Clarification: the rule is meant to prevent accessing variables that are not declared yet.

Clarification 2: the rule mandates that the compiler follows calls to functions which are defined in the same scope as the call and happen before the actual definition (forward referencing) - making the compiler much alike an interpreter.

I'm thinking about a fictional programming language that behaves similar to JavaScript when declaring functions: that is, when using the function keyword to create named functions, they get "hoisted" to the top of the scope and can be used anywhere where their name is visible.

For example, the following is legal:

function f() { console.log("f called") };

However, there is a potential problem: what if the function f uses a variable x, that is defined after the call, like here:

var x = 1;
function f() { console.log(x); }

In case of JavaScript, this is also legal, because variables are hoisted as well - the program gets essentially transformed into something like this:

var x;
function f() { console.log(x); }

x = 1;

And therefore just prints undefined.

In my fictional language, variables wouldn't get hoisted, which means that the example before would produce an error. The rule concerns how this error is generated:

Functions are visible for the entire block in which they are defined, but it is illegal to call a function that accesses a variable declared after the call.

This means that each time the compiler for this language would encounter a function call, it would have to check if the function is defined in the current scope, and if it is, check if it accesses variables in the current scope that are declared after the call.

The reason for this rule is that it makes no sense to access variables before they are declared. Hoisting the variables to the top of their scopes like JavaScript does is a hack that only leaves room for error! This is why I believe it must not be done, but such situations should be detected and treated as errors (because they are, you're referencing something that doesn't chronologically exist yet).

I'm looking for reasons why this is a bad rule, i.e. results in complications or inconsistencies.

The reason I suspect that the rule is a bad one is that it does not exist in the Scala language. Scala solved this problem with a much more general rule:

The scope of a name introduced by a declaration or definition is the whole statement sequence containing the binding. However, there is a restriction on forward references in blocks: In a statement sequence s[1]...s[n] making up a block, if a simple name in s[i] refers to an entity defined by s[j] where j >= i, then for all s[k] between and including s[i] and s[j],

  • s[k] cannot be a variable definition.
  • If s[k] is a value definition, it must be lazy.


For the time being I have adopted Scala's approach.

This approach is a more general version of my rule: it will catch all illegal accesses, but also some that are not - this is a tradeoff that I'm willing to make since I think that my rule may be too complicated or even impossible to implement.

Here's the rephrased/explained rule from Scala:

Variables cannot be forward-referenced, but lazy values, functions defined with def (which are just syntax sugar for lambdas assigned to (lazy) values, might even remove them as Doval suggested), classes, and modules can.

The restriction is that between the reference and the declaration (inclusive), there must be no variable definitions, because they might be altered by the entity being referenced before they are introduced to the program.

  • 2
    What do you hope to gain from this rule?
    – user7043
    Mar 2, 2014 at 19:27
  • 3
    I personally find Javascript's behaviour particularly counter-intuitive in this case - variable declarations get hoisted, but not values, except in the case of function definitions (but if you write f = function(){} the original rule applies). Sure, it makes sense if you think carefully, but I don't want to have to think! Your proposed rule is only marginally less confusing to me. And in general, you don't really want to ape Javascript's edge-case behaviours ;) Mar 2, 2014 at 23:09
  • 3
    @yannbane: Can't you just say that both functions and variables are defined at the point in the sequential code flow where they are defined? Why do you need to hoist them at all?
    – BrenBarn
    Mar 2, 2014 at 23:53
  • 1
    @BrenBarn's description is more-or-less how Python's name-binding model works (leaving aside UnboundLocalError, which is really just an ugly CPython implementation detail). Mar 2, 2014 at 23:57
  • 3
    What if the programmer actually writes var x; f(); x = 1;? The variable is declared before the function call, so your proposed scheme would allow it. But it's just as unsafe as the hoisted version, isn't it?
    – Barmar
    Mar 7, 2014 at 6:43

