DEV Community

Cover image for The Scope Chain in JavaScript
Rajat Verma
Rajat Verma

Posted on

The Scope Chain in JavaScript

Chapter 3: The Scope Chain

  • These are the notes of third chapter of the book "You Don't Know JS: Scope and Closures".
  • The connections between scopes that are nested in the other scopes are called the scope chain.
  • The scope chain is directed, meaning the lookup moves upward only.

"Lookup" Is (Mostly) Conceptual

  • We described runtime access to a variable as a lookup in the last chapter, in which the JavaScript Engine first checks if the variable is present in the current scope before moving upward up the chain of nested scopes (towards the global scope) until the variable is found, if at all.
  • The lookup stops as soon as the first matching named declaration in scope is found.
  • The scope of a variable is usually decided during the initial compilation process. It will not change based on anything that can happen later during runtime.
  • Since the scope is known from compilation, this information would likely be stored with each variable's entry in the AST, which means that the Engine doesn't need to lookup up a bunch of scopes to figure out which scope a variable comes from.
  • Avoiding the need for lookup is a key optimization benefit of lexical scope.

Note: Consider the following scenario: we have numerous files and we are unable to locate the declaration of a specific variable in one of them. It's not always an error if no declaration is found. That variable could be declared in the shared global scope by another file (program) in the runtime.

  • So the ultimate determination of whether the variable was declared in some scope may need to be deferred to the runtime.
  • Let's understand this with the Marble and Buckets analogy that we discussed in the last chapter:

Any reference to a variable that's initially undeclared is left as an uncolored marble during that file's compilation; this color cannot be determined until other relevant files have been compiled and the application runtime commences. That deferred lookup will eventually resolve the color to whichever scope the variable is found in (likely the global scope).

Shadowing

  • If all variables have different names it wouldn't matter if all of them were just declared in the global scope.
  • Having different lexical scopes starts to matter more when you have two or more variables, each in different scopes, with the same lexical names.
  • Let's consider an example:
var studentName = "Suzy";

function printStudent(studentName) {
  studentName = studentName.toUpperCase();
  console.log(studentName);
}

printStudent("Frank");
// FRANK
printStudent(studentName);
// SUZY
console.log(studentName);
// Suzy
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode
  • The studentName declaration on line 1, creates a new variable in the global scope.
  • All the three studentName references in the printStudent function refer to a different local scoped variable and not the global scoped studentName variable. This behavior is called Shadowing.
  • So, we can say that in the above example, the local scoped variable shadows the globally scoped variable.

Note: It's lexically impossible to reference the global studentName anywhere inside of the printStudent(..) function (or from any nested scopes).

Global Unshadowing Trick

  • It is possible to access a global variable from a scope where that variable has been shadowed, but not through a typical lexical identifier reference.
  • In the global scope, var and function declarations also expose themselves as properties (of the same name as the identifier) on the global object—essentially an object representation of the global scope. Consider the program:
var studentName = "Suzy";

function printStudent(studentName) {
  console.log(studentName);
  console.log(window.studentName);
}

printStudent("Frank");
// "Frank"
// "Suzy"
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode
  • So, as we can notice using window.variableName we can still access the globally scoped shadowed variable in a function.

Note:

  • The window.studentName is a mirror of the global studentName variable, not a separate snapshot copy. Changes to one are still seen from the other, in either direction.
  • This trick only works for accessing a global scope variable and not a shadowed variable from a nested scope, and even then, only one that was declared with var or function.

Warning: Just because you can doesn't mean you should. Don't shadow a global variable that you need to access, and conversely, avoid using this trick to access a global variable that you've shadowed.

