How to modify local variables from internal functions?

Steven D'Aprano steven at
Mon Oct 26 06:44:42 CET 2009

On Sat, 24 Oct 2009 00:19:12 +0000, kj wrote:

> I like Python a lot, and in fact I'm doing most of my scripting in
> Python these days, but one thing that I absolutely *****DETEST*****
> about Python is that it does allow an internal function to modify
> variables in the enclosing local scope.

You can't rebind names in the enclosing scope (not without the nonlocal 
keyword, which I believe is introduced in Python 3.0):

>>> def func():
...     x = 1
...     def inner():
...             x = 2
...     inner()
...     print x
>>> func()

However, naturally you can call methods on objects bound in the outer 
scope. It would be rather inconvenient if you couldn't access them from 
inner functions, but that's how Python was prior to the introduction of 
nested scopes in 2.1.

Given this code:

def f():
    L = [1, 2, 3]
    def inner():
        return L.index(1)
    return inner()


This is what you get in Python 1.5:

Traceback (innermost last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in ?
  File "<stdin>", line 5, in f
  File "<stdin>", line 4, in inner
NameError: L

while in current versions of Python, you get 0.

Of course, once you allow inner functions to call methods on objects in 
the outer scope, you allow methods which mutate the object:

>>> def f():
...     L = []
...     def inner():
...             L.append(None)
...     inner()
...     print L
>>> f()

What other behaviour would you expect?

> This willful hobbling of
> internal functions seems to me so perverse and unnecessary that it
> delayed my adoption of Python by about a decade.  Just thinking about it
> brings me to the brink of blowing a gasket...  I must go for a walk...

I think you don't understand the object and assignment model of Python if 
you think this is "hobbling of internal functions".

> Anyway, I recently wanted to write a internal helper function that
> updates an internal list and returns True if, after this update, the
> list is empty, and once more I bumped against this hated "feature". 
> What I wanted to write, if Python did what I wanted it to, was this:
> But, of course, the above does not work in Python, because the jobs
> variable local to spam does not get updated by check_finished. Grrrr!

Okay, now I'm completely confused. You "DETEST" (shouting was yours) that 
Python objects can be modified by inner functions, and yet here you are 
writing a function which relies on that -- and gets it wrong, because 
you're trying to rebind a name rather than modify an object.

Others have suggested the nonlocal keyword in 3.x. Here's another 

def spam():
    jobs = look_for_more_jobs()
    if not jobs:
    jobs = look_for_more_jobs()
    if not jobs:
    jobs = look_for_more_jobs()
    if not jobs:

which immediately suggests refactoring:

def spam():
    for process in (process1, process2, process3):
        jobs = look_for_more_jobs()
        if not jobs:


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