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In this blog post I will cover how TypeScript discovers type declarations and the subtle differences in what they should look like depending on where they live.

Edit: Note that Visual Studio IDE, Visual Studio Code and possibly other editors have built their TypeScript/JavaScript intellisense on top of the TypeScript language service (that is - TypeScript itself), so all of the below apply for those as well.

Let’s say that we have a JavaScript module like the one below and we want to consume it together with type declarations either in TypeScript or JavaScript (TypeScripts can process JavaScript and provide intellisense via allowJs).

Our JavaScript module code

hello.js

module.exports.Name = function(first, last) {
  this.first = first;
  this.last = last;
}

module.exports.sayHi = function(name) {
  console.log(```Hi ${name.first} ${name.last}!```);
};

We want to consume it in TypeScript and we do this:

main.ts

import * as hello from 'hello';

hello.sayHi(new hello.Name("Ivan", "Zlatev"));

This will trigger a search for type declarations during the compilation/transpilation phase, so let’s go through the various possibilities.

Tripple slash comments

The legacy way to tell TypeScript that we have type declarations we want it to use for hello is to use a triple slash comment like this:

/// <reference path="path/to/declarations.d.ts" />

import * as hello from 'hello';

hello.sayHi(new hello.Name("Ivan", "Zlatev"));

And have declarations.d.ts that looks like this:

declare module 'hello' {
    export class Name
    {
        constructor(first : string, last : string);
        first: string;
        last: string;
    }

    export function sayHi(name: Name) : void;
}

Notice the use of declare module 'hello'. This is an ambient declaration and what it means is that we are telling TypeScript: “There exists a module called “hello” which exposes these types”.

This is not particlarly great approach and is error and frustration prone - We have to manually maintain the list of references and ensure the ordering is correct.

One benefit of this method is that it allows the creation of import-all.d.ts type of file with a list of references - a method used by typings (the successor to tsd) to create an “index” file with reference list to all installed typings.

tsconfig.json

The tsconfig.json file defines the TypeScript project/workspace when tsc --project directory_here is used. Among other things it supports two modes for defining the code files to process in the workspace/project:

  • (default) Include all *.ts (so also *.d.ts) files recursively. Files/paths can optionally be excluded using exclude: [ "path1", "path2" ]
  • Explicitly include a specific set of files for processing using include: [ "path1", "path2" ]

What this means for us is that as long as the our type declarations files are included (implicitly or explicitly) in the tsconfig.json we don’t need to use triple slash comments to reference them, because they will already be part of the project/workspace.

A typical tsconfig.json can look like this.

{
  "compilerOptions": {
    "target": "es5",
    "noImplicitAny": true,
    "module": "commonjs",
    "moduleResolution": "node",
    "outDir": "build"
  },
  "compileOnSave": true,
  "exclude": [
    "node_modules",
    ".vscode"
  ]
}

You will find that when using typings (the successor to tsd) it will automatically ensure that the type declarations are included in the paths of tsconfig.json.

Local JavaScript module type declaration

Given a hello.js file which exports a module TypeScript will look for A hello.d.ts file (same file name basically).

In our case the type declaration in that file will look like the one below. Note how there is no longer a declare module 'hello' bit in the file. We no how an external module type declaration (and not an ambient one) :

export class Name
{
    constructor(first : string, last : string);
    first: string;
    last: string;
}

export function sayHi(name: Name) : void;

NPM package “typings:”

Given a module named hello TypeScript will look across the NPM packages and inside the package.json for any typings: 'path/to/definitions.ts.d' and use that. In our case again will look like this:

export class Name
{
    constructor(first : string, last : string);
    first: string;
    last: string;
}

export function sayHi(name: Name) : void;

Note the meaning of “ambient”

In a web browser environment when jQuery is imported - it declares a global variable $, which is accessible everywhere. Antother example is the Node environment - we get access to a bunch of functions things without having to import specific packages.

In such a case we are likely to see *.d.ts with global ambient declarations (“something has declared X function/variable and it looks like this”). E.g. for jQuery something like this:

declare var $: JQueryStatic;

Unfortunately some of the terminology/naming is inconsistent across tsd, typings and TypeScript itself (GitHub issue), which I personally found frustrating when trying to write type declarations for the first time.

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Ivan Zlatev


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