Copying Is Not Accessing

  • Consider the example:
var special = 42;

function lookingFor(special) {
  var another = {
    special: special,
  };

  function keepLooking() {
    var special = 3.141592;
    console.log(special);
    console.log(another.special); // Ooo, tricky!
    console.log(window.special);
  }
  keepLooking();
}

lookingFor(112358132134);
// 3.141592
// 112358132134
// 42
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode
  • So, we noticed that we were able to get the value of special variable passed as a parameter to the lookingFor function in the keepLooking function. Does that mean we accessed a shadowed variable?
  • No! special: special is copying the value of the special parameter variable into another container (a property of the same name). This doesn't mean that we are accessing the parameter special. It means we are accessing the copy of the value it had at that moment, by way of another container. We cannot reassign the special parameter to a different value from the inside keepLooking function.
  • What if I'd used objects or arrays as the values instead of the numbers ( 112358132134, etc.)? Would us having references to objects instead of copies of primitive values "fix" the inaccessibility? No. Mutating the contents of the object value via a reference copy is not the same thing as lexically accessing the variable itself. We still can't reassign the special parameter.

Illegal Shadowing

  • Not all combinations of declaration shadowing are allowed. let can shadow var, but var can't shadow let. Consider the example:
function something() {
  var special = "JavaScript";
  {
    let special = 42; // totally fine shadowing
    // ..
  }
}

function another() {
  // ..
  {
    let special = "JavaScript";
    {
      var special = 42;
      // ^^^ Syntax Error
      // ..
    }
  }
}
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode
  • Notice in the another() function, the inner var special declaration is attempting to declare a function-wide special, which in and of itself is fine (as shown by the something() function).
  • The syntax error description, in this case, indicates that special has already been defined.
  • The real reason it's raised as a SyntaxError is because the var is basically trying to "cross the boundary" of (or hop over) the let declaration of the same name, which is not allowed.
  • That boundary-crossing prohibition effectively stops at each function boundary, so this variant raises no exception:
function another() {
  // ..
  {
    let special = "JavaScript";
    ajax("https://some.url", function callback() {
      // totally fine shadowing
      var special = "JavaScript";
      // ..
    });
  }
}
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

Function Name Scope

  • A function declaration looks like:
function askQuestion() {
  // ..
}
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode
  • While function expression looks like:
var askQuestion = function(){
  //..
};
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode
  • A function expression, takes in a function as a value, due to this, the function itself will not "hoist".
  • Now let's consider a named function expression:
var askQuestion = function ofTheTeacher() {
  // ..
};
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode
  • We know askQuestion can be accessed in the outer scope, but what about ofTheTeacher identifier? ofTheTeacher is declared as an identifier inside the function itself:
var askQuestion = function ofTheTeacher() {
  console.log(ofTheTeacher);
};

askQuestion();
// function ofTheTeacher()...
console.log(ofTheTeacher);
// ReferenceError: ofTheTeacher is not defined
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

Arrow Functions

  • Here is how an arrow function is declared:
var askQuestion = () => {
  // ..
};
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode
  • The arrow function doesn't need the word function to define it.

Backing Out

  • When a function (declaration or expression) is defined, a new scope is created. The positioning of scopes nested inside one another creates a natural scope hierarchy throughout the program, called the scope chain.
  • Each new scope offers a clean slate, a space to hold its own set of variables. When a variable name is repeated at different levels of the scope chain, shadowing occurs, which prevents access to the outer variable from that point inward.

That concludes this chapter. I'll be back with the notes for the next chapter soon.

Till then, Happy Coding :)

If you enjoyed reading the notes or have any suggestions or doubts, then feel free to share your views in the comments.
In case you want to connect with me, follow the links below:

LinkedIn | GitHub | Twitter | Medium

Discussion (5)

Collapse
rajat2502 profile image
Rajat Verma Author
Collapse
rajat2502 profile image
Rajat Verma Author

These are the notes of Chapter 3 of YDKJS: Scope & Closures.

If you want to read the complete chapter, book, or series, please head over to their repository:
github.com/getify/You-Dont-Know-JS

Collapse
pragativerma18 profile image
Pragati Verma

That's a great article! Thank you so much for sharing Rajat 😁

Collapse
rajat2502 profile image
Rajat Verma Author

Thanks Pragati!

Collapse
jessica57 profile image
Jessica57

These funny shitcoins keep mooning. Who goes up 11mil% in 24hours? Damn