Python: Shadowing

In my previous post, Python: Scope, I touched on the topic of Shadowing. In this post I’ll be delving deeper into it.

As Wikipedia saysvariable shadowing occurs when a variable declared within a certain scope (decision block, method, or inner class) has the same name as a variable declared in an outer scope.

There are some interesting debates on whether shadowing is a bad thing or not in this StackOverflow Q&A as well as this one. In a nutshell, there are three trains of thought:

  1. It’s fine to use shadowing.
  2. You should avoid shadowing by ensuring all names are unique.
  3. You should avoid shadowing by using functions.

Let’s now run through each of these options to see how they work.

It’s fine to use shadowing

As we saw in the Python: Scope post, shadowing allows us to use the same name to map to multiple objects if each mapping is done in a different scope. For example:

OK great, everything works as expected. Both our global and local mappings are kept intact. However, what happens if we change the name parameter to person in the definition, but not the body of the function:

Because of Pyhon’s LEGB rule, instead of raising an exception Python uses the global mapping for name because it can’t find one locally, and therefore we might be unaware of our mistake. It is for this reason that people suggest avoiding shadowing.

Avoid shadowing by ensuring all names are unique

As suggested in PEP8, you can append a trailing underscore ( _) to a name in order to ensure it is unique:

This time if we change the name_ parameter to person_ in the definition, but not the body of the function an exception is raised:  NameError: global name 'name_' is not defined. This makes it obvious that there is in an error in our code which needs to be fixed.

Avoid shadowing by using functions

This method tackles the issue in a different way. While the previous two options were related to name mappings that had scopes in the same hierarchy, this method uses parallel scopes and therefore avoids the issue we saw in the first option all together.

Let’s take a look at an example:

Because we’ve removed the global name variable and put it into a function instead, we’ve completely eliminated the shadowing between the global scope and the hello_name(name) local scope. This means that if we change the hello_name parameter in the definition but not the body of the function, we’ll see an exception the same way as we did in the second example.

Knowledge Base

See the Coding section of my Knowledge Base for more information.
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