The `delete` Operator in JavaScript

Originally published in the A Drip of JavaScript newsletter.

The delete operator is one of the less frequently used aspects of the JavaScript language. But there are times when you need delete and nothing else will do. In this drip, we'll dive into how to use it and how it works.

The purpose of delete, as you might imagine, is to delete things. More specifically, it will delete object properties. For example:

var multiverse = {
    earth1: "Silver Age",
    earth2: "Golden Age"

delete multiverse.earth2;

// Outputs: { earth1: "Silver Age" }

The delete operator will not delete ordinary variables.

var alex = "Alexander Luthor";

delete alex;

// Outputs: "Alexander Luthor"

However, it will delete "global variables," since they are actually properties of the global object (window in the browser).

// Because var isn't used, this is a property of window
classicFlash = "Jay Garrick";

delete window.classicFlash;

// ReferenceError: classicFlash is not defined

The delete operator also has a return value. If it succeeds in deleting a property, it will return true. If it fails to delete a property because the property is unwritable it will return false, or if in strict mode it will throw an error.

var multiverse = {
    earth1: "Silver Age",
    earth2: "Golden Age"

var earth2Deleted = delete multiverse.earth2;

// Outputs: true

You are probably wondering under what circumstance you'd want to use delete. The answer is whenever you actually want to remove a property from an object.

Sometimes rather than delete a property, JavaScript developers will just give it a value of null, like so:

var multiverse = {
    earth1: "Silver Age",
    earth2: "Golden Age"

multiverse.earth2 = null;

While this effectively severs the property from the original value, the property itself still exists on the object, as you can see below:

// Outputs: {
//    earth1: "Silver Age",
//    earth2: null
// }

And some operators like in and the for in loop will still report the presence of the null property. If you are passing around an object that might be inspected using those methods, you probably want to make sure that you really delete any unwanted properties.

Finally, you should keep in mind that delete doesn't actually destroy the property's value, just the property itself. For example:

var earth3 = "The Crime Syndicate";
multiverse.earth3 = earth3;

delete multiverse.earth3;

// Outputs: "The Crime Syndicate";

Here, both earth3 and multiverse.earth3 referred to the same value. And as you can see, deleting multiverse.earth3 doesn't affect earth3 at all.

That's it for our overview of delete.

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