Home > go, programming > Go gotcha #1: variable shadowing within inner scope due to use of := operator

Go gotcha #1: variable shadowing within inner scope due to use of := operator

Disclaimer: Go is open source and developed by many Google employees. I work for Google, but the opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent that of Google.

Last week I described how the range keyword in conjunction with taking the address of the iterator variable will lead to the wrong result. This week I’ll discuss how it’s possible to accidentally shadow one variable with another, leading to hard to find bugs.

Let’s take the same basic setup as last week; we have a Solution struct, and we’re searching for the best (lowest cost) one in a slice of potential candidates.

package main

import "fmt"

type Solution struct {
    Name     string
    Cost     int
    Complete bool

func FindBestSolution(solutions []*Solution) *Solution {
    var best *Solution
    for _, solution := range solutions {
        if solution.Complete {
            if best == nil || solution.Cost < best.Cost {
                best := solution
                fmt.Printf("new best: %v\n", *best)
    return best

func main() {
    solutions := []*Solution{
            Name:     "foo",
            Cost:     10,
            Complete: true,
    fmt.Printf("Best solution is: %v", FindBestSolution(solutions))


new best: {foo 10 true}
Best solution is: <nil>
Program exited.

Go playground

What’s going on? We see that we have a good candidate solution from the debugging information. Why does the function return the wrong value?

The bug is in this line:

best := solution

The problem is that we’re declaring and initializing a new variable (with the := operator) rather than assigning to the existing best variable in the outer scope. The corrected line is

best = solution

Use = to change the value of an existing variable, use := to create a new variable.

If I had not referenced the new variable with the debug print statement, this code would not have compiled:

if best == nil || solution.Cost < best.Cost {
    best := solution
prog.go:16: best declared and not used
 [process exited with non-zero status]

Go playground

Why is this shadowing of variables in other scopes allowed at all?

There is a long thread on the subject on Go-nuts, debating this subject.

Arguments For

Nate Finch:

type M struct{}

func (m M) Max() int {
    return 5

func foo() {
    math := M{}

If shadowing didn’t work, importing math would suddenly break this program.

My point was about adding an import after writing a lot of code (when
adding features or whatever), and that without shadowing, merely importing
a package now has the potential to break existing code….

The current shadowing rules insulate code inside functions from what
happens at the top level of the file, so that adding imports to the file
will never break existing code (now waiting for someone to prove me wrong
on this😉

Rui Maciel:

There is a simpler and better solution: use a short variable declaration
when you actually want to declare a variable, and use an assignment
operator when all you want to do is assign a value to a variable which
you’ve previously declared. This doesn’t require any change to either
the language or the compiler, particularly one which is that cryptic.

Arguments Against

Johann Höchtl:

See it this way. I can carry a gun in my hand aiming towards a target. I
pull the trigger and hit the target. Everything happens exactly the whay
it is expected to happen.

Suddenly an inner block jumps in … the instructor. Me, a gun in my
hand, the instructor in between and on the other side the target. I pull
the trigger.

Still … everything happens exactly the way it is told to behave. Which
still makes the end results not a desirable result. Adding an “inner
block”, which by itself is behaving in a fully specified way,
influences the whole.

Somewhat odd I admit, but you may get what I mean?


I don’t think that the shadowing should be an error but I do think there should be a warning. The go vet tool already helps find common mistakes, such as forgetting to include arguments to printf. For instance:


package main

import "fmt"

func main() {
    fmt.Printf("%v %v", 5)


go vet example.go

example.go:6: missing argument for Printf verb %v: need 2, have 1

If the vet tool were modified to add this warning, it would occasionally yield false positives for those cases where the shadowing is done intentionally. I think this is a worthwhile tradeoff. Virtually all Go programmers I’ve talked with have made this mistake, and I would be willing to bet that these cases are far more frequent than intentional shadowing.

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