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Python Mutable Defaults Are The Source of All Evil

florimondmanca profile image Florimond Manca Originally published at blog.florimond.dev on ・3 min read

Today, I wanted to share a quick life-saving advice about a common mistake Python developers still tend to make.

TL;DR

Do not use mutable default arguments in Python, unless you have a REALLY good reason to do so.

Why? Because it can lead to all sorts of nasty and horrible bugs, give you headaches and waste everyone's time.

Instead, default to None and assign the mutable value inside the function.

Story time

This error caught me a few times in my early developer journey.

  • When I was just starting making real projects with Python (probably 5-6 years ago), I remember stumbling upon a very strange bug. A list would grow bigger than expected when a function was called multiple times, which would strange cause errors.
  • Once in college, we were assigned an algorithm development project and the instructor sent us a program that unit-tested our code. At one point, I was absolutely convinced that my code was correct, yet the tests kept failing.

In the first case, the young-developer-learning-how-to-debug me was getting angry because he had no idea why that list was growing too big, and he spent hours trying to fix this issue.

In the second case, other fellow students also encountered the problem, and the instructor had no clue either, so everyone's time was wasted.

In both cases, time and effort could have been saved if we had known about this common mistake.

What were we doing wrong?

It turns out that in both cases, an empty list was used as a default argument to a function. Yep, just that. Something like:

def compute_patterns(inputs=[]):
    inputs.append('some stuff')
    patterns = ['a list based on'] + inputs
    return patterns

Try it out yourself: if you run this function multiple times, you'll get different results!

>>> compute_patterns()
['a list based on', 'some stuff']  # Expected
>>> compute_patterns()
['a list based on', 'some stuff', 'some stuff']  # Woops!

Although it doesn't look like much, inputs=[] was the naught boy causing of this mess.

The problem

In Python, when passing a mutable value as a default argument in a function, the default argument is mutated anytime that value is mutated.

Here, "mutable value" refers to anything such as a list, a dictionnary or even a class instance.

What happened, exactly?

It is not straight-forward to see why the above fact can be a problem.

Here's what happens in detail using another example:

def append(element, seq=[]):
    seq.append(element)
    return seq
>>> append(1)  # seq is assigned to []
[1]  # This returns a reference the *same* list as the default for `seq`
>>> append(2)  # => `seq` is now given [1] as a default!
[1, 2]  # WTFs and headaches start here…

As you can see, Python "retains" the default value and ties it to the function in some way. Since it is mutated inside the function, it is also mutated as a default. In the end, we use a different default every time the function is called — duh!

The solution

Long story short, the solution is simple.

Use None as a default and assign the mutable value inside the function.

So instead, do this:

                      # 👇
def append(element, seq=None):
    if seq is None:  # 👍
        seq = []
    seq.append(element)
    return seq
>>> append(1)  # `seq` is assigned to []
[1]
>>> append(2)  # `seq` is assigned to [] again!
[2]  # Yay!

This is actually a very common pattern in Python; I find myself writing if some_var is None: some_var = default_value literally dozens of time in every project.

It's so common that there is a Python Enhancement Proposal (PEP) currently in the works (PEP 505 - None-aware operators) that would, among other things, allow to simplify the above code and simply write:

def append(element, seq=None):
    seq ??= []  # ✨
    seq.append(element)
    return seq

The PEP is still a draft, but I just wanted to mention it because I really hope none-aware operators soon become a thing in Python! 🔥

Lessons learned

There you go! Hopefully you'll never see yourself using mutable defaults in Python code anymore (except you want to mess with everyone's nerves).

If you see someone else using them, spread the tip and save their lives too. 🙏

Stay in touch!

If you enjoyed this post, you can find me on Twitter for updates, announcements and news. 🐤

Discussion

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mrgnth profile image
Thomas Schmitt

Would you consider

seq = seq or []

a viable alternative to your if-construction?

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florimondmanca profile image
Florimond Manca Author

Yes, I would see that as a viable alternative :-) — although I would argue that:

  • I see the if X is None check in Python code more often — not sure it means anything in terms of "pythonicism", though!
  • This only works when the default is simple enough to build. If it needs multiple lines to be built, we'll have to resort to if X is None anyway.
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thehesiod profile image
Alexander Mohr

Another option is using a non mutable type like a tuple

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florimondmanca profile image
Florimond Manca Author

Yep, that would solve it if your argument can be transformed to use a non-mutable version.
However, Python is already so confusing on types that I wouldn’t recommend providing a tuple if you’re to use a list afterwards.
I like to use type annotations, so annotating an argument as a List while providing an empty tool for the default would look suspicious. ;)

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qaisjp profile image
Qais Patankar

What do you think about

def append(element, seq??=None):