TypeScript Enums I Want to Actually Use

Since the very first moment I learned about TypeScript, I knew there’s gonna be this one thing I’ll always hate: Enums. So un-elegant, so old-school, and so why-do-you-pollute-my-runtime.

Well, I was wrong. I use Enums now. At least some of them.

Let me show you.

What is an Enum in TypeScript

First, let’s quickly talk about what are Enumerators, or Enums for short.

An Enum in TypeScript is a well-defined collection of a limited number of cases. That is, we write down all possibilities and do not allow anything else.

The meaning of enumerations is that in the code you deal with only these few cases and you can be sure to deal with all of them. The compiler will warn if you forget to handle one or more.

Here are some common enumeration examples to give you a better idea:

  • Directions: North, South, East, West
  • CardRanks: Ace, King, Queen, Jack, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2
  • DateFormats: Unix, ISO, Email

In this article, I’ll be using countries my app supports as an example. This is how you write enums in TypeScript:

enum Country {
  Germany,
  Sweden,
  USA,
}

It is almost like a simple object. Notice that there is no equal sign, this is not an assignment. The definition looks similar to the definition of an interface.

There is one interesting property of an Enum: it defines both types and values. See some use here:

enum Country {
  Germany,
  Sweden,
  USA,
}
             
const setActiveCountry = (country: Country) => {
  //                               ^^^ this is a type
  
  // do something
}

setActiveCountry(Country.Sweden)
//               ^^^ this is a value

// @ts-expect-error
setActiveCountry('SE')

Playground Link

Note: I use @ts-expect-error in the code examples to mark there is a TypeScript error on the next line. This also suppresses the error, so you will not see it in the playground. Remove the line to see the error reported.

What’s wrong with Enums

Right, that sounds kind of nice, what is the problem?

There are three main points, I’ve held against Enums since day one.

1. Enums introduce (ugly) runtime code

If you want to have a value available, it means that the value has to be there during runtime. That means Enums are one of the very few (and probably the only regularly used) TypeScript constructs that generate some code in the resulting JavaScript.

Usually, when the target is the current ECMAScript, all type definitions and annotations are just removed. That is because all other constructs like object literals, functions, or classes are the same in JavaScript as in TypeScript.

Look at how the Country Enum, defined above, ends up as:

var Country;
(function (Country) {
    Country[Country["Germany"] = 0] = "Germany";
    Country[Country["Sweden"] = 1] = "Sweden";
    Country[Country["USA"] = 2] = "USA";
})(Country || (Country = {}));

2. Enums are number-based by default

Do you see that code? Do you see those numbers 0, 1, and 2?

That is the actual value assigned to the country. So while you work with nice names, they are translated to numbers.

The generated code is practically equal to the following dictionary object.

const Country = {
  Germany: 0,
  Sweden: 1,
  USA: 2,
};

So when you want to debug your code and you log the country your function received, you get a cryptic number. Then you need to go and see the relevant version of the source code in TypeScript, count that number from the top, and then you have the name you actually wanted in the first place. Ugh, that is bad.

Another problem is that you can pass a number where Country type is expected. A maintenance headache about to happen on its own. But, you can actually pass any number, irrespective if it is defined in the Enum or not. Both of these calls will pass the type check:

setActiveCountry(1)   // 1 for Sweden
setActiveCountry(100) // 100 for ???

Sure, an Enum should be just a unique value. And the developer should not care about the runtime value and treat the Enum as opaque. However, the whole translation to numbers feels very old-school, a reminder of times where memory was expensive and numbers were used as a means of saving it.

I know there is a solution with string Enums (we will talk about them in a bit). Yet, I do not understand why the values could not be equal to the labels which are unique already. Or, when the target is ES2015+, the values could be Symbols – using them at a place they were created for.

3. Enums are not needed in TypeScript

Do you have to use Enums in TypeScript?

No, there are other ways to type a limited number of cases.

