What is the scope of variables in JavaScript? [Answered]

What is the scope of variables in javascript? Do they have the same scope inside as opposed to outside a function? Or does it even matter? Also, where are the variables stored if they are defined globally?

What is the scope of variables in JavaScript? Answer #1:

JavaScript has lexical (also called static) scoping and closures. This means you can tell the scope of an identifier by looking at the source code.

The four scopes are:

  1. Global – visible by everything
  2. Function – visible within a function (and its sub-functions and blocks)
  3. Block – visible within a block (and its sub-blocks)
  4. Module – visible within a module

Outside of the special cases of global and module scope, variables are declared using var (function scope), let (block scope), and const (block scope). Most other forms of identifier declaration have block scope in strict mode.

Overview

Scope is the region of the codebase over which an identifier is valid.

A lexical environment is a mapping between identifier names and the values associated with them.

Scope is formed of a linked nesting of lexical environments, with each level in the nesting corresponding to a lexical environment of an ancestor execution context.

These linked lexical environments form a scope “chain”. Identifier resolution is the process of searching along this chain for a matching identifier.

Identifier resolution only occurs in one direction: outwards. In this way, outer lexical environments cannot “see” into inner lexical environments.

There are three pertinent factors in deciding the scope of an identifier in JavaScript:

  1. How an identifier was declared
  2. Where an identifier was declared
  3. Whether you are in strict mode or non-strict mode

Some of the ways identifiers can be declared:

  1. varlet and const
  2. Function parameters
  3. Catch block parameter
  4. Function declarations
  5. Named function expressions
  6. Implicitly defined properties on the global object (i.e., missing out var in non-strict mode)
  7. import statements
  8. eval

Some of the locations identifiers can be declared:

  1. Global context
  2. Function body
  3. Ordinary block
  4. The top of a control structure (e.g., loop, if, while, etc.)
  5. Control structure body
  6. Modules

Declaration Styles

var

Identifiers declared using var have function scope, apart from when they are declared directly in the global context, in which case they are added as properties on the global object and have global scope. There are separate rules for their use in eval functions.

let and const

Identifiers declared using let and const have block scope, apart from when they are declared directly in the global context, in which case they have global scope.

Note: letconst and var are all hoisted. This means that their logical position of definition is the top of their enclosing scope (block or function). However, variables declared using let and const cannot be read or assigned to until control has passed the point of declaration in the source code. The interim period is known as the temporal dead zone.

function f() {
    function g() {
        console.log(x)
    }
    let x = 1
    g()
}
f() // 1 because x is hoisted even though declared with `let`!

Function parameter names

Function parameter names are scoped to the function body. Note that there is a slight complexity to this. Functions declared as default arguments close over the parameter list, and not the body of the function.

Function declarations

Function declarations have block scope in strict mode and function scope in non-strict mode. Note: non-strict mode is a complicated set of emergent rules based on the quirky historical implementations of different browsers.

Named function expressions

Named function expressions are scoped to themselves (e.g., for the purpose of recursion).

Implicitly defined properties on the global object

In non-strict mode, implicitly defined properties on the global object have global scope, because the global object sits at the top of the scope chain. In strict mode, these are not permitted.

eval

In eval strings, variables declared using var will be placed in the current scope, or, if eval is used indirectly, as properties on the global object.

Examples

The following will throw a ReferenceError because the namesxy, and z have no meaning outside of the function f.

function f() {
    var x = 1
    let y = 1
    const z = 1
}
console.log(typeof x) // undefined (because var has function scope!)
console.log(typeof y) // undefined (because the body of the function is a block)
console.log(typeof z) // undefined (because the body of the function is a block)

The following will throw a ReferenceError for y and z, but not for x, because the visibility of x is not constrained by the block. Blocks that define the bodies of control structures like iffor, and while, behave similarly.

{
    var x = 1
    let y = 1
    const z = 1
}
console.log(x) // 1
console.log(typeof y) // undefined because `y` has block scope
console.log(typeof z) // undefined because `z` has block scope

In the following, x is visible outside of the loop because var has function scope:

for(var x = 0; x < 5; ++x) {}
console.log(x) // 5 (note this is outside the loop!)

