Understanding Variable Scope in Python

In Python, the scope of a variable determines where that variable can be accessed or modified within the code. The concept of scope is crucial for writing understandable, maintainable, and bug-free code. This article explores the various scopes available in Python, including how variables behave when passed to functions.

Types of Variable Scope in Python

Python primarily categorizes scope into four types, often remembered by the acronym LEGB:

  1. Local Scope
  2. Enclosing Scope
  3. Global Scope
  4. Built-in Scope

1. Local Scope

A variable declared inside a function is local to that function. It can be accessed and modified only within the function where it is declared.

def my_function():
    local_var = 10  # Local variable
my_function()  # Output: 10
print(local_var)  # Error: NameError: name 'local_var' is not defined

In the example above, local_var is only accessible within my_function().

2. Enclosing Scope (or Nonlocal Scope)

This scope is relevant in nested functions. A variable declared in an enclosing function is accessible to any nested functions, but not outside the enclosing function.

def outer_function():
    outer_var = 20
    def inner_function():
        nonlocal outer_var
        outer_var = 30
        print(outer_var)  # Output: 30
    print(outer_var)  # Output: 30

Here, outer_var in outer_function can be accessed and modified by inner_function using the nonlocal keyword.

3. Global Scope

A variable declared outside any function or class has a global scope. It can be accessed and modified from anywhere in the module.

global_var = 40  # Global variable
def my_function():
    global global_var
    global_var = 50
    print(global_var)  # Output: 50
print(global_var)  # Output: 50

The global keyword allows a function to modify a global variable.

4. Built-in Scope

These are special reserved keywords in Python that are globally available. They are part of the built-in functions and variables provided by Python.

print(len("hello"))  # Output: 5

len is a built-in function, available without any import or declaration.

Variable Scope When Passed to a Function

When you pass variables to a function, Python handles them differently based on their type:

  1. Immutable Types (e.g., int, float, str, tuple): Passed by value.
  2. Mutable Types (e.g., list, dict, set): Passed by reference.

Passing Immutable Types

When an immutable object is passed to a function, the function operates on a copy of the object. Changes within the function do not affect the original object.

def modify_immutable(x):
    x = 100
    print(x)  # Output: 100
a = 10
print(a)  # Output: 10

In this case, a remains unchanged outside the function.

Passing Mutable Types

When a mutable object is passed to a function, the function can modify the original object.

def modify_mutable(lst):
    print(lst)  # Output: [1, 2, 3, 4]
my_list = [1, 2, 3]
print(my_list)  # Output: [1, 2, 3, 4]

The changes to my_list within modify_mutable persist outside the function.


Understanding variable scope is essential for effective programming in Python. It helps in avoiding conflicts, reducing bugs, and writing cleaner code. The four scopes (local, enclosing, global, and built-in) dictate the accessibility and lifespan of variables. Additionally, knowing how Python handles variables passed to functions (by value for immutables and by reference for mutables) allows you to manage data correctly across different parts of your code.

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