3. An Informal Introduction to Python

In the following examples, input and output are distinguished by the presence or absence of prompts (>>> and ...): to repeat the example, you must type everything after the prompt, when the prompt appears; lines that do not begin with a prompt are output from the interpreter. Note that a secondary prompt on a line by itself in an example means you must type a blank line; this is used to end a multi-line command.

Many of the examples in this manual, even those entered at the interactive prompt, include comments. Comments in Python start with the hash character, #, and extend to the end of the physical line. A comment may appear at the start of a line or following whitespace or code, but not within a string literal. A hash character within a string literal is just a hash character. Since comments are to clarify code and are not interpreted by Python, they may be omitted when typing in examples.

Some examples:

# this is the first comment
SPAM = 1                 # and this is the second comment
                         # ... and now a third!
STRING = "# This is not a comment."

3.1. Using Python as a Calculator

Let’s try some simple Python commands. Start the interpreter and wait for the primary prompt, >>>. (It shouldn’t take long.)

3.1.1. Numbers

The interpreter acts as a simple calculator: you can type an expression at it and it will write the value. Expression syntax is straightforward: the operators +, -, * and / work just like in most other languages (for example, Pascal or C); parentheses can be used for grouping. For example:

>>> 2+2
>>> # This is a comment
... 2+2
>>> 2+2  # and a comment on the same line as code
>>> (50-5*6)/4
>>> 8/5 # Fractions aren't lost when dividing integers

Note: You might not see exactly the same result; floating point results can differ from one machine to another. We will say more later about controlling the appearance of floating point output. See also Floating Point Arithmetic: Issues and Limitations for a full discussion of some of the subtleties of floating point numbers and their representations.

To do integer division and get an integer result, discarding any fractional result, there is another operator, //:

>>> # Integer division returns the floor:
... 7//3
>>> 7//-3

The equal sign ('=') is used to assign a value to a variable. Afterwards, no result is displayed before the next interactive prompt:

>>> width = 20
>>> height = 5*9
>>> width * height

A value can be assigned to several variables simultaneously:

>>> x = y = z = 0  # Zero x, y and z
>>> x
>>> y
>>> z

Variables must be “defined” (assigned a value) before they can be used, or an error will occur:

>>> # try to access an undefined variable
... n
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
NameError: name 'n' is not defined

There is full support for floating point; operators with mixed type operands convert the integer operand to floating point:

>>> 3 * 3.75 / 1.5
>>> 7.0 / 2

Complex numbers are also supported; imaginary numbers are written with a suffix of j or J. Complex numbers with a nonzero real component are written as (real+imagj), or can be created with the complex(real, imag) function.

>>> 1j * 1J
>>> 1j * complex(0, 1)
>>> 3+1j*3
>>> (3+1j)*3
>>> (1+2j)/(1+1j)

Complex numbers are always represented as two floating point numbers, the real and imaginary part. To extract these parts from a complex number z, use z.real and z.imag.

>>> a=1.5+0.5j
>>> a.real
>>> a.imag

The conversion functions to floating point and integer (float(), int()) don’t work for complex numbers — there is not one correct way to convert a complex number to a real number. Use abs(z) to get its magnitude (as a float) or z.real to get its real part:

>>> a=3.0+4.0j
>>> float(a)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in ?
TypeError: can't convert complex to float; use abs(z)
>>> a.real
>>> a.imag
>>> abs(a)  # sqrt(a.real**2 + a.imag**2)

In interactive mode, the last printed expression is assigned to the variable _. This means that when you are using Python as a desk calculator, it is somewhat easier to continue calculations, for example:

>>> tax = 12.5 / 100
>>> price = 100.50
>>> price * tax
>>> price + _
>>> round(_, 2)

This variable should be treated as read-only by the user. Don’t explicitly assign a value to it — you would create an independent local variable with the same name masking the built-in variable with its magic behavior.

3.1.2. Strings

Besides numbers, Python can also manipulate strings, which can be expressed in several ways. They can be enclosed in single quotes or double quotes:

>>> 'spam eggs'
'spam eggs'
>>> 'doesn\'t'
>>> "doesn't"
>>> '"Yes," he said.'
'"Yes," he said.'
>>> "\"Yes,\" he said."
'"Yes," he said.'
>>> '"Isn\'t," she said.'
'"Isn\'t," she said.'

The interpreter prints the result of string operations in the same way as they are typed for input: inside quotes, and with quotes and other funny characters escaped by backslashes, to show the precise value. The string is enclosed in double quotes if the string contains a single quote and no double quotes, else it’s enclosed in single quotes. The print() function produces a more readable output for such input strings.

String literals can span multiple lines in several ways. Continuation lines can be used, with a backslash as the last character on the line indicating that the next line is a logical continuation of the line:

hello = "This is a rather long string containing\n\
several lines of text just as you would do in C.\n\
    Note that whitespace at the beginning of the line is\


Note that newlines still need to be embedded in the string using \n – the newline following the trailing backslash is discarded. This example would print the following:

This is a rather long string containing
several lines of text just as you would do in C.
    Note that whitespace at the beginning of the line is significant.

