Transforming Code Into Beautiful, Idiomatic Python

Dec 10, 2019 by Abhishek Kumar

I recently watched a workshop by Raymod Hettinger, a core developer for Python langauge on youtube. He talks about C-style idioms he commonly sees in code, and their pythonic equivalents which are often faster, simpler and more beautiful.

The video was fairly old and aimed at python 2.x, so I thought of going over code examples and updating for the python 3.x.

Key takeways for the workshop were:

  1. Replace traditional index manipulation with Python’s core looping idioms.
  2. Learn advanced techniques with for-else clauses and two argument form of iter()
  3. Improve your craftmanship and aim for clean, fast, idiomatic Python code.


Looping over a collection with index

presidents = ['Washington', 'Adams', 'Jefferson', 'Madision', 'Adams', 'Jackson']

# Bad - Builds an intermedidate range
for i in range(len(presidents)):
  print(i + 1, presidents[i])

# Good - Uses enumerator instead
for num, president in enumerate(presidents, start=1):
  print(num, president)

Looping backwards

colors = ['red', 'green', 'blue', 'yellow']

# Bad - Builds an intermediate range
for i in range(len(colors) - 1, -1, -1):
  print colors[i]

# Good - Uses enumerator instead
for color in reversed(colors):
  print color

Looping over two collections

names = ['raymond', 'rachel', 'matthew']
colors = ['red', 'green', 'blue', 'yellow']

# Bad - Builds both lists in memory

n = min(len(names), len(colors))
for i in range(n):
  print(names[i], colors[i])

# Good - Returns a zip enumerator
for name, color in zip(names, colors):
  print(name, color)

Custom sort order

Avoid using a compare function as long as it is possible.

The compare function will be called O(N log N) times (for each comparison).

The key function will be called just O(N) times and the key value will be used for subsequent comparsions.

colors = ['red', 'green', 'blue', 'yellow']

# Bad - Uses avoidable compare function
def compare_length(c1, c2):
  if len(c1) < len(c2): return -1
  if len(c1) > len(c2): return 1
  return 0

print(sorted(colors, cmp=compare_length))

# Good - Uses key function
print(sorted(colors, key=len))

Call a function until a sentinel value is reached

partial(func, *args, **keywords) creates a function with partial application of given arguments. Read more about them here

iter(callable, sentinel) calls the callable function until it returns the sentinel.

# Bad
blocks = []
while True:
  block =
  if block == '':

# Good
from functools import partial
blocks = [block for block in iter(partial(, 32), '')]

Distinguishing mutliple exit points

It’s little known feature of Python - often eliminates the need of flag variables.

# Bad
def find(seq, target):
  found = False
  for i, value in enumerate(seq):
    if value == target:
      found = True
  if not found:
    return -1
  return i

# Good
def find(seq, target):
  for i, value in enumerate(seq):
    if value == target:
    # Called if the for loop breaks before finishing
    return -1
  return i

Looping over dictionaries

d = {'matthew': 'blue', 'rachel':'green', 'raymond':'red'}

# Bad - Need to hash key and look up in the hash table in every loop
for k in d:
  print(k, d[k])

# Good - Avoids hashing and lookups.
for k, v in d.items():
  print(k, d[k])

Constructing dictionaries

names = ['raymond', 'rachel', 'matthew']
colors = ['red', 'green', 'blue']

# Bad - Avoids loading lists in memories,
# checking if names[i] is a key and subsequent insertion
d = {}
for i in len(names):
  d[names[i]] = colors[i]

# Good - Uses zip enumerator, dict constructor
d = dict(zip(names, colors)

# Also good
d = dict(enumerate(names))
# {0: 'raymond', 1: 'rachel', 2: 'matthew'}

Counting dictionaries

Collections is a library designed to provide high performance container datatypes. Counter is a dict subclass for counting hashable objects.

colors = ['red', 'green', 'red', 'blue', 'green', 'red']

# Bad - Last minute decision making
d = {}
for color in colors:
  if color not in d:
    d[color] = 0
  d[color] += 1

# Good
from collections import Counter
d = Counter(colors)

Grouping with dictionaries

defaultdict uses an factory function to provide default value if key is missing. The code below uses empty [] as the default value.

names = ['raymond', 'rachel', 'matthew', 'roger', 'betty', 'melissa', 'judith', 'charlie']

# Group by length of name

# Bad
d = {}
for name in names:
  key = len(name)
  if key not in d:
    d[key] = []

# Good
from collections import defaultdict
d = defaultdict(list)
for name in names:
  key = len(name)

Keyword Arguments

# Bad - Hard to understand
twitter_search('@obama', False, 20, True)

# Good
twitter_search('@obama', retweets=False, numtweets=20, popular=True)

Named Tuples

Named Tuples add a subclass and access by name, making code easier to understand.

# Bad
> (0, 4)

# Good
> TestResults(failed=0, attempted=4)

Simultaneous state updates

Use tuple unpacking to make changes to the entire state at once. Consider the example below, evaluating partial derivatives.

# Bad
tmp_x = x + dx * t
tmp_y = y + dy * t
tmp_dx = influence(m, x, y, dx, dy, partial='x')
tmp_dy = influence(m, x, y, dx, dy, partial='y')
x = tmp_x
y = tmp_y
dx = tmp_dx
dy = tmp_dy

# Good
x, y, dx, dy = (x + dx * t,
                y + dy * t,
                influence(m, x, y, dx, dy, partial='x'),
                influence(m, x, y, dx, dy, partial='y'))

Concatenating strings

names = ['raymond', 'rachel', 'matthew', 'roger', 'betty', 'melissa', 'judith', 'charlie']

# Bad - O(N^2)
s = names[0]
for name in names[1:]:
  s += ', ' + name

# Good - O(N)
s = ', .'.join(names)

Updating sequences

# Bad - Lists pop and insert at the first index in O(n)

names = ['raymond', 'rachel', 'matthew', 'roger', 'betty', 'melissa', 'judith', 'charlie']

del names[0]
names.insert(0, 'marks')

# Good - Deque pops and inserts at the first index in O(1)

from collections import deque
names = deque(['raymond', 'rachel', 'matthew', 'roger', 'betty', 'melissa', 'judith', 'charlie'])

del names[0]
names.insert(0, 'marks')

There are some more useful transformations using decorators and context managers in particular. I would urge you to go through the slides linked below.


  1. Transforming Code Into Beautiful, Idiomatic Python (49 minutes, Youtube)
  2. Slides for the Talk