…because of this behavior, you need to be careful about closing over variables declared using var in loops. There is only one instance of variable x declared here, and it sits logically outside of the loop.

The following prints 5, five times, and then prints 5 a sixth time for the console.log outside the loop:

for(var x = 0; x < 5; ++x) {
    setTimeout(() => console.log(x)) // closes over the `x` which is logically positioned at the top of the enclosing scope, above the loop
}
console.log(x) // note: visible outside the loop

The following prints undefined because x is block-scoped. The callbacks are run one by one asynchronously. New behavior for let variables means that each anonymous function closed over a different variable named x (unlike it would have done with var), and so integers 0 through 4 are printed.:

for(let x = 0; x < 5; ++x) {
    setTimeout(() => console.log(x)) // `let` declarations are re-declared on a per-iteration basis, so the closures capture different variables
}
console.log(typeof x) // undefined

The following will NOT throw a ReferenceError because the visibility of x is not constrained by the block; it will, however, print undefined because the variable has not been initialised (because of the if statement).

if(false) {
    var x = 1
}
console.log(x) // here, `x` has been declared, but not initialised

A variable declared at the top of a for loop using let is scoped to the body of the loop:

for(let x = 0; x < 10; ++x) {} 
console.log(typeof x) // undefined, because `x` is block-scoped

The following will throw a ReferenceError because the visibility of x is constrained by the block:

if(false) {
    let x = 1
}
console.log(typeof x) // undefined, because `x` is block-scoped

Variables declared using varlet or const are all scoped to modules:

// module1.js

var x = 0
export function f() {}

//module2.js

import f from 'module1.js'

console.log(x) // throws ReferenceError

The following will declare a property on the global object because variables declared using var within the global context are added as properties to the global object:

var x = 1
console.log(window.hasOwnProperty('x')) // true

let and const in the global context do not add properties to the global object, but still have global scope:

let x = 1
console.log(window.hasOwnProperty('x')) // false

Function parameters can be considered to be declared in the function body:

function f(x) {}
console.log(typeof x) // undefined, because `x` is scoped to the function

Catch block parameters are scoped to the catch-block body:

try {} catch(e) {}
console.log(typeof e) // undefined, because `e` is scoped to the catch block

Named function expressions are scoped only to the expression itself:

(function foo() { console.log(foo) })()
console.log(typeof foo) // undefined, because `foo` is scoped to its own expression

In non-strict mode, implicitly defined properties on the global object are globally scoped. In strict mode, you get an error.

x = 1 // implicitly defined property on the global object (no "var"!)

console.log(x) // 1
console.log(window.hasOwnProperty('x')) // true

In non-strict mode, function declarations have function scope. In strict mode, they have block scope.

'use strict'
{
    function foo() {}
}
console.log(typeof foo) // undefined, because `foo` is block-scoped

How it works under the hood

Scope is defined as the lexical region of code over which an identifier is valid.

In JavaScript, every function-object has a hidden [[Environment]] reference that is a reference to the lexical environment of the execution context (stack frame) within which it was created.

When you invoke a function, the hidden [[Call]] method is called. This method creates a new execution context and establishes a link between the new execution context and the lexical environment of the function-object. It does this by copying the [[Environment]] value on the function-object, into an outer reference field on the lexical environment of the new execution context.

Note that this link between the new execution context and the lexical environment of the function object is called a closure.

Thus, in JavaScript, scope is implemented via lexical environments linked together in a “chain” by outer references. This chain of lexical environments is called the scope chain, and identifier resolution occurs by searching up the chain for a matching identifier.

What is the scope of variables in JavaScript? Answer #2:

Javascript uses scope chains to establish the scope for a given function. There is typically one global scope, and each function defined has its own nested scope. Any function defined within another function has a local scope which is linked to the outer function. It’s always the position in the source that defines the scope.

An element in the scope chain is basically a Map with a pointer to its parent scope.

