Tcl Tutorial Lesson 13

Variable scope - global and upvar

Tcl evaluates variables within a scope delineated by procs, namespaces (see Building reusable libraries - packages and namespaces), and at the topmost level, the global scope.

The scope in which a variable will be evaluated can be changed with the global and upvar commands.

The global command will cause a variable in a local scope (inside a procedure) to refer to the global variable of that name.

The upvar command is similar. It "ties" the name of a variable in the current scope to a variable in a different scope. This is commonly used to simulate pass-by-reference to procs.

You might also encounter the variable command in others' Tcl code. It is part of the namespace system and is discussed in detail in the chapter on namespaces.

Normally, Tcl uses a type of "garbage collection" called reference counting in order to automatically clean up variables when they are not used anymore, such as when they go "out of scope" at the end of a procedure, so that you don't have to keep track of them yourself. It is also possible to explicitly unset them with the aptly named unset command.

The syntax for upvar is:

   upvar ?level? otherVar1 myVar1 ?otherVar2 myVar2? ...

The upvar command causes myVar1 to become a reference to otherVar1, and myVar2 to become a reference to otherVar2, etc. The otherVar variable is declared to be at level relative to the current procedure. By default level is 1, the next level up, though it is best to always set it explicitly.

If a number is used for the level, then level references that many levels up the stack from the current level.

If the level number is preceded by a # symbol, then it references that many levels down from the global scope. If level is #0, then the reference is to a variable at the global level.

If you are using upvar with anything except #0 or 1, you are most likely asking for trouble, unless you really know what you're doing.

You should avoid using global variables if possible. If you have a lot of globals, you should reconsider the design of your program.

Note that since there is only one global space it is surprisingly easy to have name conflicts if you are importing other people's code and aren't careful. This holds for both variables and procedures. To avoid such conflicts use namespaces (see Building reusable libraries - packages and namespaces).


The global command can be used for data you need to share:

global logFile
set logFile [open "log.out" w]

proc writeLog {data} {
    global logFile

    puts $logFile "LOG: $data"

This is a simplistic way to provide logging information.

The upvar command can be used to pass variables "by reference":

proc SetPositive {variable value } {
    upvar 1 $variable myvar
    if {$value < 0} {
        set myvar [expr {-$value}]
    } else {
        set myvar $value
    return $myvar

    # Or more concisely:
    # set myvar [expr {abs($myvar)}]

SetPositive x 5
SetPositive y -5

puts "X : $x    Y: $y\n"

resulting in:

X : 5    Y: 5