I see people avoiding Enums in many ways. Either on purpose or out of habit. And, of course, you do not need them to write good code.

Before I show you how I’m using Enums now so that I’m comfortable with them, let’s explore these common alternatives and discuss their pros and cons.

Alternatives to Enums

Disjoint union of literal types

A rather straightforward option is to define a type that consists of all the actual strings (or other values) that are permitted. This is called disjoint or discriminated union; see Discriminated Unions in TypeScript docs.

type Country = 'DE' | 'SE' | 'US'
             
const setActiveCountry = (country: Country) => {
  // do something
}

setActiveCountry('SE')

// @ts-expect-error
setActiveCountry('CZ')

Playground Link

As you can see this approach correctly types the function. The problem is that there are ‘magic’ strings all over the place. Sure, for my example the strings are actually somewhat self-explanatory. But let’s imagine that instead of ISO 3166-1 two-letter country codes we would be using ISO 3166-1 numeric country codes:

type Country = '276' | '752' | '840'
             
const setActiveCountry = (country: Country) => {
  // do something
}

setActiveCountry('752')

// @ts-expect-error
setActiveCountry('203')

Playground Link

While technically equivalent to the previous, this is now utterly unreadable and error-prone.

Disjoint union of iteral types with constants

What can we do to remove those ‘magic’ strings? Let’s save the values to constants:

const GERMANY = '276'
const SWEDEN = '752'
const USA = '840'
const CZECHIA = '203'

type Country = '276' | '752' | '840'
             
const setActiveCountry = (country: Country) => {
  // do something
}

setActiveCountry(SWEDEN)

// @ts-expect-error
setActiveCountry(CZECHIA)

Playground Link

Now, that sure is better. The constant’s name tells the developer what they work with.

This is, in fact, a way that is popular in the Redux community for Redux actions (Or, should I say was popular?).

Still, we can identify problems. First, nothing forces you to use these constants. So if it slips the usually meticulous reviewer’s eye, you can end up with a mixed approach: constants and magic strings. Second, the code is not very elegant, we either have to repeat the value in the type definition or use a strange-looking typeof operators. In either way, adding or removing means a change in two places.

Constant dictionary

Hmm, maybe there is a way to combine them all in one. When we look at the code generated for an Enum, we might think: can we just use that dictionary in the first place?

This works. And it is really close to Enum:

const Country = {
  Germany: 'DE',
  Sweden: 'SE',
  USA: 'US',
} as const

type Country = typeof Country[keyof typeof Country];
             
const setActiveCountry = (country: Country) => {
  // do something
}

setActiveCountry(Country.Sweden)

// @ts-expect-error
setActiveCountry('CZ')

Playground Link

Weel, it’s not terrible. But it’s not great either.

Let me go through some points to keep in mind.

  1. The dictionary has to be declared as const. This prevents the type engine to infer the type as general dictionary Record<string, string>. This is OK.

  2. The Country dictionary is a value and not a type. We need to define the type separately. It’s a cryptic command, one I always have to google – not so OK. Fortunately, the type can be named the same as the dictionary, so from now on it’s the same as Enum, right? Well, no.

  3. As in the previous case, nothing truly ties the dictionary to the function arguments. Calling setActiveCountry('SE') raises no error. The Country type is, in the end, just another disjoint union of iteral types again. The benefit is that changes are made only in one place. This is Boo (or at least Meh).

Enums the right way my way

For years, I’d been using the previous techniques to avoid Enums.

And then one day on one PR someone asked: ‘Why?’.

I was in the middle of my reply when I decided to fact-check some points and, …, and I discovered how wrong I’d been. There were two important properties of Enums that made them superior to anything else. Even for people that worry about moving back to vanilla JavaScript one day.

String Enums

Instead of depending on the source code order to define the value of an option in an Enum, you can define it yourself.

