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How arguments work in JavaScript functions

Today, I wanted to bring it back to basics and talk about something that sometimes trips people up when they’re first learning JavaScript: function arguments.

What’s an argument?

In a function, an argument is a value you can pass into the function. When setting up your function, you can assign names to the arguments, and whatever value you specify will automatically be assigned as a variable accessible inside the function.

Here’s an example.

var add = function (num1, num2) {
	return num1 + num2;

In the add() function, num1 and num2 are function arguments.

In this example below, 1 is automatically assigned to num1 and 3 is assigned to num2 inside the add() function. When it adds num1 and num2 together, it’s really added 1 and 3, and returns a value of 4.

add(1, 3);

Default values

If you don’t pass in a value for an argument, your script will use undefined. This can result in some unexpected results.

// returns "NaN"

You can handle this one of two ways:

  1. Make sure an argument exists before using it.
  2. Set a default value for an argument.

To check that an argument exists, you can set up an if statement, and use the not operator (!) to test of the variable exists. If it fails, call return to end the function.

var add = function (num1, num2) {

	// If num1 or num2 aren't defined, bail
	if (!num1 || !num2) return;

	// Add the numbers
	return num1 + num2;


To set a default value for an argument, you can redefine it (without the var prefix). For ease, we’ll use a ternary or conditional operator.

var add = function (num1, num2) {

	// If num1 or num2 aren't defined, set them to 0
	num1 = num1 || 0; // conditional operator
	num2 = num2 ? num2 : 0; // ternary operator

	// Add the numbers
	return num1 + num2;


Get all arguments passed in to a function

Within any function (except arrow functions), you can use the arguments variable to get an array-like list of all of the arguments passed into the function.

You don’t need to define it ahead of time. It’s a native JavaScript object.

var add = function (num1, num2) {

	// returns [num1, num2]

	// returns the value of `num1`

	// returns the value of `num2`

	// ...


This is particularly useful if you would rather allow an unlimited number of arguments to be passed in to your function.

Let’s say you wanted to be able to pass an unlimited amount of numbers into add() and add them together. The arguments object is perfect for this!

var add = function () {

	// Set a starting total
	var total = 0;

	// Add each number to the total
	for (var i = 0; i < arguments.length; i++) {
		total += arguments[i];

	// Return to the total
	return total;


In the example above, we’re defining a default variable total with a value 0. We use a for loop to iterate over each argument and add it to the total. Then we return the total.

(We can’t use the Array.forEach() loop here because while arguments is “array-like,” it’s not actually an array.)

If someone passes in no arguments, it returns 0. Otherwise, it adds any numbers passed in together.