Maxwell DeMers


How NOT to Shadow Variables in Rust

If you're a JavaScript developer, you may have used this pattern before.

let a;
if (something) {
a = "bananas"
} else {
a = "apples"
console.log(a) // logs at least "apples"

You would expect a to equal bananas, or apples.

Variable Shadowing

In Rust, you can leverage variable shadowing to assign a new value to a same named variable, like so:

let a = ""
let a = "banana"
println!("{}", a); // ---> "banana"

New variables are created each time you shadow a variable. In the case above, the first a is shadowed by the second, and the second a is a new variable, with the name a, initialized with the value bananas.

The first a is "shadowed" by the second.

Variable Shadowing Across Scopes

You can shadow a variable across nested scopes.

let a = "";
if condition1 {
let a = "bananas";
} else if condition2 {
let a = "avacados";
} else {
let a = "apples";
println!("{}", a); // --> prints ""

This is perfectly valid Rust, but the compiler will yell at you with warnings of unnused variables. 🤔

You see, that let under condition1 is shadowing the first a as we would expect. But, that second variable a is now declared inside a new block scope, the if conditional. That variable declaration of a is not in the outter scope, and therefore, not accessible to the print macro. So, you will always end up printing and empty string.

In short, variables are only valid in the scope they are declared.

You can shadow variables across scopes, and if you printed the a under condition1, it would print bananas. But the shadow does not extend beyond the scope it was declared in.

The Fix

To fix this, and emulate the JavaScript pattern above, you would make the first let mutable, and assign the new values to a, like below.

let mut a = "";
if condition1 {
a = "bananas";
} else if condition2 {
a = "avacados";
} else {
a = "apples";
println!("{}", a); // --> prints at least "apples"

No more unused variables, with code that behaves as you'd expect.

Edit - More Rusty Fixes

@kpozin pointed out a more Rusty approach to the above fix.

let a = if condition1 {
} else if condition2 {
} else {
println!("{}", a); // --> prints at least "apples"

This approach leverages how Rust is an expression language. Each of those if blocks is an expression, and will evaluate to something. By returning the value in the block, you are assigning that value to the let declaration. This approach removes the need for a mutable variable.

@SimonSapin also pointed out in the same thread that the compiler will allow you to use an uninitialized variable, if flow control analysis proves it is assigned eventually. In this case, if you have an if, and an else that assigns a value eventually, then you can leave the first let uninitialized.

This approach makes me appreciate the Rust compiler so much more. 😍

Happy coding. 👻


Variable Shadowing Wikipedia

Scope and Shadowing

Rust Lang Forum - Variable Shadowing

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