Scope of Variables

The scope of a variable is the region of code within which a variable is visible. Variable scoping helps avoid variable naming conflicts. The concept is intuitive: two functions can both have arguments called x without the two x‘s referring to the same thing. Similarly there are many other cases where different blocks of code can use the same name without referring to the same thing. The rules for when the same variable name does or doesn’t refer to the same thing are called scope rules; this section spells them out in detail.

Certain constructs in the language introduce scope blocks, which are regions of code that are eligible to be the scope of some set of variables. The scope of a variable cannot be an arbitrary set of source lines; instead, it will always line up with one of these blocks. There are two main types of scopes in Julia, global scope and local scope, the latter can be nested. The constructs introducing scope blocks are:

Scope name block/construct introducing this kind of scope
global
module, baremodule, at interactive prompt (REPL)
local soft
for, while, list-comprehensions, try-catch-finally, let
hard
functions (either syntax, anonymous & do-blocks)
type, immutable, macro

Notably missing from this table are begin blocks and if blocks, which do not introduce new scope blocks. All three types of scopes follow somewhat different rules which will be explained below as well as some extra rules for certain blocks.

Julia uses lexical scoping, meaning that a function’s scope does not inherit from its caller’s scope, but from the scope in which the function was defined. For example, in the following code the x inside foo refers to the x in the global scope of its module Bar:

module Bar
x = 1
foo() = x
end

and not a x in the scope where foo is used:

julia> import Bar

julia> x = -1;

julia> Bar.foo()
1

Thus lexical scope means that the scope of variables can be inferred from the source code alone.

Global Scope

Each module introduces a new global scope, separate from the global scope of all other modules; there is no all-encompassing global scope. Modules can introduce variables of other modules into their scope through the using or import statements or through qualified access using the dot-notation, i.e. each module is a so-called namespace. Note that variable bindings can only be changed within their global scope and not from an outside module.

module A
a = 1 # a global in A's scope
end

module B
# b = a # would error as B's global scope is separate from A's
    module C
    c = 2
    end
b = C.c # can access the namespace of a nested global scope
        # through a qualified access
import A # makes module A available
d = A.a
# A.a = 2 # would error with: "ERROR: cannot assign variables in other modules"
end

Note that the interactive prompt (aka REPL) is in the global scope of the module Main.

Local Scope

A new local scope is introduced by most code-blocks, see above table for a complete list. A local scope usually inherits all the variables from its parent scope, both for reading and writing. There are two subtypes of local scopes, hard and soft, with slightly different rules concerning what variables are inherited. Unlike global scopes, local scopes are not namespaces, thus variables in an inner scope cannot be retrieved from the parent scope through some sort of qualified access.

The following rules and examples pertain to both hard and soft local scopes. A newly introduced variable in a local scope does not back-propagate to its parent scope. For example, here the z is not introduced into the top-level scope:

for i=1:10
    z = i
end

julia> z
ERROR: UndefVarError: z not defined

(Note, in this and all following examples it is assumed that their top-level is a global scope with a clean workspace, for instance a newly started REPL.)

Inside a local scope a variable can be forced to be a local variable using the local keyword:

x = 0
for i=1:10
    local x
    x = i + 1
end

julia> x
0

Inside a local scope a new global variable can be defined using the keyword global:

for i=1:10
    global z
    z = i
end

julia> z
10

The location of both the local and global keywords within the scope block is irrelevant. The following is equivalent to the last example (although stylistically worse):

for i=1:10
    z = i
    global z
end

julia> z
10

Multiple global or local definitions can be on one line and can also be paired with assignments:

for i=1:10
    global x=i, y, z
    local a=4, b , c=1
end

Soft Local Scope

In a soft local scope, all variables are inherited from its parent scope unless a variable is specifically marked with the keyword local.

Soft local scopes are introduced by for-loops, while-loops, list-comprehensions, try-catch-finally-blocks, and let-blocks. There are some extra rules for let-blocks and for for-loops and list-comprehensions.

In the following example the x and y refer always to the same variables as the soft local scope inherits both read and write variables:

x,y = 0, 1
for i = 1:10
    x = i + y + 1
end

julia> x
11

Within soft scopes, the global keyword is never necessary, although allowed. The only case when it would change the semantics is (currently) a syntax error:

let
    local x = 2
    let
        global x = 3
    end
end

# ERROR: syntax: `global x`: x is local variable in the enclosing scope

Hard Local Scope

Hard local scopes are introduced by function definitions (in all their forms), type & immutable-blocks and macro-definitions.

In a hard local scope, all variables are inherited from its parent scope unless:

  • an assignment would result in a modified global variable, or
  • a variable is specifically marked with the keyword local.

