Understanding for loops

Let’s say you want to run a function, bounceBall, four times. How would you do it? Like this?

function bounceBall() {
  // bounce the ball here
}

bounceBall()
bounceBall()
bounceBall()
bounceBall()

This approach is great if you need to bounceBall only for a few times. What happens if you need to bounceBall for a hundred times?

The better way is through a for loop.

The ‘for’ loop

The for loop runs a block of code as many times as you want to. Here’s a for loop that runs bounceBall ten times:

for (let i = 0; i < 10; i++) {
  bounceBall()
}

It’s broken down into four parts – the initialExpression, the condition, the incrementalExpression and the statement:

for (initialExpression; condition; incrementExpression) {
  statement
}

Before you loop, you need to have a statement. This statement is the block of code you’d like to run multiple times. You can write any number of lines of code here. You can even use functions.

Here’s what the for loop looks like with bounceBall as its statement:

for (initialExpression; condition; incrementExpression) {
  bounceBall()
}

Next, you need an initial expression to begin a loop. This is where you declare a variable. For most loops, this variable is called i. It’s also set to 0.

Here’s how it’ll look like when you put the initialExpression into the for loop:

for (let i = 0; condition; incrementExpression) {
  bounceBall()
}

After the statement runs, the variable, i is increased or decreased. You increase or decrease the value of i in the increment expression.

To increase the value of i by one, you reassign i such that it becomes i + 1 with i = i + 1. The shorthand for this reassignment is i++, which is what you’ll find in most for loops.

To decrease the value of i by one, you reassign i such that it becomes i - 1 with i = i - 1. The shorthand for this reassignment is i--, which is another variation of what you’ll find in most for loops.

In the bounceBall example above, we increased the variable i by one each time the code runs:

for (let i = 0; condition; i++) {
  bounceBall()
}

But should you increase or decrease i?

The answer lies in the condition. This condition statement evaluates either to true or false. If the statement evaluates to true, the statement runs.

When the statement has ran, JavaScript runs the increment expression and checks if the condition evaluates to true again. It repeats this process until the condition evaluates to false.

Once the condition evaluates to false, JavaScript skips the loop and moves on with the rest of your code.

So, if you do not want the loop to run, you can set a condition that evaluates to false immediately:

// This loop will not run since the condition evaluates to false
for (let i = 0; i < 0; i++) {
  bounceBall()
  const timesBounced = i + 1
  console.log('The ball has bounced ' + timesBounced + ' times')
}

// You will only see this
console.log('next line of code')
Next line of code runs immediately since the condition evaluates to false
Next line of code runs immediately since the condition evaluates to false

If you want the loop to run twice, you change the condition such that it evaluates to false when the increment expression has ran twice.

// This loop will run twice
for (let i = 0; i < 2; i++) {
  bounceBall()
  const timesBounced = i + 1
  console.log('The ball has bounced ' + timesBounced + ' times')")
}

console.log('next line of code')
The loop runs twice. After two times, the condition evaluates to false.
The loop runs twice. After two times, the condition evaluates to false.

If you want the loop to run ten times, you change the condition such that it evaluates to false when the increment expression has ran ten times.

// This loop will run ten times
for (let i = 0; i < 10; i++) {
  bounceBall()
  const timesBounced = i + 1
  console.log('The ball has bounced ' + timesBounced + ' times')")
}

console.log('next line of code')
The loop runs twice. After ten times, the condition evaluates to false.
The loop runs ten times. After ten times, the condition evaluates to false.

Infinite loops

Infinite loops occur when the condition for your for loops always return true. Your browser will hang if you run an infinite loop.

To recover from an infinite loop, you need to quit your browser forcefully. On a Mac, this means you right click on your browser icon and select “force quit”. On a Window’s machine, you open the Windows Task manager with ctrl + alt + del, select your browser, and click “End task”.

Looping through arrays

In practice, you almost never write a loop that runs ten times like in the bounceBall example above. You’d always loop through an array or a object.

When you loop (or iterate) through an array, you go through each item in the array once. To do so, you can use the length or the array as a condition:

const fruitBasket = ['banana', 'pear', 'guava']

// fruitBasket.length is 3
for (let i = 0; i < fruitBasket.length; i++) {
  console.log("There's a " + fruitBasket[i] + " in the basket")
}

// => There's a banana in the basket
// => There's a pear in the basket
// => There's a guava in the basket

The alternate way to write this for loop is to use a negative increment expression. This version runs slightly faster than the for loop above, but loops the array from the end instead.

for (let i = fruitBasket.length - 1; i >= 0; i--) {
  console.log("There's a " + fruitBasket[i] + " in the basket")
}

// => There's a guava in the basket
// => There's a pear in the basket
// => There's a banana in the basket

Looping through arrays with “for of”

Yet another (much better) way to loop through an array is to use of for...of loop. This is a new loop syntax that comes with ES6. It looks like this:

const fruitBasket = ['banana', 'pear', 'guava']
for (let fruit of fruitBasket) {
  console.log(fruit)
}

// => There's a banana in the basket
// => There's a pear in the basket
// => There's a guava in the basket

The for...of loop is preferable to the standard for loop because it always loops through the array once. There’s no need to write array.length, which makes your code much easier to read and maintain.

You can use for...of with any iterable object. These are objects that contain the Symbol.iterator property. Arrays are one of such objects. If you console.log an empty array, you’ll see that it has the Symbol.iterator as one of its keys (within the Array __proto__ key):

Any object that contains the Symbol.iterator key can be iterated through with a for...of loop
Any object that contains the Symbol.iterator key can be iterated through with a for…of loop

Logic in loops

You can use if/else or any other logic within a for loop.

For example, let’s say you have a list of numbers, and you want to create a second list of numbers that are smaller that 20.

To complete this objective, you first loop through the numbers.

const numbers = [25, 22, 12, 56, 8, 18, 34];

for (let num of numbers) {
  // do something here
}

Here, you want to check if each num is smaller than 20.

const numbers = [25, 22, 12, 56, 8, 18, 34];

for (let num of numbers) {
  if (num < 20) {
    // do something
  }
}

If num is smaller than 20, you want to add it to another array. To do so, you use the push method.

const numbers = [25, 22, 12, 56, 8, 18, 34];
let smallerThan20 = []

for (let num of numbers) {
  if (num < 20) {
    smallerThan20.push(num)
  }
}

// smallerThan20 === [12, 8 , 18]

Wrapping up

A for loop is used when you want to execute the same task (or a set of tasks) multiple times.

You would rarely loop through code for exactly ten times. Normally, you’ll want to loop through an array instead.

To loop through an array exactly once, you can use the for...of loop, which is much easier to write and understand compared to the traditional for loop.

Remember, you can write any amount of logic you want in loops. You can use functions, if/else statements or even use loops in loops.

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