Lecture 10 — Lists Part 2


We will cover the first three of these topics during lecture. The fourth is for your own use:

  • List aliasing, lists and functions
  • For loops to operate on lists
  • Slicing to create copies of lists and to create sublists
  • Converting back and forth between strings and lists

List Aliasing

  • Consider the following example Python code:

    >>> L1 = [ 'RPI', 'WPI', 'MIT' ]
    >>> L2 = L1
    >>> L3 = [ 'RPI', 'WPI', 'MIT' ]
    >>> L2.append( 'RIT' )
    >>> L2[1] = 'CalTech'
    >>> L1
    ['RPI', 'CalTech', 'MIT', 'RIT']
    >>> L2
    ['RPI', 'CalTech', 'MIT', 'RIT']
    >>> L3
    ['RPI', 'WPI', 'MIT']
  • Surprised? This is caused by the creation of what we call an alias in computer science:

    • L1 and L2 reference the same list - they are aliases of each other and the underlying list - so changes made using either name change the underlying list
    • L3 references a different list that just happens to have the same string values in the same order: there would have been no confusion if the strings in the list had been different.
    • We’ll use our memory model for lists to understand what is happening here.
  • Python uses aliases for reasons of efficiency: lists can be quite long and are frequently changed, so copying of entire lists is expensive

  • This is true for other container data types as well.

    • Assignments create an alias for images, lists, tuples, strings and, as we will see later, sets and dictionaries
      • Aliases of strings and tuples do not create the same confusion as other containers because they can not be changed once they are created.
  • Fortunately, if we truly want to copy a list, Python provides a copy() method for lists. Try the following and see what happens.

    L1 = [1,2,3]
    L2 = L1.copy()
    L2.append( 4 )

Aliasing and Function Parameters

  • When a variable is passed to functions, a copy of its value is created if the value is a number or a booleans:

    def add_two(val1, val2):
        val1 += val2
        return val1
    val1 = 10
    val2 = 15
    print(val1, val2)
    print(val1, val2)
  • When a list is passed to functions, the parameter becomes an alias for the argument in the function call.

  • Here is an example of a function that returns a list containing the two smallest values in its input list:

    def smallest_two(mylist):
         newlist = []
         if len(mylist) > 0:
             if len(mylist) > 1:
         return newlist
    values = [35, 34, 20, 40, 60, 30]
    print("Before function:", values)
    print("Result of function:", smallest_two(values))
    print("After function:", values)
  • In class we will discuss what happened.

What Operations Change a List? What Operations Create New Lists?

  • Operations that change lists include
    • sort, insert, append, pop, remove
  • Operations that create new lists
    • Slicing (discussed below), copy(), concatenation (+), replication (*) and list()

Part 1 Practice

Students will be given about 5 minutes to work on the first two lecture exercises

Part 2: For Loops and Operations on List Items

  • Although while loops allow us to apply an operation to each entry in a list, Python has a construct called a for loop that is often easier to use for such operations.

  • Our driving example will be the problem of capitalizing a list of names. We’ll start with a simple example:

    animals = ['cat', 'monkey', 'hawk', 'tiger', 'parrot']
    cap_animals = []
    for animal in animals:
        cap_animals.append( animal.capitalize() )
  • We can understand what is happening by looking at this piece-by-piece:

    • The keyword for signals the start of a loop
    • animal is a loop variable that takes on the value of each item in the list (as indicated by the keyword in) in succession
      • This is called iterating over the values/elements of the lsit
    • The : signals the start of a block of code that is the “body of the loop”, executed once in succession for each value that animal is assigned
    • The body of the loop here is just a single, indented line of code, but in other cases - just as using while loops - there may be more than one line of code.
    • The end of the loop body is indicated by returning to the same level of the indentation as the for ... line that started the loop.

Changing the Values in a List

  • What if we wanted to change the list? We might consider copying cap_animals back to animals at the end of the code sequence.

  • But this does not work if we wanted a function that capitalized all strings in a list.

    def capitalize_list( names ):
        cap_names = []
        for n in cap_names:
            cap_names.append( n.capitalize() )
        names = cap_names
    animals = ['cat', 'monkey', 'hawk', 'tiger', 'parrot']
    print(animals)     # Make sure you understand the output!!!
  • This does not work because names is an alias for the list rather than the list itself!

