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List arguments

4 September, 2015 - 14:42

When you pass a list to a function, the function gets a reference to the list. If the function modifies a list parameter, the caller sees the change. For example, delete_head removes the first element from a list:

def delete_head(t):
    del t[0]

Here’s how it is used:

>>> letters = ['a', 'b', 'c']>>> delete_head(letters)>>> print letters['b', 'c']

The parameter t and the variable letters are aliases for the same object. The stack diagram looks like Figure 10.5.

Since the list is shared by two frames, I drew it between them.

It is important to distinguish between operations that modify lists and operations that create new lists. For example, the append method modifies a list, but the + operator creates a new list:

>>> t1 = [1, 2]
>>> t2 = t1.append(3)
>>> print t1
[1, 2, 3]
>>> print t2

>>> t3 = t1 + [4]
>>> print t3
[1, 2, 3, 4]

This difference is important when you write functions that are supposed to modify lists. For example, this function does not delete the head of a list:

def bad_delete_head(t):
    t = t[1:]               # WRONG!

The slice operator creates a new list and the assignment makes t refer to it, but none of that has any effect on the list that was passed as an argument.

An alternative is to write a function that creates and returns a new list. For example, tail returns all but the first element of a list:

def tail(t):
    return t[1:]

This function leaves the original list unmodified. Here’s how it is used:

>>> letters = ['a', 'b', 'c']>>> rest = tail(letters)>>> print rest['b', 'c']