5 Answers 5


You've already created at least one inconsistency, and a particularly damning one at that - treating functions differently from other values. A function declaration is conceptually the same as binding a variable to an anonymous function, but you're asserting that "regular" variables don't get hoisted while function declarations do. So...

function f() { /* ... */ }

Works, but...

var f = function() { /* ... */ } // Pretend this is anonymous function syntax

Doesn't. (And if you don't allow passing functions around like any other value, your language is horribly crippled.) Next, what happens if a function is redefined?

function f() { /* definition 1 */ }
function f() { /* definition 2 */ }

If you treat this as an error, you're once again rejecting functions as values. There's no reason you shouldn't be able to do:

var f = function() { /* def 1 */ }
f = function() { /* def 2 */ }

So let's assume you'll allow the function to be redefined. How do you deal with lexical scoping?

function f() { /* definition 1 */ }
function bar() {
    function f() { /* definition 2 */ }

If you hoist definition 2 to the top of bar's scope, you end up with this:

function f() { /* definition 1 */ }
function bar() {
    function f() { /* definition 2 */ }

Which means you can never call the outer definition from a nested scope unless you give the inner function a different name. Moreover, in any other language, the meaning of the above program is independent of the choice of name for definition 2. The hoisting rule changes the meaning depending on whether there's a name collision or not. On the other hand if you don't hoist definition 2 to the top of bar, you've broken your own rule.

  • (I'm gonna pick a part of your answer to reply to in each comment, they're too limited for a proper reply) Redefinitions are impossible when using the named function syntax. I'm treating functions as values, but the names they get assigned to are equivalents of final in Java, const in C, or val in Scala. There are regular variables that can't get reassigned as well.
    – jcora
    Mar 13, 2014 at 19:05
  • 2
    @Doval I'm totally agree with your points, but I believe if you change the function definition like what you did in your last example, then your program deserves to crash :)
    – Mahdi
    Mar 13, 2014 at 19:09
  • Your first post just seems to reject the entire concept of hoisting functions, but I don't see how I can not use it. If I only allow users to refer to functions after they are defined, this seems to severely limit the expressive power of the language. Mutually-recursive function definitions, are not possible for example.
    – jcora
    Mar 13, 2014 at 19:10
  • Concerning your last example, yes that is very problematic. However I'd say that I'm OK with not being able to call the outer functions with the same names as the inner ones - that's just shadowing.
    – jcora
    Mar 13, 2014 at 19:12
  • 1
    You've already created at least one inconsistency, and a particularly damning one at that - treating functions differently from other values. - I disagree on this too. I'm not treating functions differently, it's just that def has a special meaning - to hoist the function along with its definition. def x() = 5 means that you can write x() anywhere in scope and it will be evaluated to 5.
    – jcora
    Mar 13, 2014 at 22:07

The 'fictional consequences' vs. the 'fictional benefits' means you are looking for the downsides of such a rule if you were designing a language.

The biggest downside i see is that anytime you don't make your language do something "useful" (generating an error falls under this class), you weaken the power of the language. You are missing an opportunity to do anything useful with it.

You could make both of the defined in the same scope as you say javascript does: the benefit being that something has to come first -- the vars, or the functions -- if your want your functions to be able to make use of the variables in the lexical scope of its definition, then it makes perfect sense to treat those variables as though they'd been declared before "f"'s first call.

That's useful for having local functions

func bigfunc() {...
  prologue... setup .. parameter checking...


  for loop over the sanitized params (p1, p2, p3...) {

    func a_case () {...will need access to prologue and setup vars}

    func b_case () {... ditto....}

    func z_case() {}

Look for input & lowercase it... then take first letter and prepend it to '_case', and call that function for further processing.

} #end func

So the functions in this case are helper functions that "want" or "need" access to the setup information created by bigfunc, but have no reason to be seen outside of bigfunc's scope.

So that's one possible feature you miss out on -- the ability to have nested functions where the inner ones are only callable by code in 'bigfunc').

Another option would have each invocation of bigfunc gets it's own private copy of the value of the var when it is defined.

