in ECMAScript

ECMA-262-3 in detail. Chapter 2. Variable object.

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Always in programs we declare functions and variables which then successfully use building our systems. But how and where the interpreter finds our data (functions, variable)? What occurs, when we reference to needed objects?

Many ECMAScript programmers know that variables are closely related with the execution context:

var a = 10; // variable of the global context

(function () {
  var b = 20; // local variable of the function context
alert(a); // 10
alert(b); // "b" is not defined

Also, many programmers know that the isolated scope in the current version of specification is created only by execution contexts with “function” code type. I.e., in contrast with C/C++, for example the block of for loop in ECMAScript does not create a local context:

for (var k in {a: 1, b: 2}) {
alert(k); // variable "k" still in scope even the loop is finished

Let’s see in more details what occurs when we declare our data.

If variables are related with the execution context, it should know where its data are stored and how to get them. This mechanism is called a variable object.

A variable object (in abbreviated form — VO) is a special object related with an execution context and which stores:

  • variables (var, VariableDeclaration);
  • function declarations (FunctionDeclaration, in abbreviated form FD);
  • and function formal parameters

declared in the context.

Notice, in ES5 the concept of variable object is replaced with lexical environments model, which detailed description can be found in the appropriate chapter.

Schematically and for examples, it is possible to present variable object as a normal ECMAScript object:

VO = {};

And as we said, VO is a property of an execution context:

activeExecutionContext = {
  VO: {
    // context data (var, FD, function arguments)

Indirect referencing to variables (via property names of VO) allows only variable object of the global context (where the global object is itself the variable object). For other contexts directly to reference the VO is not possible, it is purely mechanism of implementation.

When we declare a variable or a function, there is nothing else as creation of the new property of the VO with the name and value of our variable.


var a = 10;

function test(x) {
  var b = 20;


And corresponding variable objects are:

// Variable object of the global context
VO(globalContext) = {
  a: 10,
  test: <reference to function>
// Variable object of the "test" function context
VO(test functionContext) = {
  x: 30,
  b: 20

But at implementation level (and specification) the variable object is an abstract essence. Physically, in concrete execution contexts, VO is named differently and has different initial structure.

Some operations (e.g. variable instantiation) and behavior of the variable object are common for all execution context types. From this viewpoint it is convenient to present the variable object as an abstract base thing. Function context can also define additional details related with the variable object.

AbstractVO (generic behavior of the variable instantiation process)

  ╠══> GlobalContextVO
  ║        (VO === this === global)
  ╚══> FunctionContextVO
           (VO === AO, <arguments> object and <formal parameters> are added)

Let’s consider it in detail.

Here, first it is necessary to give definition of the Global object.

Global object is the object which is created before entering any execution context; this object exists in the single copy, its properties are accessible from any place of the program, the life cycle of the global object ends with program end.

At creation the global object is initialized with such properties as Math, String, Date, parseInt etc., and also by additional objects among which can be the reference to the global object itself — for example, in BOM, window property of the global object refers to global object (however, not in all implementations):

global = {
  Math: <...>,
  String: <...>
  window: global

When referencing to properties of global object the prefix is usually omitted, because global object is not accessible directly by name. However, to get access to it is possible via this value in the global context, and also through recursive references to itself, for example window in BOM, therefore write simply:

String(10); // means global.String(10);

// with prefixes
window.a = 10; // === global.window.a = 10 === global.a = 10;
this.b = 20; // global.b = 20;

So, coming back to variable object of the global context — here variable object is the global object itself:

VO(globalContext) === global;

It is necessary to understand accurately this fact since for this reason declaring a variable in the global context, we have ability to reference it indirectly via property of the global object (for example when the variable name is unknown in advance):

var a = new String('test');

alert(a); // directly, is found in VO(globalContext): "test"

alert(window['a']); // indirectly via global === VO(globalContext): "test"
alert(a === this.a); // true
var aKey = 'a';
alert(window[aKey]); // indirectly, with dynamic property name: "test"

Regarding the execution context of functions — there VO is inaccessible directly, and its role plays so-called an activation object (in abbreviated form — AO).

