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The Python Language

If you're already an experienced programmer and you're interested in adding Python to your list of languages, this nine-part series gives you a good start. It 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. The Python Language
  2. Character Sets
  3. Keywords
  4. Statements
By: O'Reilly Media
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September 11, 2008

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This chapter is a quick guide to the Python language. To learn Python from scratch, I suggest you start with Learning Python, by Mark Lutz and David Ascher (O'Reilly). If you already know other programming languages and just want to learn the specific differences of Python, this chapter is for you. However, I'm not trying to teach Python here, so we're going to cover a lot of ground at a pretty fast pace. I focus on teaching the rules, and only secondarily on pointing out best practices and recommended style; for a standard Python style guide, see http://python.org/doc/peps/pep-0008/.

Lexical Structure

The lexical structure of a programming language is the set of basic rules that govern how you write programs in that language. It is the lowest-level syntax of the language and specifies such things as what variable names look like and which characters denote comments. Each Python source file, like any other text file, is a sequence of characters. You can also usefully consider it as a sequence of lines, tokens, or statements. These different lexical views complement and reinforce each other. Python is very particular about program layout, especially with regard to lines and indentation, so you'll want to pay attention to this information if you are coming to Python from another language.

Lines and Indentation

A Python program is composed of a sequence of logical lines, each made up of one or more physical lines. Each physical line may end with a comment. A hash sign (#) that is not inside a string literal begins a comment. All characters after the # and up to the physical line end are part of the comment, and the Python interpreter ignores them. A line containing only whitespace, possibly with a comment, is known as a blank line, and Python totally ignores it. In an interactive interpreter session, you must enter an empty physical line (without any whitespace or comment) to terminate a multiline statement.

In Python, the end of a physical line marks the end of most statements. Unlike in other languages, you don't normally terminate Python statements with a delimiter, such as a semicolon (;). When a statement is too long to fit on a single physical line, you can join two adjacent physical lines into a logical line by ensuring that the first physical line has no comment and ends with a backslash (\). However, Python automatically joins adjacent physical lines into one logical line if an open parenthesis ((), bracket ([), or brace ({) has not yet been closed, and taking advantage of this mechanism, generally produces more readable code instead of explicitly inserting backslashes at physical line ends. Triple-quoted string literals can also span physical lines. Physical lines after the first one in a logical line are known as continuation lines. The indentation issues covered next do not apply to continuation lines but only to the first physical line of each logical line.

Python uses indentation to express the block structure of a program. Unlike other languages, Python does not use braces, or other begin/end delimiters, around blocks of statements; indentation is the only way to denote such blocks. Each logical line in a Python program is indented by the whitespace on its left. A block is a contiguous sequence of logical lines, all indented by the same amount; a logical line with less indentation ends the block. All statements in a block must have the same indentation, as must all clauses in a compound statement. The first statement in a source file must have no indentation (i.e., must not begin with any whitespace). Statements that you type at the interactive interpreter primary prompt >>> (covered in "Interactive Sessions" on page 25) must also have no indentation.

Python logically replaces each tab by up to eight spaces, so that the next character after the tab falls into logical column 9, 17, 25, etc. Standard Python style is to use four spaces (never tabs) per indentation level. Don't mix spaces and tabs for indentation, since different tools (e.g., editors, email systems, printers) treat tabs differently. The -t and -tt options to the Python interpreter (covered in "Command-Line Syntax and Options" on page 23) ensure against inconsistent tab and space usage in Python source code. I recommend you configure your favorite text editor to expand tabs to spaces, so that all Python source code you write always contains just spaces, not tabs. This way, you know that all tools, including Python itself, are going to be perfectly consistent in handling indentation in your Python source files. Optimal Python style is to indent by exactly four spaces.

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