Or, strings can be surrounded in a pair of matching triple-quotes: """ or '''. End of lines do not need to be escaped when using triple-quotes, but they will be included in the string. So the following uses one escape to avoid an unwanted initial blank line.

Usage: thingy [OPTIONS]
     -h                        Display this usage message
     -H hostname               Hostname to connect to

produces the following output:

Usage: thingy [OPTIONS]
     -h                        Display this usage message
     -H hostname               Hostname to connect to

If we make the string literal a “raw” string, \n sequences are not converted to newlines, but the backslash at the end of the line, and the newline character in the source, are both included in the string as data. Thus, the example:

hello = r"This is a rather long string containing\n\
several lines of text much as you would do in C."


would print:

This is a rather long string containing\n\
several lines of text much as you would do in C.

Strings can be concatenated (glued together) with the + operator, and repeated with *:

>>> word = 'Help' + 'A'
>>> word
>>> '<' + word*5 + '>'

Two string literals next to each other are automatically concatenated; the first line above could also have been written word = 'Help' 'A'; this only works with two literals, not with arbitrary string expressions:

>>> 'str' 'ing'                   #  <-  This is ok
>>> 'str'.strip() + 'ing'   #  <-  This is ok
>>> 'str'.strip() 'ing'     #  <-  This is invalid
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in ?
    'str'.strip() 'ing'
SyntaxError: invalid syntax

Strings can be subscripted (indexed); like in C, the first character of a string has subscript (index) 0. There is no separate character type; a character is simply a string of size one. As in the Icon programming language, substrings can be specified with the slice notation: two indices separated by a colon.

>>> word[4]
>>> word[0:2]
>>> word[2:4]

Slice indices have useful defaults; an omitted first index defaults to zero, an omitted second index defaults to the size of the string being sliced.

>>> word[:2]    # The first two characters
>>> word[2:]    # Everything except the first two characters

Unlike a C string, Python strings cannot be changed. Assigning to an indexed position in the string results in an error:

>>> word[0] = 'x'
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in ?
TypeError: 'str' object does not support item assignment
>>> word[:1] = 'Splat'
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in ?
TypeError: 'str' object does not support slice assignment

However, creating a new string with the combined content is easy and efficient:

>>> 'x' + word[1:]
>>> 'Splat' + word[4]

Here’s a useful invariant of slice operations: s[:i] + s[i:] equals s.

>>> word[:2] + word[2:]
>>> word[:3] + word[3:]

Degenerate slice indices are handled gracefully: an index that is too large is replaced by the string size, an upper bound smaller than the lower bound returns an empty string.

>>> word[1:100]
>>> word[10:]
>>> word[2:1]

Indices may be negative numbers, to start counting from the right. For example:

>>> word[-1]     # The last character
>>> word[-2]     # The last-but-one character
>>> word[-2:]    # The last two characters
>>> word[:-2]    # Everything except the last two characters

But note that -0 is really the same as 0, so it does not count from the right!

>>> word[-0]     # (since -0 equals 0)

Out-of-range negative slice indices are truncated, but don’t try this for single-element (non-slice) indices:

>>> word[-100:]
>>> word[-10]    # error
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in ?
IndexError: string index out of range

One way to remember how slices work is to think of the indices as pointing between characters, with the left edge of the first character numbered 0. Then the right edge of the last character of a string of n characters has index n, for example:

 | H | e | l | p | A |
 0   1   2   3   4   5
-5  -4  -3  -2  -1

The first row of numbers gives the position of the indices 0...5 in the string; the second row gives the corresponding negative indices. The slice from i to j consists of all characters between the edges labeled i and j, respectively.

For non-negative indices, the length of a slice is the difference of the indices, if both are within bounds. For example, the length of word[1:3] is 2.

The built-in function len() returns the length of a string:

>>> s = 'supercalifragilisticexpialidocious'
>>> len(s)

See also

Sequence Types — str, bytes, bytearray, list, tuple, range
Strings are examples of sequence types, and support the common operations supported by such types.
String Methods
Strings support a large number of methods for basic transformations and searching.
String Formatting
Information about string formatting with str.format() is described here.
Old String Formatting Operations
The old formatting operations invoked when strings and Unicode strings are the left operand of the % operator are described in more detail here.

3.1.3. About Unicode

Starting with Python 3.0 all strings support Unicode (see http://www.unicode.org/).

Unicode has the advantage of providing one ordinal for every character in every script used in modern and ancient texts. Previously, there were only 256 possible ordinals for script characters. Texts were typically bound to a code page which mapped the ordinals to script characters. This lead to very much confusion especially with respect to internationalization (usually written as i18n'i' + 18 characters + 'n') of software. Unicode solves these problems by defining one code page for all scripts.

If you want to include special characters in a string, you can do so by using the Python Unicode-Escape encoding. The following example shows how:

>>> 'Hello\u0020World !'
'Hello World !'