I.e. suppose bigfunc is a "function factory", that returns anonymous bindings to that use a "specific" value of the var 'x', when the function is invoked.

So we have...

func bigproducerfunc(parameters: object_instance) {

  var object_instance;  #maybe a filename?

  // nested functions....

  function size(...return size of object instance...)

  function last_mod{,owner,destroy...} {
    // do operation on value of 'x' that was passed in 
    // 'object_instance' when the function was initially called.

   function check_mod_time {... checks last modification time 
       on the var it was called with)

    var myhash funcs_by_name = (\add(), \size, \last_mod()...);

    return refto(myhash).

Now a program can pass in the name of a file that it wants to operate on. The program doesn't need to know OS differences -- those can be handled in each accessor func. To access them:

var hashref = bigproducerfunc("/etc/passwd")

var href2   = bigproducerfunc("/another pathname/")....

"$hashref->size" will use the value that was passed in when the reference list to the function was created and returned -- for each time you call 'bigproducerfunc', it can create a list of functions that will operate on that 1 object and only it (no chance at misspellings etc...).

printf("Working name %s size = %s", $hashref->size);

In this case, you can use that setup for creating a closed 'environment' function that will only work on the file you passed in at creation.

For each file you want to work with, 'bigfunc' is called with a file arg, and hands back a pointer to a set of functions that will operate only on the filename they were created with. It is considered a "closed system" w/r/t the initial data.

This is sometimes called a 'closure' -- a function or set of functions that operate on closed data that is given to a 'function factory' or 'method factory' (bigfunc in our example), that packs up the data with the functions so they later can be used without respecifying the original data each time as well as ensuring what data the functions work with).


Those are 2 types of different features you would be giving up by turning it into a 'dead-semantic' or 'dead-syntax' case that is flagged as an "error" rather than doing something useful with it....the above are two common examples of doing something with this use case, I'm sure there are others that can be created...

Dead-semantics and dead-syntax are "dead-space" in a language.

Take "perl" for example. Perl created a dead spot that would be harmless to fix, but likely won't be due to language ossification.

The syntax "string" x (e.g. "hi " x 5), will create some number of repetitions of that string concatenated together.

Suppose you wanted to do that some multiple of 5 times, so you pass in a multiplier:

"string" x 3*$x;  # error

This yields an error in perl because 'x' is the same precedence as '*', thus you can never use this without forcing it to be more cluttered by adding parenthesis:

"string" x (3*$x);  #ok

Now there is no reason to require that -- in the operator precedence table, x is at the same precedence as mult+divide, but it really shouldn't be considered the same because it is less flexible (it isn't associative and can't be mixed with mult+divide).

Since strings generally don't combine with numbers, creating a precedence for 'x' (repetitions op) lower than math operators, would make sense. In the same way, the string concatenation feature should be lower than "addition + subtraction", so, while this works:

> perl -MP -we'use strict;
my $a="\nblah" . 4*5;   #concatenate 'blah w/result of 4*5'
P "%s", $a;'



> perl -MP -we'use strict;
my $a="\nblah" . 4+5;   #try to concat blah w/result of 4+5..(fail)
P "%s", $a;'

Argument "blah4" isn't numeric in addition (+) at -e line 2.

Does not.

In both cases, dead semantics were designed into the language.

Not ideal for good use of language semantics. It unnecessarily creates errors where perfectly good meaning can be unambiguously derived.

Hope this gives you some insight into what makes for good language design. (I must note, that knowing what works and doesn't is always easier to see in hindsight ;-)).

