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1.5 Adding an Entry to a Dictionary

Credit: Alex Martelli

1.5.1 Problem

Working with a dictionary D, you need to use the entry D[k] if it's already present, or add a new D[k] if k isn't yet a key in D.

1.5.2 Solution

This is what the setdefault method of dictionary objects is for. Say we're building a word-to-page numbers index. A key piece of code might be:

theIndex = {}
def addword(word, pagenumber):
    if theIndex.has_key(word):
        theIndex[word] = [pagenumber]

Good Pythonic instincts suggest substituting this "look before you leap" pattern with an "easier to get permission" pattern (see Recipe 5.4 for a detailed discussion of these phrases):

def addword(word, pagenumber):
    try: theIndex[word].append(pagenumber)
    except AttributeError: theIndex[word] = [pagenumber]

This is just a minor simplification, but it satisfies the pattern of "use the entry if it is already present; otherwise, add a new entry." Here's how using setdefault simplifies this further:

def addword(word, pagenumber):
    theIndex.setdefault(word, []).append(pagenumber)

1.5.3 Discussion

The setdefault method of a dictionary is a handy shortcut for this task that is especially useful when the new entry you want to add is mutable. Basically, dict.setdefault(k, v) is much like dict.get(k, v), except that if k is not a key in the dictionary, the setdefault method assigns dict[k]=v as a side effect, in addition to returning v. (get would just return v, without affecting dict in any way.) Therefore, setdefault is appropriate any time you have get-like needs but also want to produce this specific side effect on the dictionary.

setdefault is particularly useful in a dictionary with values that are lists, as detailed in Recipe 1.6. The single most typical usage form for setdefault is:

somedict.setdefault(somekey, []).append(somevalue)

Note that setdefault is normally not very useful if the values are immutable. If you just want to count words, for example, something like the following is no use:

theIndex.setdefault(word, 1)

In this case, you want:

theIndex[word] = 1 + theIndex.get(word, 0)

since you will be rebinding the dictionary entry at theIndex[word] anyway (because numbers are immutable).

1.5.4 See Also

Recipe 5.4; the Library Reference section on mapping types.

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