works when no TypeError exception is thrown.