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TIL Python attribute lookup order is tricky

tmr232 profile image Tamir Bahar ・3 min read

This post is brought to you in the spirit of converting tweetstorms to blogposts.
to the tweetstorm

Surprise! 🎁

In Python, if property access raises AttributeError, and the class implemented getattr, it will get called with the property name.
This results in some very cryptic errors.

If you run the following code (repl):

class Thing:
    name = "Thing"

class NameProvider:
    def __init__(self, name): = name

    def get_name(self):
        return self.nam

class ThingWrapper:
    def __init__(self, thing, name_provider):
        self.thing = thing
        self.name_provider = name_provider

    def name(self):
        return self.name_provider.get_name()

    def __getattr__(self, name):
        return getattr(self.thing, name)

def main():
    thing = Thing()
    name_provider = NameProvider(name="Not Thing")

    thing_wrapper = ThingWrapper(thing, name_provider)


if __name__ == '__main__':

You'll get a surprising result:


You might have expected "Not Thing" as the second line, or maybe an exception to be raised from NameProvider.get_name() due to the typo there (self.nam instead of But instead, we got the name attribute from our Thing instance.

Analysis 🔎

If you've every used __getattr__() you know that it is called when the named attribute was not found using other lookup mechanisms. That said, it might not be clear to you that this includes properties raising AttributeError exceptions. It definitely wasn't clear to me.

That is, it was unclear to me despite being clearly stated in the documentation for getattr()

object.__getattr__(self, name)
Called when the default attribute access fails with an AttributeError (either __getattribute__() raises an AttributeError because name is not an instance attribute or an attribute in the class tree for self; or __get__() of a name property raises AttributeError). This method should either return the (computed) attribute value or raise an AttributeError exception.

Beside being surprising, there are 2 main issues here:

  1. Any code down the stack from the property can effectively change attribute lookup for the class by throwing an AttributeError. In the above example - a typo in NameProvider caused an attribute to be taken from Thing instead, against the programmer's obvious intention.
  2. The exception is silenced. There is no way for the programmer to catch the exception outside the property getter. This makes the errors very hard to track down. This also means that whenever you add __getattr__() to a class, you're silencing all AttributeError exceptions that were previously thrown from properties.

Like anything in Python, you can hack around the issue. In this case - with fancy decorators!

Solution? 🐍

Consider the following code (repl):

class ExceptionCatcher:
    def __init__(self, f):
        self.f = f
        self.exception = None

    def __call__(self, *args, **kwargs):
            return self.f(*args, **kwargs)
        except Exception as e:
            self.exception = e
            self.exception = None

def store_exception(f):
    return ExceptionCatcher(f)

def load_exception(f):
    def _raise_property_exception(instance, name):
            class_attr = getattr(instance.__class__, name)
            if not isinstance(class_attr, property):
            exception = class_attr.fget.exception
        except AttributeError:

        if exception:
            raise exception

    def _wrapper(*args, **kwargs):
        _raise_property_exception(*args, **kwargs)
        return f(*args, **kwargs)

    return _wrapper

class ThingWrapper:
    def __init__(self, thing, name_provider):
        self.thing = thing
        self.name_provider = name_provider

    def name(self):
        return self.name_provider.get_name()

    def __getattr__(self, name):
        return getattr(self.thing, name)

If you run this version, you'll get the following exception:

AttributeError: 'NameProvider' object has no attribute 'nam'

This matches our expectations far better.

This result is achieved in two steps. First, we store all the exceptions thrown from name() so that we can throw them again if needed. Then, before calling __getattr__(), we check if we got there due to a property raising an exception. If we did - we just re-raise that exception.

The rest is implementation details, and I probably missed something there (you might notice that I corrected a bug when converting the tweets to this post - in the previous version, I forget to reset the exception storage after successful property retrieval).

While this solution works, and may be useful for detecting similar bugs, I would probably avoid using it in production code. Instead, I'd be happy to have some standard Python construct to provide this functionality.

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