8 PEP 227: Nested Scopes

In Python 2.1, statically nested scopes were added as an optional feature, to be enabled by a from __future__ import nested_scopes directive. In 2.2 nested scopes no longer need to be specially enabled, and are now always present. The rest of this section is a copy of the description of nested scopes from my ``What's New in Python 2.1'' document; if you read it when 2.1 came out, you can skip the rest of this section.

The largest change introduced in Python 2.1, and made complete in 2.2, is to Python's scoping rules. In Python 2.0, at any given time there are at most three namespaces used to look up variable names: local, module-level, and the built-in namespace. This often surprised people because it didn't match their intuitive expectations. For example, a nested recursive function definition doesn't work:

def f():
    def g(value):
        return g(value-1) + 1

The function g() will always raise a NameError exception, because the binding of the name "g" isn't in either its local namespace or in the module-level namespace. This isn't much of a problem in practice (how often do you recursively define interior functions like this?), but this also made using the lambda statement clumsier, and this was a problem in practice. In code which uses lambda you can often find local variables being copied by passing them as the default values of arguments.

def find(self, name):
    "Return list of any entries equal to 'name'"
    L = filter(lambda x, name=name: x == name,
    return L

The readability of Python code written in a strongly functional style suffers greatly as a result.

The most significant change to Python 2.2 is that static scoping has been added to the language to fix this problem. As a first effect, the name=name default argument is now unnecessary in the above example. Put simply, when a given variable name is not assigned a value within a function (by an assignment, or the def, class, or import statements), references to the variable will be looked up in the local namespace of the enclosing scope. A more detailed explanation of the rules, and a dissection of the implementation, can be found in the PEP.

This change may cause some compatibility problems for code where the same variable name is used both at the module level and as a local variable within a function that contains further function definitions. This seems rather unlikely though, since such code would have been pretty confusing to read in the first place.

One side effect of the change is that the from module import * and exec statements have been made illegal inside a function scope under certain conditions. The Python reference manual has said all along that from module import * is only legal at the top level of a module, but the CPython interpreter has never enforced this before. As part of the implementation of nested scopes, the compiler which turns Python source into bytecodes has to generate different code to access variables in a containing scope. from module import * and exec make it impossible for the compiler to figure this out, because they add names to the local namespace that are unknowable at compile time. Therefore, if a function contains function definitions or lambda expressions with free variables, the compiler will flag this by raising a SyntaxError exception.

To make the preceding explanation a bit clearer, here's an example:

x = 1
def f():
    # The next line is a syntax error
    exec 'x=2'  
    def g():
        return x

Line 4 containing the exec statement is a syntax error, since exec would define a new local variable named "x"whose value should be accessed by g().

This shouldn't be much of a limitation, since exec is rarely used in most Python code (and when it is used, it's often a sign of a poor design anyway).

See Also:

PEP 227, Statically Nested Scopes
Written and implemented by Jeremy Hylton.

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