Lecture 12 Contolling Loops

Restatement of the Basics

  • for loops tend to have a fixed number of iterations computed at the start of the loop
  • while loops tend to have an indefinite termination, determined by the conditions of the data
  • Most Python for loops are easily rewritten as while loops, but not vice-versa.
    • In other programming languages, for and while are almost interchangeable, at least in principle.

Overview of Today

  • Ranges and control of loop iterations
  • Nested loops
  • Lists of lists
  • Contolling loops through break and continue

Reading: Practical Programming, rest of Chapter 9.

Part 1: Ranges and For Loops— A Review

  • A range is a function to generate sequences of integers:

    for i in range(10):

    outputs the digits 0 through 9 in succession, one per line.

    • Remember that this is up through and not including the last value specified!
  • A range is not quite a list — instead it generates values for each successive iteration of a for loop.

    • For now we will convert each range to a list as the basis for studying them.
  • If we want to start with something other than 0, we provide two integer values

    >>> list(range(3,8))
    [3, 4, 5, 6, 7]
  • With a third integer values we can create increments. For example,

    >>> list(range(4,20,3))
    [4, 7, 10, 13, 16, 19]

    starts at 4, increments by 3, stops when 20 is reached or surpassed.

  • We can create backwards increments

    >>> list(range(-1, -10, -1))
    [-1, -2, -3, -4, -5, -6, -7, -8, -9]

Using Ranges in For Loops

  • We can use the range to generate the sequence of loop variable values in a for loop. Our first example is printing the contents of the planets list

    planets = [ 'Mercury', 'Venus', 'Earth', 'Mars', 'Jupiter',
        'Saturn', 'Uranus', 'Neptune', 'Pluto' ]
    for i in range(len(planets)):

    (In this case we don’t need a index variable - we can just iterate over the values in the list.)

  • The variable i is variously known as the index or the loop index variable or the subscript.

  • We will modify the loop in class to do the following:

    • Print the indices of the planets (starting at 1!)
    • Print the planets backward.
    • Print every other planet.

Loops That Do Not Iterate Over All Indices

  • Sometimes the loop index should not go over the entire range of indices, and we need to think about where to stop it early, as the next example shows.

  • Example: Returning to our example from Lecture 1, we will briefly re-examine our solution to the following problem: Given a string, how can we write a function that decides if it has three consecutive double letters?

    def has_three_doubles(s):
        for i in range(0, len(s)-5):
            if s[i] == s[i+1] and s[i+2] == s[i+3] and s[i+4] == s[i+5]:
                return True
        return False
  • We have to think carefully about where to start our looping and where to stop!

  • Refer back to Lecture 10 for further examples

Part 1 Practice

We will only go over a few of these in class, but you should be sure you can handle all of them

  1. Generate a range for the positive integers less than 100. Use this to calculate the sum of these values, with and without (i.e. use sum) a for loop.

  2. Use a range and a for loop to print the even numbers less than the integer value associated with n.

  3. Suppose we want a list of the squares of the digits 0..9. The following does NOT work

    squares = range(10)
    for s in squares:
        s = s*s

    Why not? Write a different for loop that uses indexing into the squares list to accomplish our goal.

  4. The following code for finding out if a word has two consecutive double letters is wrong. Why? When, specifically, does it fail?

    def has_two_doubles(s):
        for i in range(0, len(s)-5):
            if s[i] == s[i+1] and s[i+2] == s[i+3]:
                return True
        return False

Part 2: Nested Loops

  • Some problems require iterating over either

    • two dimensions of data, or
    • all pairs of values from a list
  • As an example, here is code to print all of the products of digits:

    digits = range(10)
    for i in digits:
        for j in digits:
            print("{} x {} = {}".format(i,j,i*j))
  • How does this work?

    • for each value of i the variable in the first, or “outer”, loop, Python executes the entire second, or inner, loop
    • Importantly, i stays fixed during the entire inner loop.
  • We will look at finding the two closest points in a list.