  • It is often more important that the input source texts which are accepted by a language work as a programmer would expect, than that a language accept as large a fraction of source texts as possible. If a particular source text might plausibly by written by programmers wanting two very different things, and if it would be obvious how either could express their intention in a way that's slightly more verbose but is no longer ambiguous, requiring the verbosity may increase the likelihood that the language will achieve what the programmer is trying to do.
    – supercat
    Oct 25, 2016 at 20:58
  • @supercat: absolutely -- working as "users meant" is supposed to be one of perl's design goals: the "do what I mean" goal. It's not good to thwart a user's intentions without good reason. Many programmers have difficulty remembering operator precedence, but not remembering a difference between data types "strings" & "numbers". Having operators that work on a specific data type work together, consistently, makes for clearer, cleaner code. Unfortunately, due to its complicated syntax, its dying out, with #users declining each year -- very sad, since it has many good features.
    – Astara
    Oct 30, 2016 at 0:30
  • What irks me with hyper-modern C philosophy is that it suggests that compilers should go out of their way not to behave in logical fashion if smaller code could handle all the cases where the Standard would mandate behavior. Is any useful purpose served by having a compiler decide that given unsigned mul(unsigned short x, unsigned short y) { return x*y; } it should be allowed to behave in arbitrary fashion in cases where the product would exceed 2147483647? GCC will sometimes do exactly that.
    – supercat
    Oct 30, 2016 at 2:12
  • Should they be "allowed", or "do they" [behave in an unspecified or arbitrary fashion]. Usually in situations like that, the language specification didn't specify how such situations should be handled (because "everyone knew xxyz"), and updates to the specification, in order not to make all the old specs "wrong" simply said such operations were "undefined" (ick/ug/poo!) I.e. its not malicious, but a matter of laziness in not specifying each "undefined" case for all cases... yeah, imperfect world...
    – Astara
    Oct 30, 2016 at 3:32

The term "before it is declared" is not really well defined. For example, the following is fine in Haskell:

   f x = x + y
   y = something else
in f 42

What I want to say is: Just because "f" appears earlier in the code when you read it top down, does not mean "it is defined before". On the contrary, in Haskell and related languages all items in the same declaration group are considered defined (or bound) at the same time.

To answer your question, the negative consequence for the user of your fictional language is that, if you enforce "order of definition" in an arbitrary way, it must order the definitions manually. Another thing that follows from that is that mutually recursive definitions are not possible, or that you handle things with function types differently than things with other types, without good reason.

  • @yannbane And yet, you compare it with Scala ...
    – Ingo
    Mar 2, 2014 at 22:18
  • Because Scala is an imperative language with functional elements in which all the relevant rules of order apply. Perhaps I should've been more specific: Haskell is a purely functional language, which renders it irrelevant to this specific topic.
    – jcora
    Mar 2, 2014 at 22:21
  • Holy crap this mobile application is cral, I just accidentally deleted my comment and there was no undo!!!
    – jcora
    Mar 2, 2014 at 22:23
  • 2
    Just for the record, my first comment was saying that Haskell is not a valid example here because it's purely functional, and this question is specifically about something inherent and present in imperative languages.
    – jcora
    Mar 2, 2014 at 22:25

This sounds much like the original C language. (Plus a whole bunch of other languages from the period.).

You had to define variables functions etc. before you could reference them. "before" meaning strictly "in a previous line of source".

This is why you see the "main()" function at the back of most C programs and not at the front where it logically belongs.

The language designers did not think this was a great idea! They did this to save the compiler making two passes through the source code, and, so compile programs in a reasonable time on the hardware available.

And no its not really a good idea -- it just annoys programmers that they have to define stuff where they would rather not in order to satisfy some picky syntax.

  • Sure you could make the compiler just look up the names of functions and then allow you to call them from anywhere. But what happens when you get to define functions inside other functions, and in an infinite number of levels? Eg: void outer() { f(); int x; void f() { ++x; } } - how does this work? If it were just in file scope, no problem since you couldn't even call f in the first place. Function f can see the variable x just fine - but you're calling it before x is declared - it (x) doesn't exist yet! This is where my rule comes in (follow call to f) - that's the question!
    – jcora
    Mar 14, 2014 at 11:26

In a language which supports nested scope, what should be the effect of:

int foo()
  int x,y;
  x=1; y=0;
  while(y < 5)
    int x;
  return x;

If, within the inner scope, the usage of x had followed the declaration at that scope level, the meaning of the code would have been clear.