  • The following does not work either because n is an alias for the string in the list

    def capitalize_list( names ):
        for n in names:
            n = n.capitalize()
  • So, based on what we know so far to actually change the values in the list we need to use indexing together with a while loop:

    def capitalize_list( names ):
        i = 0
        while i < len(names):
            names[i] = names[i].capitalize()
            i += 1
  • We can also solve this using a for loop and indexing, but for this we need a range

Using range

  • A range “generates” values in a sequence, almost-but-not-quite like a list.

    for i in range(5):

    prints the values 0 through 4...

  • We can convert a range to an actual list:

    >>> x = list(range(5))
    >>> print(x)
    [0, 1, 2, 3, 4]
  • The general form is

    range( bi, ei, ii )


    • bi is the initial value (defaults to 0)
    • ei is the ending value (never included in the range!)
    • ii is the increment, added each time (defaults to 1)
  • We’ll look at number of examples:

    list(range(4, 20, 4))
    list(range(10, 2, -2))
  • Using for loops on lists, we often use len() in combination with range to specify the indices that should be used.

    def capitalize_list( names ):
        for i in range(len(names)):
            names[i] = names[i].capitalize()

    Now we have our for loop based solution to capitalizing the names in a list.

  • Unlike with a while loop there is no need to write code to compare our index / counter variable i directly against the bound and no need to write code to increment i.

  • This use of range to generate an index list is common

    • When we want to change the integer, float or string values of a list.
    • When we want to work with multiple lists at once.

Part 2 Practice

  1. Recall our list

    co2_levels = [ 320.03, 322.16, 328.07, 333.91, 341.47, \
      348.92, 357.29, 363.77, 371.51, 382.47, 392.95 ]

    For the purpose of this exercise only, please pretend the Python sum function does not exist, and then write a short section of Python code that uses a for loop to first compute and then print the sum of the values in the co2_levels list. You do not need to use indexing.

Using Indices to “Slice” a List and Create a New List

  • Recall

    >>> co2_levels = [ 320.03, 322.16, 328.07, 333.91, 341.47,
          348.92, 357.29, 363.77, 371.51, 382.47, 392.95 ]
  • Now suppose we just want the values at indices 2, 3 and 4 of this in a new list:

    >>> three_values = co2_levels[2:5]
    >>> three_values
    [328.07, 333.91, 341.47]
    >>> co2_levels
    [ 320.03, 322.16, 328.07, 333.91, 341.47, 348.92, 357.29, 363.77,
       371.51, 382.47, 392.95 ]
  • We give the first index and one more than the last index we want

  • If we leave off the first index, 0 is assumed, and if we leave off the second index, the length of the list is assumed.

  • Negative indices are allowed — they are just converted to their associated positive values. Some examples:

    >>> L1
    ['cat', 'dog', 'hawk', 'tiger', 'parrot']
    >>> L1[1:-1]
    ['dog', 'hawk', 'tiger']
    >>> L1[1:-2]
    ['dog', 'hawk']
    >>> L1[1:-4]
    >>> L1[1:0]
    >>> L1[1:10]
    ['dog', 'hawk', 'tiger', 'parrot']

More on List Slicing

  • Specifying indices for slicing and for a range are very similar:

    • A range uses () and is a generator, while slicing using [ ] and is applied to a list to create a new list.
  • The most general form of slicing involves three values



    • L is the list
    • si is the start index
    • ei is the end index
    • inc is the increment value

    Any of the three values is optional

  • We’ll work through some examples in class to

    • Use slicing to copy an entire list
    • Use negative increments and generate a reversed list
    • Extracting the even indexed values
  • Note: L[:] returns a copy of the whole list of L. This is the same using method L.copy() or the function list()

    >>> L2 = L1[:]
    >>> L2[1] = 'monkey'
    >>> L1
    ['cat', 'dog', 'hawk', 'tiger', 'parrot']
    >>> L2
    ['cat', 'monkey', 'hawk', 'tiger', 'parrot']
    >>> L3 = list(L1)
    >>> L3[1] = 'turtle'
    >>> L1
    ['cat', 'dog', 'hawk', 'tiger', 'parrot']
    >>> L2
    ['cat', 'monkey', 'hawk', 'tiger', 'parrot']
    >>> L3
    ['cat', 'turtle', 'hawk', 'tiger', 'parrot']

Concatentation and Replication

  • Just like with strings, concatenation and replication can be applied to lists:

    >>> v = [1,2,3]+[4,5]
    >>> v
  • and

    >>> [1]*3

Part 3 Practice

  1. What is the output of the following?

    x = [6,5,4,3,2,1] + [7]*2
    y = x
    x[1] = y[2]
    y[2] = x[3]
    x[0] = x[1]
  2. Write a slicing command to extract values indexed by 1, 4, 7, 10, etc from a list L0 .