Thus global variables are only inherited for reading but not for writing:

x,y = 1,2
function foo()
    x = 2 # assignment introduces a new local
    return x + y # y refers to the global
end

julia> foo()
4

julia> x
1

An explicit global is needed to assign to a global variable:

x = 1
function foo()
    global x = 2
end
foo()

julia> x
2

Note that nested functions can behave differently to functions defined in the global scope as they can modify their parent scope’s local variables:

x,y = 1,2
function foo()
    x = 2 # introduces a new local
    function bar()
        x = 10 # modifies the parent's x
        return x+y # y is global
    end
    return bar() + x # 12 + 10 (x is modified in call of bar())
end

julia> foo()
22  # (x,y unchanged)

The distinction between inheriting global and local variables for assignment can lead to some slight differences between functions defined in local vs. global scopes. Consider the modification of the last example by moving bar to the global scope:

x,y = 1,2
function bar()
    x = 10 # local
    return x+y
end
function foo()
    x = 2 # local
    return bar() + x # 12 + 2 (x is not modified)
end

julia> foo()
14 # as x is not modified anymore.
   # (x,y unchanged)

Note that above subtlety does not pertain to type and macro definitions as they can only appear at the global scope. There are special scoping rules concerning the evaluation of default and keyword function arguments which are described in the Function section.

An assignment introducing a variable used inside a function, type or macro definition need not come before its inner usage:

julia> f = y -> x + y
(anonymous function)

julia> f(3)
ERROR: UndefVarError: x not defined
 in anonymous at none:1

julia> x = 1
1

julia> f(3)
4

This behavior may seem slightly odd for a normal variable, but allows for named functions — which are just normal variables holding function objects — to be used before they are defined. This allows functions to be defined in whatever order is intuitive and convenient, rather than forcing bottom up ordering or requiring forward declarations, as long as they are defined by the time they are actually called. As an example, here is an inefficient, mutually recursive way to test if positive integers are even or odd:

even(n) = n == 0 ? true  :  odd(n-1)
odd(n)  = n == 0 ? false : even(n-1)

julia> even(3)
false

julia> odd(3)
true

Julia provides built-in, efficient functions to test for oddness and evenness called iseven() and isodd() so the above definitions should only be taken as examples.

Hard vs. Soft Local Scope

Blocks which introduce a soft local scope, such as loops, are generally used to manipulate the variables in their parent scope. Thus their default is to fully access all variables in their parent scope.

Conversely, the code inside blocks which introduce a hard local scope (function, type and macro definitions) can be executed at any place in a program. Remotely changing the state of global variables in other modules should be done with care and thus this is an opt-in feature requiring the global keyword.

The reason to allow modifying local variables of parent scopes in nested functions is to allow constructing closures which have a private state, for instance the state variable in the following example:

let
    state = 0
    global counter
    counter() = state += 1
end

julia> counter()
1

julia> counter()
2

See also the closures in the examples in the next two sections.

Let Blocks

Unlike assignments to local variables, let statements allocate new variable bindings each time they run. An assignment modifies an existing value location, and let creates new locations. This difference is usually not important, and is only detectable in the case of variables that outlive their scope via closures. The let syntax accepts a comma-separated series of assignments and variable names:

let var1 = value1, var2, var3 = value3
    code
end

The assignments are evaluated in order, with each right-hand side evaluated in the scope before the new variable on the left-hand side has been introduced. Therefore it makes sense to write something like let x = x since the two x variables are distinct and have separate storage. Here is an example where the behavior of let is needed:

Fs = Array(Any,2)
i = 1
while i <= 2
  Fs[i] = ()->i
  i += 1
end

julia> Fs[1]()
3

julia> Fs[2]()
3

Here we create and store two closures that return variable i. However, it is always the same variable i, so the two closures behave identically. We can use let to create a new binding for i:

Fs = Array(Any,2)
i = 1
while i <= 2
  let i = i
    Fs[i] = ()->i
  end
  i += 1
end

julia> Fs[1]()
1

julia> Fs[2]()
2

Since the begin construct does not introduce a new scope, it can be useful to use a zero-argument let to just introduce a new scope block without creating any new bindings:

julia> let
         local x = 1
         let
           local x = 2
         end
         x
       end
1

Since let introduces a new scope block, the inner local x is a different variable than the outer local x.

For Loops and Comprehensions

for loops and comprehensions have the following behavior: any new variables introduced in their body scopes are freshly allocated for each loop iteration. This is in contrast to while loops which reuse the variables for all iterations. Therefore these constructs are similar to while loops with let blocks inside:

Fs = Array(Any,2)
for i = 1:2
    Fs[i] = ()->i
end

julia> Fs[1]()
1

julia> Fs[2]()
2

for loops will reuse existing variables for its iteration variable:

i = 0
for i = 1:3
end
i  # here equal to 3

However, comprehensions do not do this, and always freshly allocate their iteration variables:

x = 0
[ x for x=1:3 ]
x  # here still equal to 0

Constants

A common use of variables is giving names to specific, unchanging values. Such variables are only assigned once. This intent can be conveyed to the compiler using the const keyword:

const e  = 2.71828182845904523536
const pi = 3.14159265358979323846

The const declaration is allowed on both global and local variables, but is especially useful for globals. It is difficult for the compiler to optimize code involving global variables, since their values (or even their types) might change at almost any time. If a global variable will not change, adding a const declaration solves this performance problem.

Local constants are quite different. The compiler is able to determine automatically when a local variable is constant, so local constant declarations are not necessary for performance purposes.

Special top-level assignments, such as those performed by the function and type keywords, are constant by default.

Note that const only affects the variable binding; the variable may be bound to a mutable object (such as an array), and that object may still be modified.