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How To Do Just About Anything With Python Lists

Python's list is one of the built-in sequence types (i.e. "it holds a sequence of things") is a wonderfully useful tool. I figured I'd try to determine what people are most often trying to do with lists (by analyzing Google's query data on the topic) and just bang out examples of "How do I do X with a list in Python?"

Reverse/Sort A List In Python

There are two ways to reverse a list in Python, and which one you use depends on what you want to do with the resulting reversed data. If you're only going iterate over the items in the reversed list (say, to print them out), use the Python built-in function reversed(seq). Here's an example of reversed in action:

original_list = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]
for element in reversed(original_list):

If you need the reversed list itself, use the Python built-in function sorted(iterable, *, key=None, reverse=False). Let's see some examples:

In [10]: original_list = [3, 1, 2, 5, 4]

In [11]: sorted(original_list)
Out[11]: [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

In [15]: sorted(original_list, reverse=True)
Out[15]: [5, 4, 3, 2, 1]

But what if your list contains more than just simple integers? How does one sort, say, a list of temperature readings over a given time if those daily readings are each stored as a tuples of the form (<date>, <daily high>, <daily low>)? Look at the following example:

readings = [('1202', 45.0, 28.1), ('1201', 44.0, 33.0), ('1130', 45.0, 32.6)]

Calling sorted(readings) will give us a new list with the elements ordered by the <date> portion of the tuple (the 0-th element, since Python compares tuples lexicographically; each item is compared in order, starting with the first elements). But what if we wanted to sort by <daily high> or <daily low>? Simple! Just pass the key parameter a function that takes a single argument and returns the key for sorted() to use for comparisons. For example, I could sort by daily low temperatures like so:

In [25]: sorted(readings, key=lambda reading: reading[2])
Out[25]: [('1202', 45.0, 28.1), ('1130', 45.0, 32.6), ('1201', 44.0, 33.0)]

In that example, we passed the key parameter a lambda function which accepted one argument and returned a value, in our case the third part of our temperature recording tuple (the reading[2] part). If we had wanted to sort by the daily high in reverse order, we would just change the call like so:

In [26]: sorted(readings, key=lambda reading: reading[1], reverse=True)
Out[26]: [('1202', 45.0, 28.1), ('1130', 45.0, 32.6), ('1201', 44.0, 33.0)]

Accessing elements of a tuple or class is such a common task that Python provides a set of convenience functions in the operator built-in module. To access a specific field in the tuple (as we did above for daily high as reading[1] and daily low as reading[2]), use the field's index in the tuple as an argument to operator.itemgetter:

In [29]: sorted(readings, key=itemgetter(1), reverse=True)
Out[29]: [('1202', 45.0, 28.1), ('1130', 45.0, 32.6), ('1201', 44.0, 33.0)]

But notice that the first two entries have the same high temp recordings (45.0). What if we wanted to first sort by high temp and then by low temp? itemgetter allows for multiple levels of sorting by simply passing in multiple index values. So let's sort by high temp first, then low temp:

In [31]: sorted(readings, key=itemgetter(1,2), reverse=True)
Out[31]: [('1130', 45.0, 32.6), ('1202', 45.0, 28.1), ('1201', 44.0, 33.0)]

Notice that the ('1130', 45.0, 32.6) tuple is now first, as it had an equal high temp and a greater low temp than ('1202', 45.0, 28.1).

Split A Python List Into Chunks

Splitting a list into equally sized sub-lists (for processing data in parallel, perhaps) is a common task. It's so common, in fact, that the itertools module (a module practically begging to be used in these kinds of tasks, by the way) gives actual code for how to accomplish this in Python in the itertools recpipes section of the docs. Here is the relevant code:

def grouper(iterable, n, fillvalue=None):
    "Collect data into fixed-length chunks or blocks"
    # grouper('ABCDEFG', 3, 'x') --> ABC DEF Gxx"
    args = [iter(iterable)] * n
    return zip_longest(*args, fillvalue=fillvalue)

The code may look confusing at first, but it's simply creating n (or 3 in the example in the comments) separate iterators over the iterable argument and then cleverly zipping them back together using zip_longest from the itertools module, to collect the elements of iterable in a series of n-sized chunks.

Flatten A Python List Of Lists Into One List

itertools recipes FTW again! Straight out of the section of the Python docs that gave us grouper above, the recipe for "flatten" is:

def flatten(list_of_lists):
    "Flatten one level of nesting."
    return chain.from_iterable(list_of_lists)

It simply calls itertools.chain.from_iterable() on the list_of_lists. A call to flatten([[1, 2, 3], [4, 5], [6, 7, 8]]) will give us an iterator that yields each element individually. We can say flattened_list = list(flatten([[1, 2, 3], [4, 5], [6, 7, 8]])) if what we need is an actual list and not just an iterator.