Converting Strings to Lists

  • Version 1: use the function list to create a list of the characters in the string:

    >>> s = "Hello world"
    >>> t = list(s)
    >>> print(t)
    ['H', 'e', 'l', 'l', 'o', ' ', 'w', 'o', 'r', 'l', 'd']
  • Version 2: use the string split function, which breaks a string up into a list of strings based on the character provided as the argument.

    • The default is ' ':
    • Other common splitting characters are ',', '|' and '\t'
  • We will play with the s = "Hello world" example in class.

Converting Lists to Strings

  • What happens when we type the following?

    >>> s = "Hello world"
    >>> t = list(s)
    >>> s1 = str(t)

    This is will not concatenate all the strings in the list (assumming they are strings).

  • We can write a for loop to do this, but Python provides something simpler that works:

    >>> L1 = [ 'No', 'one', 'expects', 'the', 'Spanish', 'Inquisition' ]
    >>> print(''.join(L1))
    >>> print(' '.join(L1))
    No one expects the Spanish Inquisition

    Can you infer from this the role of the string that the join funciton is applied to?

Indexing and Slicing Strings

  • We can index strings:

    >>> s = "Hello, world!"
    >>> print(s[5])
    >>> print(s[-1])
  • We can apply all of the slicing operations to strings to create new strings:

    >>> s = "Hello, world!"
    >>> s[:len(s):2]
    'Hlo ol!'
  • Unlike lists, however, we can not use indexing to replace individual characters in strings:

    >>> s[4] = 'c'
    Traceback (most recent call last):
      File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
    TypeError: 'str' object does not support item assignment

Part 4 Practice

  1. Given a list

    L = [ 'cat', 'dog', 'tiger', 'lion' ]

    Rewrite L so that it is a list of lists, with household pets in the 0th (sub)list, zoo animals in the first. Using slicing of L to create this new list and assign L to the result.

  2. How can you append an additional list of farm animals (e.g. 'horse', 'pig' and 'cow') to L?

  3. Write code to remove 'tiger' from the sublist of zoo animals.

  4. Suppose you have the string

    >>> s = "cat |  dog  | mouse | rat"

    and you’d like to have the list of strings

    >>> L = [ "cat", "dog", "mouse", "rat"]

    Splitting the list alone does not solve the problem. Instead, you need to use a combination of splitting, and a loop that strips off the extra space characters from each string and appends to the final result. Write this code. It should be at most 4-5 lines of Python.


  • Assignment of lists and passing of lists as parameters creates aliases of lists rather than copies.
  • We use for loops to iterate through a list to work on each enty in the list.
  • We need to combine for loops with indices generated by a range in order to change the contents of a list of integers, floats or strings. These indices are also used to work with multiple lists at once.
  • Concatentation, replication and slicing create new lists.
  • Most other list functions that modify a list do so without creating a new list: insert, sort, append, pop, etc.
  • Strings may be indexed and sliced, but indexing may not be used to change a string.
  • Conversion of a string to a list is accomplished using either list or split; conversion of a list of strings to a string uses join.

Additional Review Exercises: What Does Python Output?

  1. Without typing into the Python interpreter, find the outputs from the following operations:

    >>> x = ['a','b','c','d', 'e']
    >>> print(x)
    >>> for item in x:
    ...    print("{}".format(item))
    >>> print(x[3])
    >>> x[3] = 3
    >>> x
    >>> len(x)
    >>> x[2]=x[1]
    >>> x
    >>> x[5]
    >>> y = x[1:4]
    >>> y
    >>> x
  2. What about these operations?

    >>> y = [1, 2, 3]
    >>> y.append('cat')
    >>> y
    >>> y.pop()
    >>> y
    >>> y.remove(2)
    >>> y
    >>> y.remove('cat')
    >>> z = ['cat','dog']
    >>> z.insert(1,'pig')
    >>> z.insert(0,'ant')
    >>> z
    >>> z.sort()
    >>> z
    >>> z1 = z[1:3]
    >>> z1
    >>> z
  3. Write a function that returns a list containing the smallest and largest values in the list that is passed to it as an argument without changing the list? Can you think of several ways to do this?

    1. Using min and max
    2. Using sorting (but remember, you can’t change the original list)
    3. Using a for loop that searches for the smallest and largest values.