Join us and get access to hundreds of tutorials and a community of expert Pythonistas.

Unlock This Lesson

This lesson is for members only. Join us and get access to hundreds of tutorials and a community of expert Pythonistas.

Unlock This Lesson

Hint: You can adjust the default video playback speed in your account settings.
Hint: You can set the default subtitles language in your account settings.
Sorry! Looks like there’s an issue with video playback 🙁 This might be due to a temporary outage or because of a configuration issue with your browser. Please see our video player troubleshooting guide to resolve the issue.

Returning Values vs Modifying Global Variables

00:00 In this lesson, we’ll compare writing functions to return a value with writing functions to change a global variable. Before we look at changing global variables, we need to understand side effects with functions.

00:14 A side effect of a function is when a function has some observable behavior other than returning a value. Examples include printing something on the screen, changing the state of an object, writing data to a file, and modifying a global variable.

00:32 Remember, a global variable is a variable defined outside of any function. And these are just some examples of side effects. You’ll encounter others. But really, you don’t want to change a global variable, and we’ll take a look at why.

00:49 Why is modifying a global variable bad? Programs with functions that modify global variables are very difficult to debug and maintain. The place where a global variable is being changed may be written far away from other places where it’s used.

01:07 It’s often difficult to follow changes to a global variable. Related to that is the fact that other functions are using that global variable, and changes to that variable may impact other functions that rely on it.

01:25 Here’s an example of a global variable being changed. This isn’t being shown to you as something you should do, but you’re seeing it here so you can recognize it when you see it in other programs. We have a function increment(), which is changing the global variable counter defined at the very top of this code segment. Let’s take a look at this.

01:51 Let’s create a variable, counter, start it off at 0, and now let’s write a function to increment the counter. Call it increment().

02:04 We’ll come back to this line in a moment, but basically we want to increment the counter variable by 1. That second line there, global counterbecause you’re about to change a global variable, you must alert Python to your intent by declaring it as a global variable. We declare it saying global counter.

02:30 You don’t need to declare it if your function is just going to use a global variable, but since we’re changing it, we have to declare counter as global. There’s our function definition, and now we can use it.

02:44 We can see counter has a value of 0.

02:49 If I call increment(), it takes that variable and increases it by 1. So if I take a look at its value now, I see that it has indeed been incremented to 1.

03:03 If I increment it again,

03:08 I see it has a value of 2. So we’re seeing that increment() is indeed modifying the global variable counter.

03:19 So, what should you do instead of writing a function that changes a global variable? You should do the work in self-contained functions. What does a self-contained function look like?

03:31 It takes some arguments and returns the value, and most importantly, it doesn’t modify global variables. Everything the function interacts with comes in through the arguments, any variables that it creates, and finally its return value.

03:50 In our increment() example, a best practice would be to take the counter that’s being incremented as an argument, then save the incremented value back to the same variable.

04:04 So, we already have counter defined. Let’s define a new increment() function, and this one takes an argument of a variable whose value we want to increment.

04:17 So we simply take the variable that we were given, add 1 to it, and return that new value. And then best practice is to call that function on the variable we wish to increment and then save the result back to that same variable name.

04:38 I can see counter now has a value of 3, and if I’m lazy and repeat that function call again,

04:49 I see counter has been incremented again. In this version, increment() only interacts with its own parameters and return values.

05:00 Much cleaner. Next, you’ll learn how to use return statements with conditionals.

Become a Member to join the conversation.