The following code is so close to the dictionary example above, just much cleaner.

enum Country {
  Germany = 'DE',
  Sweden = 'SE',
  USA = 'US',
}
             
const setActiveCountry = (country: Country) => {
  // do something
}

setActiveCountry(Country.Sweden)

// @ts-expect-error
setActiveCountry('CZ')

// @ts-expect-error
setActiveCountry('SE')

Playground Link

Again, let’s discuss some more or less obvious observations:

  1. It uses equal sigs, not colons. Do not ask me why. Still, it’s very close to object literal.

  2. The values must be all strings. Other values are not supported. (Technically, numbers can be used, but they bring no advantage. Stick to strings.)

  3. You have to use the Enum values anywhere (for example Country.Sweden) where an Enum value is expected. Passing the same string doesn’t work (for example 'SE'). This makes refactoring a headache-free process. And your codebase stays consistent.

  4. However, it’s not all unicorns and rainbow. The generated code is a) still there and b) still (kind of) ugly.

‘How on earth you want to improve that, Robin?’ you might ask

You’re in for a treat.

Constant, string Enums

The second improvement that helped me cross the Enum Rubicon (‘The type is cast!’, sorry, sorry, I had to) is constant Enum or const Enum for short.

How does it look like?

const enum Country {
  Germany = 'DE',
  Sweden = 'SE',
  USA = 'US',
}
             
const setActiveCountry = (country: Country) => {
  // do something
}

setActiveCountry(Country.Sweden)

// @ts-expect-error
setActiveCountry('CZ')

// @ts-expect-error
setActiveCountry('SE')

Playground Link

Wait, wait, I’m not pulling your leg.

It is a letter-to-letter, carbon copy of the previous code, except for the addition of the const in front of the enum.

The functionality is exactly the same, too. Looking at the list items above: 1. is the same, 2. is the same, 3. is the same, 4. is… NOT the same!

There is no code generated for the const Enum. This is what the output of the previous code look like:

const setActiveCountry = (country) => {
    // do something
}

setActiveCountry('SE' /* Sweden */)

Yes, all the values are now inlined in the place of use. There is no clue that there ever was an Enum. Except, maybe, for the helpful comment.

In the end, the result is the same as in the very first alternative we talked about: the disjoint union of literal types. Yet, it is so much easier to use and safer in all regards.

To summarize, with constant, string Enums you get all the benefits of string Enums (type checking, debuggable, not replaceable by string) and of writing it directly (no extra code).

Constant Enums are a one-way street

Before we go next, I need to warn you about const Enums. They are not a drop-in replacement every time.

What’s the issue? There is no way to get a label for a value. You see, there is no dictionary, there is no code generated at all. So if you have value, say 'SE', and you want its label for logging, Sweden in this case, you will not be able to.

That is a small inconvenience, you should keep in mind.

Also, if you need to access the labels for something else than logging, it might mean that Enum is not for you. Enum labels should have a meaning only for the developer.

Constant Enums can be huge

One great use case I found of constant Enums, is that you do not care about the number of items in an Enum. There could be a const string Enum of all the countries in the world and if you only use there, just these three will make it to the production code. The rest would just disappear. And code autocomplete still works with no issue.

In our service code, we now have a share const string Enum with all existing HTTP response codes (excerpt):

export const enum Success {
  OK = '200',
  Created = '201',
  // …
}

export const enum ClientError {
  BadRequest = '400',
  Unauthorized = '401',
  PaymentRequired = '402',
  Forbidden = '403',
  NotFound = '404',
  // …
}

// …

export type HttpStatusCode =
  | InformationalResponse
  | Success
  | Redirection
  | ClientError
  | ServerError

What makes a great Enum

Const string Enums.

That’s it.

That is what I now use everywhere.

Before commit, I make sure each Enum fulfills the following two conditions:

  1. All Enum options have a defined custom string value.
  2. The Enum is declared as const.

I think this combines the benefits of TypeScript with the eloquence of pure JavaScript. A superb developer experience with close to zero impact on the result.

Do you use Enums in your code? Do you avoid language features that are not considered for ECMAScript? Tweet a reply

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