Python Tutorial Part 1  >  Strings


A compound data type
So far we have seen three types: int, float, and string. Strings are qualitatively
different from the other two because they are made up of smaller pieces'
Types that comprise smaller pieces are called compound data types. Depending
on what we are doing, we may want to treat a compound data type as a single
thing, or we may want to access its parts. This ambiguity is useful.
The bracket operator selects a single character from a string.
>>> fruit = "banana"
>>> letter = fruit[1]
>>> print letter
The expression fruit[1] selects character number 1 from fruit. The variable
letter refers to the result. When we display letter, we get a surprise:
The first letter of "banana" is not a. Unless you are a computer scientist. In
that case you should think of the expression in brackets as an offset from the
beginning of the string, and the offset of the first letter is zero. So b is the 0th
letter ('zero-eth') of "banana", a is the 1th letter ('one-eth'), and n is the 2th
('two-eth') letter.
To get the first letter of a string, you just put 0, or any expression with the value
0, in the brackets:

>>> letter = fruit[0]
>>> print letter
The expression in brackets is called an index. An index specifies a member of an
ordered set, in this case the set of characters in the string. The index indicates
which one you want, hence the name. It can be any integer expression.


The len function returns the number of characters in a string:
>>> fruit = "banana"
>>> len(fruit)
To get the last letter of a string, you might be tempted to try something like this:
length = len(fruit)
last = fruit[length] # ERROR!
That won't work. It causes the runtime error IndexError: string index out
of range. The reason is that there is no 6th letter in "banana". Since we started
counting at zero, the six letters are numbered 0 to 5. To get the last character,
we have to subtract 1 from length:
length = len(fruit)
last = fruit[length-1]
Alternatively, we can use negative indices, which count backward from the end of
the string. The expression fruit[-1] yields the last letter, fruit[-2] yields the
second to last, and so on.

Traversal and the for loop
A lot of computations involve processing a string one character at a time. Often
they start at the beginning, select each character in turn, do something to it, and
continue until the end. This pattern of processing is called a traversal. One way
to encode a traversal is with a while statement:
index = 0
while index < len(fruit):
letter = fruit[index]
print letter
index = index + 1

This loop traverses the string and displays each letter on a line by itself. The
loop condition is index < len(fruit), so when index is equal to the length of
the string, the condition is false, and the body of the loop is not executed. The
last character accessed is the one with the index len(fruit)-1, which is the last
character in the string.
As an exercise, write a function that takes a string as an argument
and outputs the letters backward, one per line.
Using an index to traverse a set of values is so common that Python provides an
alternative, simpler syntax'the for loop:
for char in fruit:
print char
Each time through the loop, the next character in the string is assigned to the
variable char. The loop continues until no characters are left.
The following example shows how to use concatenation and a for loop to generate
an abecedarian series. 'Abecedarian' refers to a series or list in which the elements
appear in alphabetical order. For example, in Robert McCloskey's book Make
Way for Ducklings, the names of the ducklings are Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack,
Ouack, Pack, and Quack. This loop outputs these names in order:
prefixes = "JKLMNOPQ"
suffix = "ack"
for letter in prefixes:
print letter + suffix
The output of this program is:
Of course, that's not quite right because 'Ouack' and 'Quack' are misspelled.
As an exercise, modify the program to fix this error.

String slices
A segment of a string is called a slice. Selecting a slice is similar to selecting a
>>> s = "Peter, Paul, and Mary"
>>> print s[0:5]
>>> print s[7:11]
>>> print s[17:21]
The operator [n:m] returns the part of the string from the 'n-eth' character to
the 'm-eth' character, including the first but excluding the last. This behavior is
counterintuitive; it makes more sense if you imagine the indices pointing between
the characters, as in the following diagram:
fruit " b a n a n a "
index 0 1 2 3 4 5 6
If you omit the first index (before the colon), the slice starts at the beginning of
the string. If you omit the second index, the slice goes to the end of the string.
>>> fruit = "banana"
>>> fruit[:3]
>>> fruit[3:]
What do you think s[:] means?

String comparison
The comparison operators work on strings. To see if two strings are equal:
if word == "banana":
print "Yes, we have no bananas!"
7.6 Strings are immutable 77
Other comparison operations are useful for putting words in alphabetical order:
if word < "banana":
print "Your word," + word + ", comes before banana."
elif word > "banana":
print "Your word," + word + ", comes after banana."
print "Yes, we have no bananas!"
You should be aware, though, that Python does not handle upper- and lowercase
letters the same way that people do. All the uppercase letters come before all the
lowercase letters. As a result:
Your word, Zebra, comes before banana.
A common way to address this problem is to convert strings to a standard format,
such as all lowercase, before performing the comparison. A more difficult problem
is making the program realize that zebras are not fruit.