The escape sequence \u0020 indicates to insert the Unicode character with the ordinal value 0x0020 (the space character) at the given position.

Other characters are interpreted by using their respective ordinal values directly as Unicode ordinals. If you have literal strings in the standard Latin-1 encoding that is used in many Western countries, you will find it convenient that the lower 256 characters of Unicode are the same as the 256 characters of Latin-1.

Apart from these standard encodings, Python provides a whole set of other ways of creating Unicode strings on the basis of a known encoding.

To convert a string into a sequence of bytes using a specific encoding, string objects provide an encode() method that takes one argument, the name of the encoding. Lowercase names for encodings are preferred.

>>> "Äpfel".encode('utf-8')

3.1.4. Lists

Python knows a number of compound data types, used to group together other values. The most versatile is the list, which can be written as a list of comma-separated values (items) between square brackets. List items need not all have the same type.

>>> a = ['spam', 'eggs', 100, 1234]
>>> a
['spam', 'eggs', 100, 1234]

Like string indices, list indices start at 0, and lists can be sliced, concatenated and so on:

>>> a[0]
>>> a[3]
>>> a[-2]
>>> a[1:-1]
['eggs', 100]
>>> a[:2] + ['bacon', 2*2]
['spam', 'eggs', 'bacon', 4]
>>> 3*a[:3] + ['Boo!']
['spam', 'eggs', 100, 'spam', 'eggs', 100, 'spam', 'eggs', 100, 'Boo!']

Unlike strings, which are immutable, it is possible to change individual elements of a list:

>>> a
['spam', 'eggs', 100, 1234]
>>> a[2] = a[2] + 23
>>> a
['spam', 'eggs', 123, 1234]

Assignment to slices is also possible, and this can even change the size of the list or clear it entirely:

>>> # Replace some items:
... a[0:2] = [1, 12]
>>> a
[1, 12, 123, 1234]
>>> # Remove some:
... a[0:2] = []
>>> a
[123, 1234]
>>> # Insert some:
... a[1:1] = ['bletch', 'xyzzy']
>>> a
[123, 'bletch', 'xyzzy', 1234]
>>> # Insert (a copy of) itself at the beginning
>>> a[:0] = a
>>> a
[123, 'bletch', 'xyzzy', 1234, 123, 'bletch', 'xyzzy', 1234]
>>> # Clear the list: replace all items with an empty list
>>> a[:] = []
>>> a

The built-in function len() also applies to lists:

>>> a = ['a', 'b', 'c', 'd']
>>> len(a)

It is possible to nest lists (create lists containing other lists), for example:

>>> q = [2, 3]
>>> p = [1, q, 4]
>>> len(p)
>>> p[1]
[2, 3]
>>> p[1][0]

You can add something to the end of the list:

>>> p[1].append('xtra')
>>> p
[1, [2, 3, 'xtra'], 4]
>>> q
[2, 3, 'xtra']

Note that in the last example, p[1] and q really refer to the same object! We’ll come back to object semantics later.

3.2. First Steps Towards Programming

Of course, we can use Python for more complicated tasks than adding two and two together. For instance, we can write an initial sub-sequence of the Fibonacci series as follows:

>>> # Fibonacci series:
... # the sum of two elements defines the next
... a, b = 0, 1
>>> while b < 10:
...     print(b)
...     a, b = b, a+b

This example introduces several new features.

  • The first line contains a multiple assignment: the variables a and b simultaneously get the new values 0 and 1. On the last line this is used again, demonstrating that the expressions on the right-hand side are all evaluated first before any of the assignments take place. The right-hand side expressions are evaluated from the left to the right.

  • The while loop executes as long as the condition (here: b < 10) remains true. In Python, like in C, any non-zero integer value is true; zero is false. The condition may also be a string or list value, in fact any sequence; anything with a non-zero length is true, empty sequences are false. The test used in the example is a simple comparison. The standard comparison operators are written the same as in C: < (less than), > (greater than), == (equal to), <= (less than or equal to), >= (greater than or equal to) and != (not equal to).

  • The body of the loop is indented: indentation is Python’s way of grouping statements. Python does not (yet!) provide an intelligent input line editing facility, so you have to type a tab or space(s) for each indented line. In practice you will prepare more complicated input for Python with a text editor; most text editors have an auto-indent facility. When a compound statement is entered interactively, it must be followed by a blank line to indicate completion (since the parser cannot guess when you have typed the last line). Note that each line within a basic block must be indented by the same amount.

  • The print() function writes the value of the expression(s) it is given. It differs from just writing the expression you want to write (as we did earlier in the calculator examples) in the way it handles multiple expressions, floating point quantities, and strings. Strings are printed without quotes, and a space is inserted between items, so you can format things nicely, like this:

    >>> i = 256*256
    >>> print('The value of i is', i)
    The value of i is 65536

    The keyword end can be used to avoid the newline after the output, or end the output with a different string:

    >>> a, b = 0, 1
    >>> while b < 1000:
    ...     print(b, end=',')
    ...     a, b = b, a+b