Example: Finding the Two Closest Points

  • Suppose we are given a list of point locations in two dimensions, where each point is a tuple. For example,

    points = [ (1,5), (13.5, 9), (10, 5), (8, 2), (16,3) ]
  • Our problem is to find the two points that are closest to each other.

    • We started working on a slightly simpler version of this problem at the end of Lecture 10, but did not have time to complete it.
  • The natural idea is to compute the distance between any two points and find the minimum.

    • We can do this with and without using a list of distances.
  • Let’s work through the approach to this and post the result on the course website.

Part 3: Lists of Lists

  • In programming you often must deal with data much more complicated than a single list. For example, we might have a list of lists, where each list might be temperature (or pH) measurements at one location of a study site:

    temps_at_sites = [ [ 12.12, 13.25, 11.17, 10.4],
                       [ 22.1, 29.3, 25.3, 20.2, 26.4, 24.3 ],
                       [ 18.3, 17.9, 24.3, 27.2, 21.7, 22.2 ],
                       [ 12.4, 12.5, 12.14, 14.4, 15.2 ] ]
  • Here is code to find the site with the maximum average temperature; note that no indices are used.

    averages = []
    for site in temps_at_sites:
        avg = sum(site) / len(site)
    max_avg = max(averages)
    max_index = averages.index(max_avg)
    print("Maximum average of {:.2f} occurs at site {}".format(max_avg, max_index))
  • Notes:

    • for loop variable site is an alias for each sucessive list in temps_at_sites
    • A separate list is created to store the computed averages
    • We will see in class how this would be written without the separate averages list.

Part 4: Controlling Execution of Loops

  • We can control while loops through use of
    • break
    • continue
  • We need to be careful to avoid infinite loops

Using a Break

  • We can terminate a loop immediately upon seeing the 0 using Python’s break:

    sum = 0
    while True:
        x = int(input("Enter an integer to add (0 to end) ==> "))
        if x == 0:
        sum += x
  • break sends the flow of control immediately to the first line of code outside the current loop, and

  • The while condition of True essentially means that the only way to stop the loop is when the condition that triggers the break is met.

Continue: Skipping the Rest of a Loop Iteration

  • Suppose we want to skip over negative entries in a list. We can do this by telling Python to continue when it sees a blank line:

    for item in mylist:
        if item < 0:
  • When it sees continue, Python immediate goes back to the “top” of the loop, skipping the rest of the code, and initiates the next iteration of the loop.

  • Any loop that uses break or continue can be rewritten without either of these.

    • Therefore, we choose to use them only if they make our code clearer.
    • A loop with more than one continue or break is rarely well-structured, so if you find that you have written such a loop you should stop and rewrite your code.
  • Note that the example above, while illustrative, is probably better without the continue.

    • Usually when we use continue the rest of the loop is relative long and the condition that triggers the continue is tested at or near the top of the loop.

Termination of a While Loop

  • When working with a while loop one always needs to ensure that the loop will terminate! Otherwise we have an infinite loop.

  • Sometimes it is easy to decide if a loop will terminate. Sometimes it is not.

  • Do either of the following examples cause an infinite loop?

    import math
    x = float(input("Enter a positive number -> "))
    while x > 1:
        x = math.sqrt(x)
    import math
    x = float(raw_input("Enter a positive number -> "))
    while x >= 1:
        x = math.sqrt(x)


  • range is used to generate a sequence of indices in a for loop.
  • Nested for loops may be needed to iterate over two dimensions of data.
  • Lists of lists may be used to specify more complex data. We process these using a combination of for loops, which may need to be nested, and Python’s built-in functions. Use of Python’s built-in functions, as illustrated in the example here in these notes, is often preferred.
  • Loops (either for or while) may be controlled using continue to skip the rest of a loop iteration and using break to terminate the loop altogether. These should be used sparingly!