Chapter 4. Choose with if

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, …

Rudyard Kipling, If—

In the previous chapters, you’ve seen many examples of data but haven’t done much with them. Most of the code examples used the interactive interpreter and were short. In this chapter, you learn how to structure Python code, not just data.

Many computer languages use characters such as curly braces ({ and }) or keywords such as begin and end to mark off sections of code. In those languages, it’s good practice to use consistent indentation to make your program more readable for yourself and others. There are even tools to make your code line up nicely.

When he was designing the language that became Python, Guido van Rossum decided that the indentation itself was enough to define a program’s structure, and avoided typing all those parentheses and curly braces. Python is unusual in this use of white space to define program structure. It’s one of the first aspects that newcomers notice, and it can seem odd to those who have experience with other languages. It turns out that after writing Python for a little while, it feels natural, and you stop noticing it. You even get used to doing more while typing less.

Our initial code examples have been one-liners. Let’s first see how to make comments and multiple-line commands.

Comment with #

A comment is a piece of text in your program that is ignored by the Python interpreter. You might use comments to clarify nearby Python code, make notes to yourself to fix something someday, or for whatever purpose you like. You mark a comment by using the # character; everything from that point on to the end of the current line is part of the comment. You’ll usually see a comment on a line by itself, as shown here:

>>> # 60 sec/min * 60 min/hr * 24 hr/day
>>> seconds_per_day = 86400

Or, on the same line as the code it’s commenting:

>>> seconds_per_day = 86400 # 60 sec/min * 60 min/hr * 24 hr/day

The # character has many names: hash, sharp, pound, or the sinister-sounding octothorpe.1 Whatever you call it,2 its effect lasts only to the end of the line on which it appears.

Python does not have a multiline comment. You need to explicitly begin each comment line or section with a #:

>>> # I can say anything here, even if Python doesn't like it,
... # because I'm protected by the awesome
... # octothorpe.

However, if it’s in a text string, the mighty octothorpe reverts back to its role as a plain old # character:

>>> print("No comment: quotes make the # harmless.")
No comment: quotes make the # harmless.

Continue Lines with \

Programs are more readable when lines are reasonably short. The recommended (not required) maximum line length is 80 characters. If you can’t say everything you want to say in that length, you can use the continuation character: \ (backslash). Just put \ at the end of a line, and Python will suddenly act as though you’re still on the same line.

For example, if I wanted to add the first five digits, I could do it a line at a time:

>>> sum = 0
>>> sum += 1
>>> sum += 2
>>> sum += 3
>>> sum += 4
>>> sum

Or, I could do it in one step, using the continuation character:

>>> sum = 1 + \
...       2 + \
...       3 + \
...       4
>>> sum

If we skipped the backslash in the middle of an expression, we’d get an exception:

>>> sum = 1 +
  File "<stdin>", line 1
    sum = 1 +
SyntaxError: invalid syntax

Here’s a little trick—if you’re in the middle of paired parentheses (or square or curly brackets), Python doesn’t squawk about line endings:

>>> sum = (
...     1 +
...     2 +
...     3 +
...     4)
>>> sum

You’ll also see in Chapter 5 that paired triple quotes let you make multiline strings.

Compare with if, elif, and else

Now, we finally take our first step into the code structures that weave data into programs. Our first example is this tiny Python program that checks the value of the boolean variable disaster and prints an appropriate comment:

>>> disaster = True
>>> if disaster:
...     print("Woe!")
... else:
...     print("Whee!")

The if and else lines are Python statements that check whether a condition (here, the value of disaster) is a boolean True value, or can be evaluated as True. Remember, print() is Python’s built-in function to print things, normally to your screen.


If you’ve programmed in other languages, note that you don’t need parentheses for the if test. For example, don’t say something such as if (disaster == True) (the equality operator == is described in a few paragraphs). You do need the colon (:) at the end. If, like me, you forget to type the colon at times, Python will display an error message.

Each print() line is indented under its test. I used four spaces to indent each subsection. Although you can use any indentation you like, Python expects you to be consistent with code within a section—the lines need to be indented the same amount, lined up on the left. The recommended style, called PEP-8, is to use four spaces. Don’t use tabs, or mix tabs and spaces; it messes up the indent count.

We did a number of things here, which I explain more fully as the chapter progresses:

  • Assigned the boolean value True to the variable named disaster

  • Performed a conditional comparison by using if and else, executing different code depending on the value of disaster

  • Called the print() function to print some text

You can have tests within tests, as many levels deep as needed:

>>> furry = True
>>> large = True
>>> if furry:
...     if large:
...         print("It's a yeti.")
...     else:
...         print("It's a cat!")
... else:
...     if large:
...         print("It's a whale!")
...     else:
...         print("It's a human. Or a hairless cat.")
It's a yeti.

In Python, indentation determines how the if and else sections are paired. Our first test was to check furry. Because furry is True, Python goes to the indented if large test. Because we had set large to True, if large is evaluated as True, and the following else line is ignored. This makes Python run the line indented under if large: and print It's a yeti.

