JavaScript Basics: Identifier Resolution and Scope!

Dan Park
Dan Park
Apr 11, 2017 · 4 min read

Note: I recommend reading my previous blog post on JavaScript Execution Context and Lexical Environments first.

It isn’t really difficult to conceptualize how variable declarations and their assignments are resolved in JavaScript. As mentioned in my previous blog post, this is because identifiers are resolved through the LexicalEnvironment's environment record. Identifiers are variables that we assign values or references to. For example, in var x = 10, xis an identifier. Once a variable has been declared (i.e., an identifier is assigned some value), when that variable is used anywhere in your code, it goes through a process called identifier resolution.

Identifier Resolution

Definition: Identifier resolution is the machine process that returns the value of a variable by looking up the scope chain.

In the ES6 specifications, identifier resolution is accomplished through the formulaic GetIdentifierReference function. This "function" is not exposed to the programmer and is defined as an "abstract operation."

We won’t actually go through the “function” step-by-step. However, it is worth noting that because the Lexical Environments (i.e., LexicalEnvironment and VariableEnvironment) of the current Execution Context has not only the environment record (envRec), but also a reference to the outer Lexical Environment (outer), GetIdentifierReference is a recursive operation checking not only it's own envRec but also every surrounding Lexical Environment until the outer is null or the identifier is found. This is the essence of what some call the scope chain.

Check the code below:

function foo() {
var a = 1;
function bar() {
var b = 2;
function baz() {
var c = 3;
foo(); // 1

Next, I will attempt to show identifier resolution in pseudo-code:

// `foo` invoked
// creates FooLexicalEnv
FooLexicalEnv = {
a: 1 // foo has the variable `a` in its lexical env
outerLexEnv: global
// `foo` invokes `bar`
// creates BarLexicalEnv
BarLexicalEnv = {
b: 2
outerLexEnv: FooLexicalEnv
// `bar` invokes `baz`
// creates BazLexicalEnv
BazLexicalEnv = {
c: 3;
outerLexEnv: BarLexicalEnv
// `baz`'s scope chain looks like this
BazLexicalEnv => BarLexicalEnv => FooLexicalEnv => global
// in contrast, `foo`'s scope chain looks like this
FooLexicalEnv => global

// `baz` console logs `a`
// identifier resolution on currentLexEnv, variable `a`, outerLexEnv
ResolveIdentifier(BazLexicalEnv, a, BarLexicalEnv)
// `a` not in BazLexEnv so...
ResolveIdentifier(BarLexicalEnv, a, FooLexicalEnv)
// `a` not in BarLexEnv so...
ResolveIdentifier(FooLexicalEnv, a, global)
// `a` found in FooLexicalEnv!
// its value (1) is returned, `baz` console logs 1

As you can see, the check for the identifier propagates outward from the current Lexical Environment until it finds (or does not find) the variable. Also, notice that the scope chain of each execution context is unique (i.e., the scope chain of foo's EC is different from baz's).

Side note: It may be confusing to refer to both the “Lexical Environment” (observe the space between the two words) and LexicalEnvironment (no space). I wrote this to be consistent with the ECMAScript specs. Lexical Environment is the concept, LexicalEnvironment and VariableEnvironment are the implementation of that concept.

Scope Chain/Scope

I mentioned scope chain multiple times already but it is helpful to fine-tune a definition to deter misconceptions.

Definition: The scope chain of an execution context is the internal “chain” of Lexical Environments that is traversed during identifier resolution.

First, the scope chain does not exist at author-time (when I write it). It is created when the function is invoked after creating the execution context of that function. This is why I wrote, “The scope chain of an execution context…”

Second, it is read-only (internal). Browsers sometimes “expose” this read-only scope chain as [[Scope]] but you cannot do anything with it.

Lastly, it is a chain of Lexical Environments that is traversed (see Identifier Resolution above).

It is a lot simpler in practice than to know what is actually happening under the hood.

Finally, you might be wondering if there’s a difference between scope chain and scope.

The short answer is that the two are the same thing.

There is just a minor, truly inconsequential difference conceptually. Scope refers to the abstract concept of the execution context’s “reach” (I’m grasping for words here — I want to use “scope”) for identifier resolution. Scope chain is just the implementation of that concept in JavaScript. Basically, it is the same thing. Scope just defines what it is, scope chain gives it a name.

The Future is now (ES6)!

Before ES6, checking the LexicalEnvironment for identifier resolution accomplished identifier resolution. But with the advent of block scoping (using the let and const keywords), a not-so-small nuance was added on top of this. See my blog post on block scope for more details.

Because ES6 is now the standard in JS development, let and const is important to understand. var won't go away anytime soon (mostly because legacy code), but it's important to keep up!

Read more:

Still relevant, but now “outdated” terminology describing the Lexical Environment as an “activation object”:

Dan Park

Written by

Dan Park

Husband, student of JavaScript, love React! ex-attorney with J.D. from Georgetown Law

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