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Functions - Python

In this seventh part of a nine-part series on the Python language, we continue our discussion of statements and move on to functions. This article is excerpted from chapter four of the book Python in a Nutshell, Second Edition, written by Alex Martelli (O'Reilly; ISBN: 0596100469). Copyright 2007 O'Reilly Media, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher. Available from booksellers or direct from O'Reilly Media.

  1. Python Statements and Functions
  2. The break Statement
  3. The pass Statement
  4. Functions
By: O'Reilly Media
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October 23, 2008

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Most statements in a typical Python program are grouped and organized into functions (code in a function body may be faster than at a module's top level, as covered in "Avoiding exec and from...import *" on page 486, so there are excellent practical reasons to put most of your code into functions). A function is a group of statements that execute upon request. Python provides many built-in functions and allows programmers to define their own functions. A request to execute a function is known as a function call. When you call a function, you can pass arguments that specify data upon which the function performs its computation. In Python, a function always returns a result value, either None or a value that represents the results of the computation. Functions defined within class statements are also known as methods. Issues specific to methods are covered in "Bound and Unbound Methods" on page 91; the general coverage of functions in this section, however, also applies to methods.

In Python, functions are objects (values) that are handled like other objects. Thus, you can pass a function as an argument in a call to another function. Similarly, a function can return another function as the result of a call. A function, just like any other object, can be bound to a variable, an item in a container, or an attribute of an object. Functions can also be keys into a dictionary. For example, if you need to quickly find a functions inverse given the function, you could define a dictionary whose keys and values are functions and then make the dictionary bidirectional. Here's a small example of this idea, using some functions from module math, covered in "The math and cmath Modules" on page 365:

  inverse = {sin:asin, cos:acos, tan:atan, log:exp}
  for f in inverse.keys(): inverse[inverse[f]] = f

The fact that functions are ordinary objects in Python is often expressed by saying that functions are first-class objects.

The def Statement

The def statement is the most common way to define a function. def is a single-clause compound statement with the following syntax:

  def function-name(parameters):

function-name is an identifier. It is a variable that gets bound (or rebound) to the function object when def executes.

parameters  is an optional list of identifiers, known as formal parameters or just parameters, that get bound to the values supplied as arguments when the
function is called. In the simplest case, a function doesn't have any formal parameters, which means the function doesn't take any arguments when it is called. In this case, the function definition has empty parentheses after function-name .

When a function does take arguments, parameters contains one or more identifiers, separated by commas (,). In this case, each call to the function supplies values, known as arguments, corresponding to the parameters listed in the function definition. The parameters are local variables of the function (as we'll discuss later in this section), and each call to the function binds these local variables to the corresponding values that the caller supplies as arguments.

The nonempty sequence of statements, known as the function body, does not execute when the def statement executes. Rather, the function body executes later, each time the function is called. The function body can contain zero or more occurrences of the return statement, as we'll discuss shortly.

Here's an example of a simple function that returns a value that is twice the value passed to it each time it's called:

  def double(x):
      return x*2

Please check back next week for the continuation of this series.

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