VO(functionContext) === AO;

An activation object is created on entering the context of a function and initialized by property arguments which value is the Arguments object:

AO = {
  arguments: <ArgO>

Arguments object is a property of the activation object. It contains the following properties:

  • callee — the reference to the current function;
  • length — quantity of real passed arguments;
  • properties-indexes (integer, converted to string) which values are the values of function’s arguments (from left to right in the list of arguments). Quantity of these properties-indexes == arguments.length. Values of properties-indexes of the arguments object and present (really passed) formal parameters are shared.


function foo(x, y, z) {
  // quantity of defined function arguments (x, y, z)
  alert(foo.length); // 3

  // quantity of really passed arguments (only x, y)
  alert(arguments.length); // 2

  // reference of a function to itself
  alert(arguments.callee === foo); // true
  // parameters sharing

  alert(x === arguments[0]); // true
  alert(x); // 10
  arguments[0] = 20;
  alert(x); // 20
  x = 30;
  alert(arguments[0]); // 30
  // however, for not passed argument z,
  // related index-property of the arguments
  // object is not shared
  z = 40;
  alert(arguments[2]); // undefined
  arguments[2] = 50;
  alert(z); // 40
foo(10, 20);

Concerning the last case, in older versions of Google Chrome there was a bug — there parameter z and arguments[2] were also shared.

In ES5 the concept of activation object is also replaced with common and single model of lexical environments.

Now we have reached the main point of this article. Processing of the execution context code is divided on two basic stages:

  1. Entering the execution context;
  2. Code execution.

Modifications of the variable object are closely related with these two phases.

Notice, that processing of these two stages are the general behavior and independent from the type of the context (i.e. it is fair for both: global and function contexts).

On entering the execution context (but before the code execution), VO is filled with the following properties (they have already been described at the beginning):

  • for each formal parameter of a function (if we are in function execution context)
  • — a property of the variable object with a name and value of formal parameter is created; for not passed parameters — property of VO with a name of formal parameter and value undefined is created;

  • for each function declaration (FunctionDeclaration, FD)
  • — a property of the variable object with a name and value of a function-object is created; if the variable object already contains a property with the same name, replace its value and attributes;

  • for each variable declaration (var, VariableDeclaration)
  • — a property of the variable object with a variable name and value undefined is created; if the variable name is the same as a name of already declared formal parameter or a function, the variable declaration does not disturb the existing property.

Let’s see on the example:

function test(a, b) {
  var c = 10;
  function d() {}
  var e = function _e() {};
  (function x() {});
test(10); // call

On entering the test function context with the passed parameter 10, AO is the following:

AO(test) = {
  a: 10,
  b: undefined,
  c: undefined,
  d: <reference to FunctionDeclaration "d">
  e: undefined

Notice, that AO does not contain function x. This is because x is not a function declaration but the function-expression (FunctionExpression, in abbreviated form FE) which does not affect on VO.

However, function _e is also a function-expression, but as we will see below, because of assigning it to the variable e, it becomes accessible via the e name. The difference of a FunctionDeclaration from the FunctionExpression is in detail discussed in Chapter 5. Functions.

And after that there comes the second phase of processing of a context code — the code execution stage.

By this moment, AO/VO is already filled by properties (though, not all of them have the real values passed by us, most of them yet still have initial value undefined).

Considering all the same example, AO/VO during the code interpretation is modified as follows:

AO['c'] = 10;
AO['e'] = <reference to FunctionExpression "_e">;

Once again I notice that function expression _e is still in memory only because it is saved to declared variable e. But the function expression x is not in the AO/VO. If we try to call x function before or even after definition, we get an error: "x" is not defined. Unsaved to a variable function expression can be called only with its definition (in place) or recursively.

One more (classical) example:

alert(x); // function

var x = 10;
alert(x); // 10

x = 20;

function x() {}

alert(x); // 20

Why in the first alert x is a function and moreover is accessible before the declaration? Why it’s not 10 or 20? Because, according to the rule — VO is filled with function declarations on entering the context. Also, at the same phase, on entering the context, there is a variable declaration x, but as we mentioned above, the step of variable declarations semantically goes after function and formal parameters declarations and on this phase do not disturb the value of the already declared function or formal parameter with the same name. Therefore, on entering the context VO is filled as follows:

VO = {};
VO['x'] = <reference to FunctionDeclaration "x">
// found var x = 10;
// if function "x" would not be already defined 
// then "x" be undefined, but in our case
// variable declaration does not disturb
// the value of the function with the same name
VO['x'] = <the value is not disturbed, still function>

And then at code execution phase, VO is modified as follows:

VO['x'] = 10;
VO['x'] = 20;

what we can see in the second and third alerts.