If there are more than two possibilities to test, use if for the first, elif (meaning else if) for the middle ones, and else for the last:

>>> color = "mauve"
>>> if color == "red":
...     print("It's a tomato")
... elif color == "green":
...     print("It's a green pepper")
... elif color == "bee purple":
...     print("I don't know what it is, but only bees can see it")
... else:
...     print("I've never heard of the color", color)
I've never heard of the color mauve

In the preceding example, we tested for equality by using the == operator. Here are Python’s comparison operators:





less than


less than or equal


greater than


greater than or equal


These return the boolean values True or False. Let’s see how these all work, but first, assign a value to x:

>>> x = 7

Now, let’s try some tests:

>>> x == 5
>>> x == 7
>>> 5 < x
>>> x < 10

Note that two equals signs (==) are used to test equality; remember, a single equals sign (=) is what you use to assign a value to a variable.

If you need to make multiple comparisons at the same time, you use the logical (or boolean) operators and, or, and not to determine the final boolean result.

Logical operators have lower precedence than the chunks of code that they’re comparing. This means that the chunks are calculated first, and then compared. In this example, because we set x to 7, 5 < x is calculated to be True and x < 10 is also True, so we finally end up with True and True:

>>> 5 < x and x < 10

As “Precedence” points out, the easiest way to avoid confusion about precedence is to add parentheses:

>>> (5 < x) and (x < 10)

Here are some other tests:

>>> 5 < x or x < 10
>>> 5 < x and x > 10
>>> 5 < x and not x > 10

If you’re and-ing multiple comparisons with one variable, Python lets you do this:

>>> 5 < x < 10

It’s the same as 5 < x and x < 10. You can also write longer comparisons:

>>> 5 < x < 10 < 999

What Is True?

What if the element we’re checking isn’t a boolean? What does Python consider True and False?

A false value doesn’t necessarily need to explicitly be a boolean False. For example, these are all considered False:





zero integer


zero float


empty string


empty list


empty tuple


empty dict


empty set


Anything else is considered True. Python programs use these definitions of “truthiness” and “falsiness” to check for empty data structures as well as False conditions:

>>> some_list = []
>>> if some_list:
...     print("There's something in here")
... else:
...     print("Hey, it's empty!")
Hey, it's empty!

If what you’re testing is an expression rather than a simple variable, Python evaluates the expression and returns a boolean result. So, if you type:

if color == "red":

Python evaluates color == "red". In our earlier example, we assigned the string "mauve" to color, so color == "red" is False, and Python moves on to the next test:

elif color == "green":

Do Multiple Comparisons with in

Suppose that you have a letter and want to know whether it’s a vowel. One way would be to write a long if statement:

>>> letter = 'o'
>>> if letter == 'a' or letter == 'e' or letter == 'i' \
...     or letter == 'o' or letter == 'u':
...     print(letter, 'is a vowel')
... else:
...     print(letter, 'is not a vowel')
o is a vowel

Whenever you need to make a lot of comparisons like that, separated by or, use Python’s membership operator in, instead. Here’s how to check vowel-ness more Pythonically, using in with a string made of vowel characters:

>>> vowels = 'aeiou'
>>> letter = 'o'
>>> letter in vowels
>>> if letter in vowels:
...     print(letter, 'is a vowel')
o is a vowel

Here’s a preview of how to use in with some data types that you’ll read about in detail in the next few chapters:

>>> letter = 'o'
>>> vowel_set = {'a', 'e', 'i', 'o', 'u'}
>>> letter in vowel_set
>>> vowel_list = ['a', 'e', 'i', 'o', 'u']
>>> letter in vowel_list
>>> vowel_tuple = ('a', 'e', 'i', 'o', 'u')
>>> letter in vowel_tuple
>>> vowel_dict = {'a': 'apple', 'e': 'elephant',
...               'i': 'impala', 'o': 'ocelot', 'u': 'unicorn'}
>>> letter in vowel_dict
>>> vowel_string = "aeiou"
>>> letter in vowel_string

For the dictionary, in looks at the keys (the lefthand side of the :) instead of their values.

New: I Am the Walrus

Arriving in Python 3.8 is the walrus operator, which looks like this:

name := expression

See the walrus? (Like a smiley, but tuskier.)

Normally, an assignment and test take two steps:

>>> tweet_limit = 280
>>> tweet_string = "Blah" * 50
>>> diff = tweet_limit - len(tweet_string)
>>> if diff >= 0:
...     print("A fitting tweet")
... else:
...     print("Went over by", abs(diff))
A fitting tweet

With our new tusk power (aka assignment expressions) we can combine these into one step:

>>> tweet_limit = 280
>>> tweet_string = "Blah" * 50
>>> if diff := tweet_limit - len(tweet_string) >= 0:
...     print("A fitting tweet")
... else:
...     print("Went over by", abs(diff))
A fitting tweet

The walrus also gets on swimmingly with for and while, which we look at in Chapter 6.

Coming Up

Play with strings, and meet interesting characters.

Things to Do

4.1 Choose a number between 1 and 10 and assign it to the variable secret. Then, select another number between 1 and 10 and assign it to the variable guess. Next, write the conditional tests (if, else, and elif) to print the string 'too low' if guess is less than secret, 'too high' if greater than secret, and 'just right' if equal to secret.

4.2 Assign True or False to the variables small and green. Write some if/else statements to print which of these matches those choices: cherry, pea, watermelon, pumpkin.

1 Like that eight-legged green thing that’s right behind you!

2 Please don’t call it. It might come back.

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