Programming with Python

Storing Multiple Values in Lists

Learning Objectives

  • Explain what a list is.
  • Create and index lists of simple values.

Just as a for loop is a way to do operations many times, a list is a way to store many values. Unlike NumPy arrays, lists are built into the language (so we don’t have to load a library to use them). We create a list by putting values inside square brackets:

odds = [1, 3, 5, 7]
print('odds are:', odds)
odds are: [1, 3, 5, 7]

We select individual elements from lists by indexing them:

print('first and last:', odds[0], odds[-1])
first and last: 1 7

and if we loop over a list, the loop variable is assigned elements one at a time:

for number in odds:

There is one important difference between lists and strings: we can change the values in a list, but we cannot change the characters in a string. For example:

names = ['Newton', 'Darwing', 'Turing'] # typo in Darwin's name
print('names is originally:', names)
names[1] = 'Darwin' # correct the name
print('final value of names:', names)
names is originally: ['Newton', 'Darwing', 'Turing']
final value of names: ['Newton', 'Darwin', 'Turing']

works, but:

name = 'Bell'
name[0] = 'b'
TypeError                                 Traceback (most recent call last)
<ipython-input-8-220df48aeb2e> in <module>()
      1 name = 'Bell'
----> 2 name[0] = 'b'

TypeError: 'str' object does not support item assignment

does not.

There are many ways to change the contents of lists besides assigning new values to individual elements:

print('odds after adding a value:', odds)
odds after adding a value: [1, 3, 5, 7, 11]
del odds[0]
print('odds after removing the first element:', odds)
odds after removing the first element: [3, 5, 7, 11]
print('odds after reversing:', odds)
odds after reversing: [11, 7, 5, 3]

While modifying in place, it is useful to remember that Python treats lists in a slightly counterintuitive way.

If we make a list and (attempt to) copy it then modify in place, we can cause all sorts of trouble:

odds = [1, 3, 5, 7]
primes = odds
primes += [2]
print('primes:', primes)
print('odds:', odds)
primes: [1, 3, 5, 7, 2]
odds: [1, 3, 5, 7, 2]

This is because Python stores a list in memory, and then can use multiple names to refer to the same list. If all we want to do is copy a (simple) list, we can use the list function, so we do not modify a list we did not mean to:

odds = [1, 3, 5, 7]
primes = list(odds)
primes += [2]
print('primes:', primes)
print('odds:', odds)
primes: [1, 3, 5, 7, 2]
odds: [1, 3, 5, 7]

This is different from how variables worked in lesson 1, and more similar to how a spreadsheet works.

Turn a string into a list

Use a for-loop to convert the string “hello” into a list of letters:

["h", "e", "l", "l", "o"]

Hint: You can create an empty list like this:

my_list = []

Tuples and exchanges

Explain what the overall effect of this code is:

left = 'L'
right = 'R'

temp = left
left = right
right = temp

Compare it to:

left, right = right, left

Do they always do the same thing? Which do you find easier to read?