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How jQuery instantiates objects as jQuery.fn.init, and what that means if you want to subclass jQuery

In order for the recent release of QuickUI 0.9.1 to support concise creation of control classes in CoffeeScript, it was necessary to go deep into the bowels of jQuery’s class constructor to determine how it worked. Those findings are documented here in case others have a similar need to subclass jQuery, or would like to address the same need that drove jQuery to its current implementation.

The jQuery class constructor can be found in core.js:

jQuery = function( selector, context ) {
    // The jQuery object is actually just the init constructor 'enhanced'
    return new jQuery.fn.init( selector, context, rootjQuery );

But the comment doesn’t do much to explain why init exists, or how it works.

All jQuery developers are familiar with the form $(“div”), which is a shorthand for the longer jQuery(“div”). This, we are told, returns a new jQuery object. Actually, from the above constructor, we can see that what it really returns is an instance of the jQuery.fn.init class. (From here on out, we’ll just refer to that class as “init”.) The init constructor is defined like so:

jQuery.fn = jQuery.prototype = {
    init: function( selector, context, rootjQuery ) {

Here, first note that jQuery.fn is just a synonym for jQuery.prototype. Given that, we see that the init class constructor hangs off the jQuery prototype. Stashing the init class on the jQuery class’ prototype allows the jQuery library to avoid polluting the JavaScript global namespace with an extra class. (Of course, init could easily have been defined inside the outer jquery.js function closure, which would avoid namespace pollution and prevent access to it from outside. The init class isn’t really referred to elsewhere in the jQuery source, so it’s not immediately clear why that wasn’t done. Perhaps the above approach makes for easier debugging.)

Further on, we see this init class defined as a subclass of the jQuery class:

// Give the init function the jQuery prototype for later instantiation
jQuery.fn.init.prototype = jQuery.fn;

Since jQuery.fn is just an abbreviation for jQuery.prototype, the above line is really:

jQuery.prototype.init.prototype = jQuery.prototype;

This ensures that any instance of init will also be a functional instance of jQuery. This can be confirmed in the debugger:

> $e = $("div")
> $e instanceof jQuery
> $e instanceof jQuery.fn.init

So all those times when you create an instance of jQuery you are actually working with an instance of a jQuery subclass.

Okay, but why bother? One reason is that jQuery wants to support a static constructor form: one you can invoke with needing to specify “new”. Regardless of whether you invoke the jQuery() constructor with “new” or not, it’s always going to return an instance of the init class. And, because init is a subclass of jQuery, you’ll end up with an instance of jQuery, which is what you wanted.

// The following lines are all equal.
var $e = new jQuery("div");
var $e = jQuery("div");
var $e = new $("div");
var $e = $("div");

So at least one reason init exists is that it serves as a helper class to let you write shorter jQuery code. The thing is, supporting instantiation without “new” doesn’t require defining a separate helper class.

The jQuery constructor above is relying upon an oddity in the JavaScript language: a constructor can return an object that’s an instance of a class other than the class defined by the constructor. The jQuery class could more easily use the simpler factory constructor pattern to check to see whether it’s been invoked without “new” (in which case “this” will be the window) and, if so, just return a new instance of itself. That is, in fact, how jQuery worked back in jQuery 1.1:

var jQuery = function(a,c) {
    // If the context is global, return a new object
    if ( window == this )
        return new jQuery(a,c);

By jQuery 1.2, however, the jQuery constructor was using the technique shown above. It’s hard to tell from the code exactly why the init helper class was introduced. One possibility is that init has that extra rootjQuery parameter which is for internal use only. Burying that parameter in a helper class avoids having to expose the parameter in the jQuery API, where it might confuse jQuery developers or, worse, encourage them to create code that depends upon that parameter.

Subclassing jQuery

One cost of jQuery’s class scheme is that it makes it much harder for you to subclass jQuery. One reason you might want to do this is to provide scoping for your own jQuery plugins. If you want to add a lot of plugins to jQuery’s prototype (which, as indicated above, is what you’re doing when you add something to jQuery.fn), you could potentially pollute the jQuery namespace and run into conflicts with other plugins. By subclassing jQuery, and working strictly with instances of your subclass, you hide all your plugins from anyone who’s directly instantiating the plain jQuery class.

Unfortunately, because of this init helper class, the normal JavaScript prototype-based subclassing scheme won’t work with jQuery. To make your subclass jQuery-like, you end up needing to replicate jQuery’s complex helper class arrangement: create a subclass of jQuery and a companion init helper class, derive your helper class from your actual jQuery subclass, and ensure your subclass’s constructor actually returns an instance of your init class.

The mind-breaking pain of all that is presumably what led to the creation of a jQuery function called $.sub(). That function does exactly what’s described above: it defines a new subclass of jQuery and a companion init helper class.

The $.sub() plugin doesn’t seem to be used much, perhaps because its benefits and reason for existence aren’t well-documented. The announced plan is that $.sub() will be removed from the core jQuery library in version 1.8, and transition to become an official plugin. As a result, $.sub() is deprecated as a native jQuery feature, but $.sub() and its technique will continue to be useful, so it’s still worth understanding and considering it.

QuickUI relies upon the $.sub() technique to make its base Control a subclass of jQuery. This is what lets you use any jQuery feature with QuickUI controls directly: you can bind events to them with $.on(), you can style them with $.css(), and so on. That’s because your control class derives from Control, and so ultimately derives from jQuery.

You can create a new QuickUI control class in JavaScript by invoking Control.sub(). And, with QuickUI 0.9.1, you can now create subclasses of Control (and, therefore, jQuery ) using CoffeeScript’s built-in class syntax, which is concise and highly legible. In either language, you can easily create your own reusable web user interface components that have direct access to all the power of jQuery.