What you didn’t know about JSON.Stringify

JSON, the ubiquitous data format that has become second nature to engineers all over the world. This post shows you how to achieve much more with JavaScript’s native JSON.Stringify method.

A quick refresher about JSON and JavaScript:

  • Not all valid JSON is valid JavaScript
  • JSON is a text-only format, no blobs please
  • Numbers are only base 10.

1. JSON.stringify

This returns the JSON-safe string representation of its input parameter. Note that non-stringifiable fields will be silently stripped off as shown below:

let foo = { a: 2, b: function() {} };
// "{ "a": 2 }"

What other types are non-stringifiable? 

Circular references

Since such objects point back at themselves, it’s quite easy to get into a non-ending loop. I once ran into a similar issue with memq in the past.

let foo = { b: foo };
// Uncaught TypeError: Converting circular structure to JSON

// Arrays
foo = [foo];
// Uncaught TypeError: Converting circular structure to JSON

Symbols and undefined

let foo = { b: undefined };
// {}
// Symbols
foo.b = Symbol();
// {}


Arrays containing non-stringifiable entries are handled specially though.

let foo = [Symbol(), undefined, function() {}, 'works']
// "[null,null,null,'works']"

Non-stringifiable fields get replaced with null in arrays and dropped in objects. The special array handling helps ‘preserve’ the shape of the array. In the example above, if the array entries were dropped as occurs in objects, then the output would have been [‘works’]. A single element array is very much different from a 4 element one.

I would argue for using null in objects too instead of dropping the fields. That way, we get a consistent behaviour and a way to know fields have been dropped.

Why aren’t all values stringifiable?

Because JSON is a language agnostic format.

For example, let us assume JSON allowed exporting functions as strings. With JavaScript, it would be possible to eval such strings in some scenarios. But what context would such eval-ed functions be evaluated in? What would that mean in a C# program?  And would you even represent some language-specific values (e.g. JavaScript Symbols)?

The ECMAScript standard highlights this point succinctly:

It does not attempt to impose ECMAScript’s internal data representations on other programming languages. Instead, it shares a small subset of ECMAScript’s textual representations with all other programming languages.

2. Overriding toJSON on object prototypes

One way to bypass the non-stringifiable fields issue in your objects is to implement the toJSON method. And since nearly every AJAX call involves a JSON.stringify call somewhere, this can lead to a very elegant trick for handling server communication.

This approach is similar to toString overrides that allow you to return representative strings for objects. Implementing toJSON enables you to sanitize your objects of non-stringifiable fields before JSON.stringify converts them.

function Person (first, last) {
    this.firstName = first;
    this.last = last;

Person.prototype.process = function () {
   return this.firstName + ' ' +

let ade = new Person('Ade', 'P');
// "{"firstName":"Ade","last":"P"}"

As expected, the instance process function is dropped. Let’s assume however that the server only wants the person’s full name. Instead of writing a dedicated converter function to create that format, toJSON offers a more scalable alternative.

Person.prototype.toJSON = function () {
    return { fullName: this.process(); };

let ade = new Person('Ade', 'P');
// "{"fullName":"Ade P"}"

The strength of this lies in its reusability and stability. You can use the ade instance with virtually any library and anywhere you want. You control exactly the data you want serialized and can be sure it’ll be created just as you want.

// jQuery
$.post('endpoint', ade);

// Angular 2
this.httpService.post('endpoint', ade)

Point: toJSON doesn’t create the JSON string, it only determines the object it’ll be called with. The call chain looks like this: toJSON -> JSON.stringify.

3. Optional arguments

The full signature stringify is JSON.stringify(value, replacer?, space?). I am copying the TypeScript ? style for identifying optional values. Now let’s dive into the replacer and space options.

4. Replacer

The replacer is a function or array that allows selecting fields for stringification. It differs from toJSON by allowing users to select choice fields rather than manipulate the entire structure.

If the replacer is not defined, then all fields of the object will be returned – just as JSON.stringify works in the default case.


For arrays, only the keys present in the replacer array would be stringified.

let foo = {
 a : 1,
 b : "string",
 c : false
JSON.stringify(foo, ['a', 'b']);

Arrays however might not be as flexible as desired,  let’s take a sample scenario involving nested objects.

let bar = {
 a : 1,
 b : { c : 2 }
JSON.stringify(bar, ['a', 'b']);

JSON.stringify(bar, ['a', 'b', 'c']);

Even nested objects are filtered out. Assuming you want more flexibility and control, then defining a function is the way out.


The replacer function is called for every key value pair and the return values are explained below:

  • Returning undefined drops that field in the JSON representation
  • Returning a string, boolean or number ensures that value is stringified
  • Returning an object triggers another recursive call until primitive values are encountered
  • Returning non-stringifiable valus (e.g. functions, Symbols etc) for a key will result in the field being dropped.
let baz = {
 a : 1,
 b : { c : 2 }

// return only values greater than 1
let replacer = function (key, value) {
    if(typeof === 'number') {
        return value > 1 ? value: undefined;
    return value;

JSON.stringify(baz, replacer);
// "{"b":{"c":2}}"

There is something to watch out for though, the entire object is passed in as the value in the first call; thereafter recursion begins. See the trace below.

let obj = {
 a : 1,
 b : { c : 2 }

let tracer = function (key, value){
  console.log('Key: ', key);
  console.log('Value: ', value);
  return value;

JSON.stringify(obj, tracer);
// Key:
// Value: Object {a: 1, b: Object}
// Key: a
// Value: 1
// Key: b
// Value: Object {c: 2}
// Key: c
// Value: 2

5. Space

Have you noticed the default JSON.stringify output? It’s always a single line with no spacing. But what if you wanted to pretty format some JSON, would you write a function to space it out?

What if I told you it was a one line fix? Just stringify the object with the tab(‘\t’) space option.

let space = {
 a : 1,
 b : { c : 2 }

// pretty format trick
JSON.stringify(space, undefined, '\t');
// "{
//  "a": 1,
//  "b": {
//   "c": 2
//  }
// }"

JSON.stringify(space, undefined, '');
// {"a":1,"b":{"c":2}}

// custom specifiers allowed too!
JSON.stringify(space, undefined, 'a');
// "{
//  a"a": 1,
//  a"b": {
//   aa"c": 2
//  a}
// }"

Puzzler: why does the nested c option have two ‘a’s in its representation – aa”c”?


This post showed a couple of new tricks and ways to properly leverage the hidden capabilities of JSON.stringify covering:
  • JSON expectations and non-serializable data formats
  • How to use toJSON to define objects properly for JSON serialization
  • The replacer option for filtering out values dynamically
  • The space parameter for formatting JSON output
  • The difference between stringifying arrays and objects containing non-stringifiable fields
Feel free to check out related posts, follow me on twitter or share your thoughts in the comments!


  1. Why JavaScript has two zeros: -0 and +0
  2. JavaScript has no Else If
  3. Deep dive into JavaScript Property Descriptors

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