Evaluation Expressions

Like many interpreted languages, JavaScript has the ability to interpret strings of JavaScript source code, evaluating them to produce a value. JavaScript does this with the global function eval():

eval("3+2")    // => 5

Dynamic evaluation of strings of source code is a powerful language feature that is almost never necessary in practice. If you find yourself using eval(), you should think carefully about whether you really need to use it.

The subsections below explain the basic use of eval() and then explain two restricted versions of it that have less impact on the optimizer.


eval() expects one argument. If you pass any value other than a string, it simply returns that value. If you pass a string, it attempts to parse the string as JavaScript code, throwing a SyntaxError if it fails. If it successfully parses the string, then it evaluates the code and returns the value of the last expression or statement in the string or undefined if the last expression or statement had no value. If the evaluated string throws an exception, that exception propogates from the call to eval().

The key thing about eval() (when invoked like this) is that it uses the variable environment of the code that calls it. That is, it looks up the values of variables and defines new variables and functions in the same way that local code does. If a function defines a local variable x and then calls eval("x"), it will obtain the value of the local variable. If it calls eval("x=1"), it changes the value of the local variable. And if the function calls eval("var y = 3;"), it has declared a new local variable y. Similarly a function can declare a local function with code like this:

eval("function f() { return x+1; }");

If you call eval() from top-level code, it operates on global variables and global functions, of course.

Note that the string of code you pass to eval() must make syntactic sense on its own—you cannot use it to paste code fragments into a function. It makes no sense to write eval("return;"), for example, because return is only legal within functions, and the fact that the evaluated string uses the same variable environment as the calling function does not make it part of that function. If your string would make sense as a standalone script (even a very short one like x=0 ), it is legal to pass to eval(). Otherwise eval() will throw a SyntaxError.

Global eval()

It is the ability of eval() to change local variables that is so problematic to JavaScript optimizers. As a workaround, however, interpreters simply do less optimization on any function that calls eval(). But what should a JavaScript interpreter do, however, if a script defines an alias for eval() and then calls that function by another name? In order to simplify the job of JavaScript implementors, the ECMAScript 3 standard declared that interpreters did not have to allow this. If the eval() function was invoked by any name other than “eval”, it was allowed to throw an EvalError.

In practice, most implementors did something else. When invoked by any other name, eval() would evaluate the string as if it were top-level global code. The evaluated code might define new global variables or global functions, and it might set global variables, but it could not use or modify any variables local to the calling function, and would not, therefore, interfere with local optimizations.

ECMAScript 5 deprecates EvalError and standardizes the de facto behavior of eval(). A “direct eval” is a call to the eval() function with an expression that uses the exact, unqualified name “eval” (which is beginning to feel like a reserved word). Direct calls to eval() use the variable environment of the calling context. Any other call—an indirect call—uses the global object as its variable environment and cannot read, write, or define local variables or functions. The following code demonstrates:

var geval = eval;                 // Using another name does a global eval
var x = "global", y = "global";   // Two global variables
function f() {                    // This function does a local eval
    var x = "local";              // Define a local variable
    eval("x += 'changed';");      // Direct eval sets local variable
    return x;                     // Return changed local variable
function g() {                    // This function does a global eval
    var y = "local";              // A local variable
    geval("y += 'changed';");     // Indirect eval sets global variable
    return y;                     // Return unchanged local variable
console.log(f(), x); // Local variable changed: prints "localchanged global": 
console.log(g(), y); // Global variable changed: prints "local globalchanged":

Notice that the ability to do a global eval is not just an accommodation to the needs of the optimizer, it is actually a tremendously useful feature: it allows you to execute strings of code as if they were independent, top-level scripts. As noted at the beginning of this section, it is rare to truly need to evaluate a string of code. But if you do find it necessary, you are more likely to want to do a global eval than a local eval.

Before IE9, IE differs from other browsers: it does not do a global eval when eval() is invoked by a different name. (It doesn’t throw an EvalError either: it simply does a local eval.) But IE does define a global function named execScript() that executes its string argument as if it were a top-level script. (Unlike eval(), however, execScript() always returns null.)

Strict eval()

ECMAScript 5 strict mode (see “use strict”) imposes further restrictions on the behavior of the eval() function and even on the use of the identifier “eval”. When eval() is called from strict mode code, or when the string of code to be evaluated itself begins with a “use strict” directive, then eval() does a local eval with a private variable environment. This means that in strict mode, evaluated code can query and set local variables, but it cannot define new variables or functions in the local scope.

Furthermore, strict mode makes eval() even more operator-like by effectively making “eval” into a reserved word. You are not allowed to overwrite the eval() function with a new value. And you are not allowed to declare a variable, function, function parameter, or catch block parameter with the name “eval”.

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