Broken Promises?

Dropping errors, losing results...

published 2 months agoOct 6th, 2018

updated 23 days agoNov 15th, 2018

Are JavaScript Promises Broken?

credit: lennart-heim-766366-unsplash

In the Before Times

One of the most common myths about Promises is it’s alleged error shortcomings.

Many years ago Promises were actually awful with errors. Lots of work went into fixing it.

And lo, it got fixed, even widely deployed.

People rejoiced.

And sadly, some didn’t notice.

The Now Times

The myth still persists, I see it everywhere: popular articles on medium, on dzone, and many other sources.

I’ll admit, even “official” resources and documentation offer mostly flimsy examples and bad habits. These are often used to “prove” the case against Promises. Some even suggest “cures” which make things so much worse. (note: link removed)

Rules to Stay Out of Trouble

  1. Promises need something to hang on to

    • Always return from your functions.
  2. Use real Error Instances

    • Always use Error instances.
  3. Handle errors where it makes sense

    • Always use .catch(), at least once.
  4. Add clarity with named functions 🦄✨

    • Prefer named functions.

#1 Promises need something to hang on to

It is critical that you always return from your functions.

Promise callback functions follow a certain pattern in .then(callback) and .catch(callback).

Each returned value gets passed to the next .then()’s callback.

function addTen(number) {
  return number + 10;

Promise.resolve(10)  // 10
  .then(addTen)      // 20
  .then(addTen)      // 30
  .then(addTen)      // 40
  .then(console.log) // logs "40"

Bonus of “always returning”: code is much easier to unit test.

Question: How many distinct Promise states (resolved & rejected) were created?

Question: How many promises were created in the prior example?

#2 Use real Error Instances

JavaScript has an interesting behavior around errors (which applys to asynchronous and synchronous code.)

[see example in throwing errors in javascript] throwing errors in javascript

In order to get useful details about the line number and call stack, you must use Error instances. Throwing strings does not work like in Python or Ruby.

While JavaScript seems to handle throw "string", as you will see the string in your catch handler. However, the data is all you will see*. No prior stack frames will be included.

Correct new Error examples:

throw new Error('message')           // ✅
Promise.reject(new Error('message')) // ✅
throw Error('message')               // ✅
Promise.reject(Error('message'))     // ✅

The following are common anti-patterns:

throw 'error message'  // ❌
Promise.reject(-42)    // ❌

#3 Handle errors where it makes sense

Promises provide a slick way to handle errors, using .catch(). It is basically a special kind of .then() - where any errors from preceding .then()’s get handled. Let’s look at an example…

  .then(() => 'hello')
  .catch(() => console.log('will not get hit'))
  .then(() => throw new Error('totes fail'))
  .catch(() => console.log('WILL get hit'))

While .catch() may seem like a DOM event handler (i.e. click, keypress). It’s placement is important, as it can only ‘catch’ errors thrown above it.

Overriding errors is relatively trivial Return a non-error value in your .catch() callback, the Promise chain switches to running the .then() callbacks in sequence. (Effectively.)

Try follow the sequence of the following example:

  .then(() => 'hello')
  .then(() => throw new Error('totes fail'))
  .catch(() => {
    return 99
  .then(num => num + 1)
  .then(console.log) // expected output: 100

The sequence is what’s important to understand.

While a silly example, it’s designed to illustrate how errors & data flow in Promises.

Here’s an outline of the sequence:

  1. 42 is the initial value.
  2. hello is always returned by the next method.
  3. we ignore the prior value, and throw an error with 'totes fail' message.
  4. .catch() intercepts error, instead returns 99 which will be handled by any subsequent .then().
  5. increment the num, returning 100
  6. the method console.log receives 100 and prints it! :tada:

Question: What happens when 2 .catch() are in sequence? Can the 2nd ever run? Can you think of a use case?

Question: How can .catch() ignore errors? How would you prevent errors from forcing an early exit of Promise.all?

#4 Add clarity with named functions 🦄✨

Compare the readability of the following 2 examples:


Promise.resolve(10)          // 10
  .then(x => x * 2)          // 20
  .then(x => x / 4)          // 5
  .then(x => x * x)          // 25
  .then(x => x.toFixed(2))   // "25.00"
  .then(x => console.log(x)) // expected output: "25.00"


Promise.resolve(10) // 10
  .then(double)     // 20
  .then(quarter)    // 5
  .then(square)     // 25
  .then(format)     // "25.00"
  .then(log)        // expected output: "25.00"

const double = x => x * 2
const quarter = x => x / 4
const square = x => x * x
const format = x => x.toFixed(2)
const log = x => console.log(x)


Array Method Compatible!!!

You can re-use your named functions with our friends from Array.prototype. Including .map(), .filter(), .every(), .some(), .find()!

Collection pipelines #FTW:

// IT'S LIKE THE SAME THING :mindblown:

[10, 20]           // [ 10, 20 ]
  .map(double)     // [ 20, 40 ]
  .map(quarter)    // [ 5, 10 ]
  .map(square)     // [ 25, 100 ]
  .map(format)     // [ "25.00", "100.00" ]
  .map(log)        // expected 2 lines of output: "25.00", "100.00"

And if you don’t want to do this linear-style coding… Well you’ve got simple functions!

You could use them however you need:

// Nesting patern
// ❌ please don't do this, however

const result = format(square(quarter(double(10))))

// expected output: "25.00"

Why is nesting functions an anti-pattern?

  1. Not readable to as many people
  2. git diffs don’t readily reveal who changed what
  3. hard to debug or log from middle of the nested functions