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Javascript Variables and Scopes

Variables are one of the foundational building blocks of any programming language and JavaScript is no exception to this. But, how do they work? When you are trying to read someone else’s code, including past you’s code, the meaning of the variables are changed based on where and how they are defined. Let’s dive into it!


Like stated above, variables are a very important part of how a program functions. A variable is, simply put, a named reference to a value in computer memory. For example, if we want to keep track of a person’s name, we could do:

const personA = 'Jimmy'

console.log(personA) // returns 'Jimmy'

So, personA is the name of the reference. When we need to ‘see’ or get what the value is, we can use that name in our program.

Alright, awesome. Variables are simple, right? We know everything there is to know about them for JavaScript now, right? Well, kinda… how you declare them and where you declare them will change a lot of the meaning in your code.

Different ways to declare a variable in JavaScript

This is the ‘how’ part of declaring a variable. In modern JS environments, there are 3 main ways to declare a variable. But, I want to try and convince you that you should only use 2 of them.

  • using the var keyword (there is not a reason to use this one anymore)
  • using the let keyword
  • using the const keyword

var should be considered a legacy use-case from now on if you want to write concise and easy to read code for you and your team members. To understand why, let’s move on to the concept of scope with variables.

What is scope with variables?

This is the ‘where’ part of declaring a variable. Both the ‘how’ and ‘where’ a variable is declared determines its scope. Basically, scope means if a variable can be referenced or accessed in a given place in your code. See MDN’s explanation too.

“The scope is the current context of execution in which values and expressions are “visible” or can be referenced. If a variable or expression is not in the current scope, it will not be available for use. Scopes can also be layered in a hierarchy, so that child scopes have access to parent scopes, but not vice versa.”

Great, now we know scope has to do with whether or not you can use variables in parts of your code. What determines that though? Glad you asked! There are 4 different types of scope in JavaScript:

Global Scope

This is the top level scope. If some code is not a part of any other more specific scope, then it is part of the global scope. Most of your variables should not be in the global level to prevent unpredictable code. Also, keeping things out of global as much as possible opens up more naming possibilities, especially in larger code bases.

var personA = 'Jimmy' // global scope

function doThis () {
	var personB = 'Bob' // function scope

personA is available globally

Block Scope

This has to do with let and const and where they are declared in your code. If you use let and/or const in a code block it cannot be re-declared without an error being thrown. A ‘block,’ in this context, would be any code declared inside of curly braces {}. Check out the example:

const personA = 'Bob'
const personA = 'Jimmy' // throws a "redeclaration" error

// same with a let
let personAge = 12
let personAge = 16 // throws a "redeclaration" error

// changing scope
const personA = 'Bob'
if (true) {
	const personA = 'Jimmy' // no error here! even an if statement's {} counts as a new block! The downside here is that 'personA' outside of this block's scope is no longer accessible here in this block.

Bet you’re wondering what the difference between let and const is if they both cannot be re-declared in the same scope. To try and put it simply, let allows assignment and re-assignment. In other words, let allows you to redefine it as much as you need. In contrast, a const does not allow a re-assignment. What is meant by assignment? It is basically when you use the = equals sign to give a value to a variable. Read more about assignment and primitives in my Deep clone in Javascript with structuredClone post.

const personA = 'Bob'
const personA = 'Jimmy' // throws an error as 'const' does not allow re-assignment

let personB = 'Jim'
personB = 'Albert' // no error here!

It is key to keep in mind the assignment part of the definition of let and const. See the below example where a const is assigned to an object and one of the properties of the object can be changed with no errors thrown.

const personA = {
	name: 'Jimmy,
	age: 22

personA.age = 23 // no error here!

personA = {
	name: 'bob',
	age: 20
} // ERROR!! due to trying to re-assign 'personA', note that the '=' was used

Module Scope

In modern JS, a lot of us have moved over to using ES6’s import and export syntax. It has been a hard, over-complicated road but I think we are finally coming out on top and for the better in this transition.

Basically, module scope is the scope inside of a module file.

// module file you have installed from npm
export function doSomething (arg) {
	const personA = arg + ' name'
	return personA

// ./src/your-code-you-import-the-above-into.js
import { doSomething } from 'module-name'

const personA = doSomething('Jimmy')
// we do not get an error for using 'personA' again because the 'doSomething' module has a different scope

Function Scope

This affects the var way of declaring a new variable.

var vs let and const

This is the part where I try and convince you that you should use let and const instead of using var ever again! There is a lot of talk on the inter-webs about why you should stop using var and we could restate those reasons here. In my experience, though, it all boils down to the fact that let and const are just a lot more predictable than var when it concerns scope. Therefore, you can read code faster and, by extension, ship features faster. In my opinion, it is that simple. Here are some examples.

var say = 'hello there!'
var times = 4

if (times > 3) {
	var say = "simple Hello instead"

console.log(say) // "simple Hello instead"

var is very versatile. It’s so versatile that it is too open to change. Being so open, it can be hard to predict what the end value will be. Since times > 3, say gets re-assigned to a new value. This is a very simple example. But, I hope you can see that this can turn into an issue if you did not realize that this value can change. So, if you have used say in other parts of your code, some un-expected things could happen.

As a code convention to combat this confusion, you should use let when you need to be able to re-assign the value. This allows other developers to know they should look out for possible re-assignments. Use const for everything else.


I hope you take away from this a better understanding of scope and how it works in JavaScript. Also, to stop using var and use let and const instead.

Happy coding!


Michael Erb

Michael Erb

Fullstack engineer with 7+ years of experience in creating web solutions that take your business to the next level. Passionate about learning and teaching the details of software engineering, and love my family.

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