The question mark is used in JavaScript as an alternative to an if statement, especially in the case where a value is assigned based on a conditional.

JavaScript Question Mark Operator Definition

JavaScript’s question mark operator ? , also known as question — colon or the ternary operator, is used to shorten an if else statement into one line of code. It takes three operands: a condition, a value if that condition is true and a value if that condition is false.

The first time you come across the ? character in your JavaScript code, it jumps off the screen. You might wonder, like I did, what a question mark was doing in your code. 

Thankfully, the question mark (or question mark — colon) syntax is easy to understand. However, overusing the ? : can make code hard to read.


What Is the JavaScript Question Mark Operator?

The question mark operator has many names, including: question mark, question — colon and ternary operator. While the syntax is pretty straight forward, describing the JavaScript question mark ? out loud can be difficult due to its terminology.

The question mark operator ? takes three operands: a condition, a value if that condition is true and a value if that condition is false.

It’s used in JavaScript to shorten an if else statement to one line of code.

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JavaScript Ternary Operator Explained

The question mark is also called the ternary operator because it takes three operands. Ternary means composed of three parts:

  1. The condition lives in parentheses.
  2. The value if true comes first.
  3. The value if false comes second.

The three operands look like this: (1+1==2) ? "Pass" : "Fail". The question mark and colon operators together are the ternary operator.


How to Correctly Use the JavaScript Question Mark Operator 

Question marks are useful in JavaScript for quickly assigning a different value to a variable based on a condition, a very common task:

let [profit, costs] = [120000, 100000] // It was a good month 
// Employee bonus structure: $1000 if >10% profit, $100 if not
let employeeBonus = (profit/costs > 1.10) ? 1000 : 100
console.log("$"+employeeBonus) // $1000

The determination of the bonus only takes one line, so I’m able to save time that I would have spent writing if, else and {} blocks.

Technically, the parentheses are optional, but they improve readability:

employeeBonus = profit/costs > 1.10 ? 1000 : 100
An introduction to the ternary operator in JavaScript. | Video:

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Common JavaScript Question Mark Operator Mistakes  

Most developers think this code is hard to read, even though the question mark operator let me write it in just a single line of code:

(employeeBonus>500) ? console.log("🥳") : console.log("🙂") // 🥳

Compare this to the alternative, written with an if statement:

if (employeeBonus>500)
  { console.log("🥳") }
  { console.log("🙂") } // 🥳

The typical best practice is to reserve the question mark for cases of assigning variables, when it makes sense to use the question — colon in JavaScript.

let monthProfitOrLoss = (profit > costs) ? "Profit" : "Loss"
console.log(`${monthProfitOrLoss} last month`) // Profit last month

In other cases, where I am taking some action if something is true, then I try to stick with if statements to make my code clearer.

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