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Using Function Handles with Nested Functions

Every function has a certain scope, that is, a certain range of other functions to which it is visible. A function's scope determines which other functions can call it. You can call a function that is out of scope by providing an alternative means of access to it in the form of a function handle. (The function handle, however, must be within the scope of its related function when you construct the handle.) Any function that has access to a function handle can call the function with which the handle is associated.

The section on Calling Nested Functions defines the scope of a nested function. As with other types of functions, you can make a nested function visible beyond its normal scope with a function handle. The following function getCubeHandle constructs a handle for nested function findCube and returns its handle, h, to the caller. The @ sign placed before a function name (e.g., @findCube) is the MATLAB operator that constructs a handle for that function:

Call getCubeHandle to obtain the function handle to the nested function findCube. Assign the function handle value returned by getCubeHandle to an output variable, cubeIt in this case:

You can now use this variable as a means of calling findCube from outside of its M-file:

Function Handles and Nested Function Variables

One characteristic of nested functions that makes them different from other MATLAB functions is that they can share nonglobal variables with certain other functions within the same M-file. A nested function nFun can share variables with any outer function that contains nFun, and with any function nested within nFun. This characteristic has an impact on how certain variables are stored when you construct a handle for a nested function.

Defining Variables When Calling Via Function Handle.   The example below shows a primary function getHandle that returns a function handle for the nested function nestFun. The nestFun function uses three different types of variables. The VLoc variable is local to the nested function, VInp is passed in when the nested function is called, and VExt is defined by the outer function:

As with any function, when you call nestFun, you must ensure that you supply the values for any variables it uses. This is a straightforward matter when calling the nested function directly (that is, calling it from getHandle). VLoc has a value assigned to it within nestFun, VInp has its value passed in, and VExt acquires its value from the workspace it shares with getHandle.

However, when you call nestFun using a function handle, only the nested function executes; the outer function, getHandle, does not. It might seem at first that the variable VExt, otherwise given a value by getHandle, has no value assigned to it in the case. What in fact happens though is that MATLAB stores variables such as VExt inside the function handle itself when it is being constructed. These variables are available for as long as the handle exists.

The VExt variable in this example is considered to be externally scoped with respect to the nested function. Externally scoped variables that are used in nested functions for which a function handle exists are stored within the function handle. So, function handles not only contain information about accessing a function. For nested functions, a function handle also stores the values of any externally scoped variables required to execute the function.

Example Using Externally Scoped Variables

The sCountFun and nCountFun functions shown below return function handles for subfunction subCount and nested function nestCount, respectively. These two inner functions store a persistent value in memory (the value is retained in memory between function calls), and then increment this value on every subsequent call. subCount makes its count value persistent with an explicit persistent declaration. In nestCount, the count variable is externally scoped and thus is maintained in the function handle:

Using a Subfunction
Using a Nested Function
function h = sCountFun(X)
h = @subCount;
count = X

subCount(0, count);

function subCount(incr, ini)
persistent count;
initializing = nargin > 1;

if initializing
   count = ini;
   count = count + incr

function h = nCountFun(X)
h = @nestCount;
count = X

   function nestCount(incr)
      count = count + incr


When sCountFun executes, it passes the initial value for count to the subCount subfunction. Keep in mind that the count variable in sCountFun is not the same as the count variable in subCount; they are entirely independent of each other. Whenever subCount is called via its function handle, the value for count comes from its persistent place in memory.

In nestCount, the count variable again gets its value from the primary function when called from within the M-file. However, in this case the count variable in the primary and nested functions are one and the same. When nestCount is called by means of its function handle, the value for count is assigned from its storage within the function handle.

Running the Example.   The subCount and nestCount functions increment a value in memory by another value that you pass as an input argument. Both of these functions give the same results.

Get the function handle to nestCount, and initialize the count value to a four-element vector:

Increment the persistent vector by 25, and then by 42:

Now do the same using sCountFun and subCount, and verify that the results are the same.

Separate Instances of Externally Scoped Variables

The code shown below constructs two separate function handles to the same nested function, nestCount, that was used in the last example. It assigns the handles to fields counter1 and counter2 of structure s. These handles reference different instances of the nestCount function. Each handle also maintains its own separate value for the externally scoped count variable.

Call nCountFun twice to get two separate function handles to nestCount. Initialize the two instances of count to two different vectors:

Now call nestCount by means of each function handle to demonstrate that MATLAB increments the two count variables individually.

Increment the first counter:

Now increment the second counter:

Go back to the first counter and you can see that it keeps its own value for count:

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