If one abides by the principle that a perfect programming language should refuse to compile anything that wouldn't behave as the programmer intended, and if one considers it reasonably likely the programmer intended the x=4 to modify the outer-scope x, but also reasonably likely that the programmer intended it to modify the inner one, that would imply that any compiled behavior would be likely to behave in a fashion contrary to programmer intention.

I would suggest that in languages where the ordering of function definitions in the source file has no relationship to the sequence in which they will be called, it would make sense to regard the file as holding an unordered mapping of function signatures to function definitions, along with a bunch of other stuff. As such, if ordering is irrelevant, the concept of "hoisting" is too. For things where ordering is relevant, I would suggest that declaring an identifier within a scope should cause outer declarations of that identifier to become unusable at the start of the scope, but the new declaration should not be usable until after it occurs. Additionally, I would define a syntax for undeclaring an outer-scope identifier within a scope, and warn if code fails to use it [a warning rather than an error, so as to make the definition of a new outer-scope identifier not be a breaking change].

For some purposes, it would be useful to have an explicit way of declaring "temporary" variables with the following semantics:

  1. Temporary variable names may be reused within a scope, but may not appear in the same scope as an "ordinary" variable of the same name.
  2. Use of a temporary variable name within a scope will render any temporary variable of the same name unusable in any outer scope.
  3. Temporary variables must have their value assigned only at the point of declaration.

The basic idea here is to recognize the common situation where a "variable" will, within a certain area of the code, always hold a value that was written in one particular place. Given a construct like:

int result;
result = someMethod();
if (result < 0) doSomething();
result = someOtherMethod();
if (result < 0) doSomething();
result = YetAnotherMethod();
if (result < 0) doSomething();

if may not always be clear whether, at any particular spot in the code, the value of result will always have been set by the closest assignment statement preceding that spot in the code. If instead the code had been something like:

temp var result = someMethod();
if (result < 0) doSomething();
temp var result = someOtherMethod();
if (result < 0) doSomething();
temp var result = YetAnotherMethod();
if (result < 0) doSomething();

then finding any usage of result and finding a temp var declaration somewhere above it would imply that the temp var declaration had written the value to be used.

  • Sounds a bit like local values in Perl - perldoc.perl.org/perlsub.html#Temporary-Values-via-local%28%29 Mar 19, 2014 at 10:50
  • @RoryHunter: According to that page, local doesn't create a local variable, but merely makes changes to a global variable temporary. The idea with the temp var concept (not sure why temp var didn't show up--I'm pretty sure I typed it when I wrote the post) is that each such declaration creates a new local variable, but hides any other temp var of the same name in that scope, and blocks any further usage of a temp var of the same name in outer scope. BTW, a concept I think is important is that identifiers should have three degrees of visibility in any given scope: ...
    – supercat
    Mar 19, 2014 at 15:15
  • @RoryHunter: 1. Visible and usable; 2. Invisible, allowing the use of identifiers from outer scopes; 3. Obscuring, meaning that neither the identifier, nor any like-named identifer from outer scope should be usable. With regard to case sensitivity, I would like to see a language where, within a scope where Foo was defined, identifiers foo, FOO, or fOo, etc. would not be usable even if they were defined in an outer scope. Languages should not accept FOO as a synonym for Foo, but nor should they allow two identifiers to be used in the same scope that differ only by case.
    – supercat
    Mar 19, 2014 at 15:19
  • @RoryHunter: Requiring that identifiers be written with the proper case, but requiring identifiers to be distinct in more that just case, would IMHO combine the advantages of case-sensitivity and case-insensitivity. If x is defined in an outer scope and X in an inner scope and a program tries to access x within that inner scope, a compiler that binds that to the outer scope or to the inner scope will yield unintended behavior a significant portion of the time. Better to require use of a different inner-scope name if the outer-scope variable should remain accessible.
    – supercat
    Mar 19, 2014 at 15:23

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