When resolving a variable, javascript starts at the innermost scope and searches outwards.

What is the scope of variables in JavaScript? Answer #3:

Old school JavaScript

Traditionally, JavaScript really only has two types of scope :

  1. Global Scope : Variables are known throughout the application, from the start of the application (*)
  2. Functional Scope : Variables are known within the function they are declared in, from the start of the function (*)

I will not elaborate on this, since there are already many other answers explaining the difference.


Modern JavaScript

The most recent JavaScript specs now also allow a third scope :

  1. Block Scope : Identifiers are “known” from the top of the scope they are declared within, but they cannot be assigned to or dereferenced (read) until after the line of their declaration. This interim period is called the “temporal dead zone.”

How do I create block scope variables?

Traditionally, you create your variables like this :

var myVariable = "Some text";

Block scope variables are created like this :

let myVariable = "Some text";

So what is the difference between functional scope and block scope?

To understand the difference between functional scope and block scope, consider the following code :

// i IS NOT known here
// j IS NOT known here
// k IS known here, but undefined
// l IS NOT known here

function loop(arr) {
    // i IS known here, but undefined
    // j IS NOT known here
    // k IS known here, but has a value only the second time loop is called
    // l IS NOT known here

    for( var i = 0; i < arr.length; i++ ) {
        // i IS known here, and has a value
        // j IS NOT known here
        // k IS known here, but has a value only the second time loop is called
        // l IS NOT known here
    };

    // i IS known here, and has a value
    // j IS NOT known here
    // k IS known here, but has a value only the second time loop is called
    // l IS NOT known here

    for( let j = 0; j < arr.length; j++ ) {
        // i IS known here, and has a value
        // j IS known here, and has a value
        // k IS known here, but has a value only the second time loop is called
        // l IS NOT known here
    };

    // i IS known here, and has a value
    // j IS NOT known here
    // k IS known here, but has a value only the second time loop is called
    // l IS NOT known here
}

loop([1,2,3,4]);

for( var k = 0; k < arr.length; k++ ) {
    // i IS NOT known here
    // j IS NOT known here
    // k IS known here, and has a value
    // l IS NOT known here
};

for( let l = 0; l < arr.length; l++ ) {
    // i IS NOT known here
    // j IS NOT known here
    // k IS known here, and has a value
    // l IS known here, and has a value
};

loop([1,2,3,4]);

// i IS NOT known here
// j IS NOT known here
// k IS known here, and has a value
// l IS NOT known here

Here, we can see that our variable j is only known in the first for loop, but not before and after. Yet, our variable i is known in the entire function.

Also, consider that block scoped variables are not known before they are declared because they are not hoisted. You’re also not allowed to redeclare the same block scoped variable within the same block. This makes block scoped variables less error prone than globally or functionally scoped variables, which are hoisted and which do not produce any errors in case of multiple declarations.


Is it safe to use block scope variables today?

Whether or not it is safe to use today, depends on your environment :

  • If you’re writing server-side JavaScript code (Node.js), you can safely use the let statement.
  • If you’re writing client-side JavaScript code and use a browser based transpiler (like Traceur or babel-standalone), you can safely use the let statement, however your code is likely to be anything but optimal with respect to performance.
  • If you’re writing client-side JavaScript code and use a Node based transpiler (like the traceur shell script or Babel), you can safely use the let statement. And because your browser will only know about the transpiled code, performance drawbacks should be limited.
  • If you’re writing client-side JavaScript code and don’t use a transpiler, you need to consider browser support.These are some browsers that don’t support let at all :
    • Internet explorer 10 and below
    • Firefox 43 and below
    • Safari 9 and below
    • Android browser 4 and below
    • Opera 27 and below
    • Chome 40 and below
    • ANY version of Opera Mini & Blackberry Browser
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How to keep track of browser support

For an up-to-date overview of which browsers support the let statement at the time of your reading this answer, see this Can I Use page.


(*) Globally and functionally scoped variables can be initialized and used before they are declared because JavaScript variables are hoisted. This means that declarations are always much to the top of the scope.

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