Insert Into A List In Python

The word "insert" here is vague (insert where?), but let's roll with it. Here are some of the flavors of list assignment mentioned in the Python docs about operations on "Mutable Sequence Types":

Operation   Result

s[i] = x    item i of s is replaced by x     
s[i:j] = t  slice of s from i to j is replaced by the contents of the iterable t     
s[i:j:k] = t    the elements of s[i:j:k] are replaced by those of t (as long as t is the same length as the slice it's replacing)
s.append(x) appends x to the end of the sequence (same as s[len(s):len(s)] = [x])
s.extend(t) or s += t   extends s with the contents of t (for the most part the same as s[len(s):len(s)] = t)    
s.insert(i, x)  inserts x into s at the index given by i (same as s[i:i] = [x])

So six different ways to insert into a list in Python. That doesn't seem very Pythonic!? Let's see which we might use on a case by case basis:

Insert Into The Beginning Of A List In Python

s.insert(0, value)

Insert Into The End Of A List In Python


Insert Into An Existing Index Of A Python List

s[index] = value

Concatenating Two Python Lists

s += t  # Where s and t are both lists

Python "List Index Out Of Range" Error Message

This entry is less a "how-to" and more of a "what to do when things go wrong" type of entry, but it's nonetheless searched for very often in conjunction with Python lists (for obvious reasons). The message "list index out of range" is brought to you by a specific type of built-in Exception, namely the IndexError. It is simply saying that you tried to access a list, perhaps using code like the following:

def my_function(some_list):
    """Return something really interesting..."""
    third_value = some_list[2]
    # ... possibly more code following

2 is not a valid index to use because some_list does not have three values (we don't know how many it does have, just less than 3 in this case).

Want to know how many values some_list has? The Python built-in len(s) function will give you exactly that.

A simple debugging exercise of the "list index out of range" message might look like this:

def my_function(some_list):
        third_value = some_list[2]
    except IndexError:
        print(f'some_list only has {len(some_list)} entries')

Here we put our code in a try...except block and catch any IndexError exceptions that are raised. When we see one, we just print out the length of some_list and re-raise the exception (since we can't exactly handle that in any useful way). That gives me the following output:

In [50]: def my_function(some_list):
    ...:         try:
    ...:             third_value = some_list[2]
    ...:         except IndexError:
    ...:             print(f'some_list only has {len(some_list)} entries')
    ...:             raise

In [51]: my_function([1,2])
some_list only has 2 entries
IndexError                                Traceback (most recent call last)
<ipython-input-51-3f735c70ddb9> in <module>
----> 1 my_function([1,2])

<ipython-input-50-137ffeaa7c70> in my_function(some_list)
    1 def my_function(some_list):
    2         try:
----> 3             third_value = some_list[2]
    4         except IndexError:
    5             print(f'some_list only has {len(some_list)} entries')

IndexError: list index out of range

How To Make A List In Python

The section topic is taken directly from search query volume, so rest assured this isn't me just throwing random facts about Python lists at you. There are a few ways to create a list in Python, but the two you'll use the most is using the "square-brace" syntax:

  • x = [] sets x to an empty list
  • x = [1, 2, 3] sets x to a list with the values 1, 2, 3
  • x = [x for x in iterable] is the simplest example of list comprehension syntax (list comprehensions can be thought of syntactic sugar when creating a new list from an existing sequence and are very powerful tools, but probably outside the scope of this article).
  • x = list() or x = list((1,2,3)) to use the list type constructor

Generally speaking, prefer the use of the first two methods unless you can think of a very good reason not to.

Apply A Function To A List In Python

Remember when I said list comprehensions were out of scope for this article. I lied. Even though they're a little trickier to grasp, they're very powerful and applying a function to each element in a list in Python is basically their bread and butter. Imagine we have a list of the numbers one through five and want to create a second list whose elements exactly each element in the original list multiplied by two. To construct such a list using a for loop, we'd need the following code:

original_list = [1,2,3,4,5]
double_list = []
for element in original_list:
    double_list.append(element * 2)

The need to do this occurs so frequently that (especially for performance-sensitive applications) a highly optimized general form of the above as part of the Python language in list comprehensions. Rather than go over the topic in great detail here, I'll simply link to the Python documentation on list comprehensions and note that we could achieve the same as code above using a list comprehension, like so:

original_list = [1,2,3,4,5]
double_list = [element * 2 for element in original_list]

I've grown to appreciate the precision of the grammar when reading it aloud, but it definitely takes some getting used to (and this is only the simplest use of a list comprehension).

Of course, there's always the Python built-in function map(), which will do much the same thing in a slightly easier to grok way, but there is an important difference between the two: map() yields the values back one-at-a-time (it's a generator) whereas a list comprehension will always create a new list from the existing list given as an argument.

It may seem difficult, but try to get to a place where you're using list comprehensions rather than map() as the former are both more powerful and more Pythonic.


This article was a quick hit, but it's good to go back to basics occasionally and see if there's anything you might have missed your first time through (I'll wager that very few Python developers know and use the itertools module as well and often as they should). I tentatively plan on adding to this article over time (a change log would be provided). Let me know if you think there's a common "Python list" Google query I missed or with suggestions on the other parts of Python lists that often trip up newcomers.

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