Strings are immutable
It is tempting to use the [] operator on the left side of an assignment, with the
intention of changing a character in a string. For example:
greeting = "Hello, world!"
greeting[0] = 'J' # ERROR!
print greeting
Instead of producing the output Jello, world!, this code produces the runtime
error TypeError: object doesn't support item assignment.
Strings are immutable, which means you can't change an existing string. The
best you can do is create a new string that is a variation on the original:
greeting = "Hello, world!"
newGreeting = 'J' + greeting[1:]
print newGreeting
The solution here is to concatenate a new first letter onto a slice of greeting.
This operation has no effect on the original string.

A find function
What does the following function do?
def find(str, ch):
index = 0
while index < len(str):
if str[index] == ch:
return index
index = index + 1
return -1
In a sense, find is the opposite of the [] operator. Instead of taking an index and
extracting the corresponding character, it takes a character and finds the index
where that character appears. If the character is not found, the function returns
This is the first example we have seen of a return statement inside a loop. If
str[index] == ch, the function returns immediately, breaking out of the loop
If the character doesn't appear in the string, then the program exits the loop
normally and returns -1.
This pattern of computation is sometimes called a 'eureka' traversal because as
soon as we find what we are looking for, we can cry 'Eureka!' and stop looking.
As an exercise, modify the find function so that it has a third parameter,
the index in the string where it should start looking.


Looping and counting
The following program counts the number of times the letter a appears in a string:
fruit = "banana"
count = 0
for char in fruit:
if char == 'a':
count = count + 1
print count
This program demonstrates another pattern of computation called a counter.
The variable count is initialized to 0 and then incremented each time an a is
found. (To increment is to increase by one; it is the opposite of decrement,
and unrelated to 'excrement,' which is a noun.) When the loop exits, count
contains the result'the total number of a's.

As an exercise, encapsulate this code in a function named
countLetters, and generalize it so that it accepts the string and the
letter as arguments.
As a second exercise, rewrite this function so that instead of traversing
the string, it uses the three-parameter version of find from the

The string module
The string module contains useful functions that manipulate strings. As usual,
we have to import the module before we can use it:
>>> import string
The string module includes a function named find that does the same thing as
the function we wrote. To call it we have to specify the name of the module and
the name of the function using dot notation.
>>> fruit = "banana"
>>> index = string.find(fruit, "a")
>>> print index
This example demonstrates one of the benefits of modules'they help avoid collisions
between the names of built-in functions and user-defined functions. By using
dot notation we can specify which version of find we want.
Actually, string.find is more general than our version. First, it can find substrings,
not just characters:
>>> string.find("banana", "na")
Also, it takes an additional argument that specifies the index it should start at:
>>> string.find("banana", "na", 3)
Or it can take two additional arguments that specify a range of indices:
>>> string.find("bob", "b", 1, 2)
In this example, the search fails because the letter b does not appear in the index
range from 1 to 2 (not including 2).

Character classification
It is often helpful to examine a character and test whether it is upper- or lowercase,
or whether it is a character or a digit. The string module provides several
constants that are useful for these purposes.
The string string.lowercase contains all of the letters that the system considers
to be lowercase. Similarly, string.uppercase contains all of the uppercase letters.
Try the following and see what you get:
>>> print string.lowercase
>>> print string.uppercase
>>> print string.digits
We can use these constants and find to classify characters. For example, if
find(lowercase, ch) returns a value other than -1, then ch must be lowercase:
def isLower(ch):
return string.find(string.lowercase, ch) != -1
Alternatively, we can take advantage of the in operator, which determines whether
a character appears in a string:
def isLower(ch):
return ch in string.lowercase
As yet another alternative, we can use the comparison operator:
def isLower(ch):
return 'a' <= ch <= 'z'
If ch is between a and z, it must be a lowercase letter.
As an exercise, discuss which version of isLower you think will be
fastest. Can you think of other reasons besides speed to prefer one or
the other?
Another constant defined in the string module may surprise you when you print
>>> print string.whitespace
Whitespace characters move the cursor without printing anything. They create
the white space between visible characters (at least on white paper). The constant
string.whitespace contains all the whitespace characters, including space, tab
(\t), and newline (\n).