In the example below we see again that variables are put into the VO on entering the context phase (so, the else block is never executed, but nevertheless, the variable b exists in VO):

if (true) {
  var a = 1;
} else {
  var b = 2;

alert(a); // 1
alert(b); // undefined, but not "b is not defined"

Often various articles and even books on JavaScript claim that: “it is possible to declare global variables using var keyword (in the global context) and without using var keyword (in any place)”. It is not so. Remember:

variables are declared only with using var keyword.

And assignments like:

 a = 10; 

just create the new property (but not the variable) of the global object. “Not the variable” is not in the sense that it cannot be changed, but “not the variable” in concept of variables in ECMAScript (which then also become properties of the global object because of VO(globalContext) === global, we remember, yeah?).

And the difference is the following (let’s show on the example):

alert(a); // undefined
alert(b); // "b" is not defined

b = 10;
var a = 20;

All again depends on VO and phases of its modifications (entering the context stage and the code execution stage):

Entering the context:

VO = {
  a: undefined

We see that at this phase there is no any b since it is not a variable, b will appear only at code execution phase (but in our case won’t since there is an error).

Let’s change the code:

alert(a); // undefined, we know why

b = 10;
alert(b); // 10, created at code execution

var a = 20;
alert(a); // 20, modified at code execution

There is one more important point concerning variables. Variables, in contrast with simple properties, have attribute {DontDelete}, meaning impossibility to remove a variable via the delete operator:

a = 10;
alert(window.a); // 10

alert(delete a); // true

alert(window.a); // undefined

var b = 20;
alert(window.b); // 20

alert(delete b); // false

alert(window.b); // still 20

Note, in ES5 {DontDelete} is renamed into the [[Configurable]] and can be manually managed via Object.defineProperty method.

However there is one execution context on which this rule does not affect. It is the eval context: there {DontDelete} attribute is not set for variables:

eval('var a = 10;');
alert(window.a); // 10

alert(delete a); // true

alert(window.a); // undefined

For those who test these examples in console of some debug tool, e.g. Firebug: notice, that Firebug also uses eval to execute your code from the console. So there vars also do not have {DontDelete} and can be deleted.

As it was already noted, by the standard, to get direct access to the activation object is impossible. However, in some implementations, namely in SpiderMonkey and Rhino, functions have special property __parent__, which is the reference to the activation object (or the global variable object) in which these functions have been created.

Example (SpiderMonkey, Rhino):

var global = this;
var a = 10;
function foo() {}
alert(foo.__parent__); // global
var VO = foo.__parent__;
alert(VO.a); // 10
alert(VO === global); // true

In the example above we see that function foo is created in the global context and, accordingly, its __parent__ property is set to variable object of the global context, i.e. to the global object.

However, to get the activation object in SpiderMonkey with the same way is not possible: depending on the version, __parent__ for inner function returns either null or global object.

In Rhino, access to the activation object is allowed and available via the same way:

Example (Rhino):

var global = this;
var x = 10;
(function foo() {
  var y = 20;
  // the activation object of the "foo" context
  var AO = (function () {}).__parent__;
  print(AO.y); // 20
  // __parent__ of the current activation
  // object is already the global object,
  // i.e. the special chain of variable objects is formed,
  // so-called, a scope chain
  print(AO.__parent__ === global); // true
  print(AO.__parent__.x); // 10

In this article we have moved further forward in studying of objects related with execution contexts. I hope the material is useful and has clarified some aspects and ambiguities which, probably, you had before. Further by the plan, the next chapters will be devoted to the Scope chain, Identifier resolution and, as consequence, Closures.

If you have questions, feel free to ask them in comments.

Translated by: Dmitry A. Soshnikov.
Published on: 2010-03-15

Originally written by: Dmitry A. Soshnikov [ru, read »]
Originally published on: 2009-06-27

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  1. @Ming, thanks, glad it’s useful. The let variables are added to the environment record, but not as the properties of the binding object. This is new terminology starting from ES5. You can get more info on environments here.

    var x = 10;
    let y = 20;
      this.x, // 10, added to the binding object
      this.y, // undefined, not added

    And yes, let is put into TDZ (temporal dead zone), i.e. is not available before initialization.