A few words on Python lists

19 Feb 2018

By teaching coding to beginners, or even experienced programmers transitioning to Python, I noticed there are certain learning milestones that are likely to cause some raised eyebrows. Working with the list data structure in Python (or, more specifically, the list object) can be confusing as some aspects can be less intuitive. Understanding what’s going on under the hood should be sufficient to clear up the confusion.

What might contribute to the confusion during learning is that, in many ways, the handling of strings and lists is quite similar. For example, we access individual elements with [], there are numerous built-in methods/functions used with the dot notation for each type, + will in both cases add things (i.e., "a" + "a", [1] + [1]), functions like sorted and len will work with both, etc. However, there are also substantial differences, and one of them is the fact that lists in Python are mutable, while strings (unlike in some other programming languages) are not.


Here is an example of two different operations that both add an element to a list, yet, they do it in a very different manner. Given a list lst:

lst = [1]

There are two (obvious) ways to end up with a list lst that contains [1, 1]. By using the built-in function append:


or by concatenating [1] to the lst:

lst = lst + [1]

While both approaches yield lst = [1, 1], in the first case we used a built-in function that mutated the list and returned None. Another important facet of appending an element in this way is that this operation is very fast, its amortized complexity is O(1) (here’s why). In the second case, we added [1] to the list lst and assigned the result to a new list which we also called lst (again, this syntax might be familiar from the handling of strings). However, this operation is much more expensive, resulting in O(N) as all elements in lst need to be copied first.

Although this might not seem as too big of a deal at first when dealing with lists that are tiny, potential caveats exist when we consider scenarios that are slightly more complex.

Effects of mutation

Let us consider calling functions add_sugar1 and add_sugar2 with the list ingredients as the argument in both cases:

def add_sugar1(x):

def add_sugar2(x):
    x = x + ['more sugar']

ingredients = ['flour']

In both functions, when we pass ingredients as a function argument, the parameter x will be a reference to the original list. In the first case, add_sugar1 uses that reference to modify/mutate the list. Thus, the change to the list ingredients will persist even after we return from the function. In the second case, a new list x is created, but changes remain local to the function, and are not affecting the original list.

Here’s another example that clarifies what is going on:

x = [1, 2]
y = x


The assignment y = x did not actually copy the list, but it merely created another variable used as a reference to the list x. That is why appending anything to y also had the effect of changing x (and vice versa). If that code was just slightly different, i.e., instead of y = x we had y = x + [], the results would have been different. To create a copy of a list and not just the reference, we can do y = x[:], or, less obscure, y = list(x).