Solving the Expression Problem in Javascript


I just watched a great presentation by Daniel Spiewak called Living in a Post-Functional World. I watched it mainly because I heard it was a great presentation on how to deal with modules, which it was. A concept which is just as important in Javascript as it is in Scala.

But at the end of the presentation Daniel talks about the Expression Problem as defined by Philip Wadler.

Here it is as summarized by Daniel Spiewak:

The Expression Problem

  • Define a datatype by cases
  • Add new cases to the datatype
  • Add new functions over the datatype
  • Don't recompile
  • Good Luck!

Functional Style

If we try to solve the problem in a functional style, we get something like this (also from Daniel's presentation).

The functional style uses pattern matching. We see that it is easy to add new functions, such as a toString that returns a string representation of the expression without changing any code. If we add a new class, such as Mul, we have to change all the existing functions.

Here are the main points of this solution:

  • Dumb cases
  • Every function enumerates full algebra
  • Very easy to add new functions
  • Very difficult to add new cases

We get an open set of functions and a closed set of cases!

Object-Oriented Style

If we try to solve the problem in an object-oriented style, we get something like this (again from Daniel's presentation).

The object-oriented solution uses subtype polymorphism. We see that it is easy to add new classes, such as a Mul, but if we try to add new function, we have to change all the existing classes.

Here are the main points:

  • Smart cases, i.e. Objects
  • Every case enumerates all functions
  • Very easy to add new cases
  • Very difficult to add new functions

We get a closed set of functions and an open set of cases!

Dynamic Style

Now lets solve it with Javascript in a dynamic style. The solution we have looks a lot like the subtype polymorphic solution above.

Just as in the polymorphic solution, it is easy to add a new class.

But, what about adding a new functions? It turns out that this is just as easy because of the dynamic nature of Javascript. We just add them to the prototype.

Now getting a string representation of an expression is a simple as:

Well, isn't that nice!


Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a problem

I don’t ever feel like I did before
But take me to a place I love, a dynamic place!
I don’t ever feel like I did before
But take me to a place I love, a dynamic place, yeah, yeah, yeah!

Misquoting Red Hot Chilli Peppers :)


  1. Your javascript code is broken in many ways.

    First, function Sub(x, y) should presumably have the parameters (e1, e2) instead, or else fix the assignments in the function.

    Secondly, after fixing that mistake, running e.value() in the final block of code will return NaN. This is because you’re passing objects to your functions, not numbers, so when e.value() method runs, it executes this.e1 * this.e2, but both e1 and e2 are objects, so it’s the same as running ({} * {}).

    Thirdly, your Num.toString() method actually returns a number, not a string. Although, as an unexpected consequence, this is what actually allows z.value() and w.value() to seemingly work for you. But this is only because when it evaluates:

    this.e1 + this.e2

    Then it actually runs this.e1.toString() (because it doesn’t see a valueOf() method) and this.e2.toString(), which means that it can actually add those values as numbers. And similarly for subtraction.

    You can fix these mistake by changing all of your value() methods to valueOf(), which will allow your code to take advantage of javascript’s toNumber functionality, and by explicitly casting the return value of Num.toString to a string.


    Num.prototype.toString = function() { return “” + this.n; }
    Add.prototype.valueOf = function() { return this.e1 + this.e2; };

  2. Garrick

    These problems can be totally avoided by choosing a better programming language. Contrary to popular opinion, Javascript is not a functional language it is dysfunctional.

  3. ersran9

    I would like to mention a functional pearl which exactly discusses this problem! It’s in haskell though – but very much readable :

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