Reading a Text File by Paragraphs

Credit: Alex Martelli, Magnus Lie Hetland


You need to read a file paragraph by paragraph, in which a paragraph is defined as a sequence of nonempty lines (in other words, paragraphs are separated by empty lines).


A wrapper class is, as usual, the right Pythonic architecture for this (in Python 2.1 and earlier):

class Paragraphs:

    def _ _init_ _(self, fileobj, separator='\n'):

        # Ensure that we get a line-reading sequence in the best way possible:
        import xreadlines
            # Check if the file-like object has an xreadlines method
            self.seq = fileobj.xreadlines(  )
        except AttributeError:
            # No, so fall back to the xreadlines module's implementation
            self.seq = xreadlines.xreadlines(fileobj)

        self.line_num = 0    # current index into self.seq (line number)
        self.para_num = 0    # current index into self (paragraph number)

        # Ensure that separator string includes a line-end character at the end
        if separator[-1:] != '\n': separator += '\n'
        self.separator = separator

    def _ _getitem_ _(self, index):
        if index != self.para_num:
            raise TypeError, "Only sequential access supported"
        self.para_num += 1
        # Start where we left off and skip 0+ separator lines
        while 1:
        # Propagate IndexError, if any, since we're finished if it occurs
            line = self.seq[self.line_num]
            self.line_num += 1
            if line != self.separator: break
        # Accumulate 1+ nonempty lines into result
        result = [line]
        while 1:
        # Intercept IndexError, since we have one last paragraph to return
                # Let's check if there's at least one more line in self.seq
                line = self.seq[self.line_num]
            except IndexError:
                # self.seq is finished, so we exit the loop
            # Increment index into self.seq for next time
            self.line_num += 1
            if line == self.separator: break
        return ''.join(result)

# Here's an example function, showing how to use class Paragraphs:
def show_paragraphs(filename, numpars=5):
    pp = Paragraphs(open(filename))
    for p in pp:
        print "Par#%d, line# %d: %s" % (
            pp.para_num, pp.line_num, repr(p))
        if pp.para_num>numpars: break


Python doesn’t directly support paragraph-oriented file reading, but, as usual, it’s not hard to add such functionality. We define a paragraph as a string formed by joining a nonempty sequence of nonseparator lines, separated from any adjoining paragraphs by nonempty sequences of separator lines. By default, a separator line is one that equals '\n' (empty line), although this concept is easy to generalize. We let the client code determine what a separator is when instantiating this class. Any string is acceptable, but we append a '\n' to it, if it doesn’t already end with '\n' (since we read the underlying file line by line, a separator not ending with '\n' would never match).

We can get even more generality by having the client code pass us a callable that looks at any line and tells us whether that line is a separator or not. In fact, this is how I originally architected this recipe, but then I decided that such an architecture represented a typical, avoidable case of overgeneralization (also known as overengineering and “Big Design Up Front”; see, so I backtracked to the current, more reasonable amount of generality. Indeed, another reasonable design choice for this recipe’s class would be to completely forego the customizability of what lines are to be considered separators and just test for separator lines with line.isspace( ), so that stray blanks on an empty-looking line wouldn’t misleadingly transform it into a nonseparator line.

This recipe’s adapter class is a special case of sequence adaptation by bunching. An underlying sequence (here, a sequence of lines, provided by xreadlines on a file or file-like object) is bunched up into another sequence of larger units (here, a sequence of paragraph strings). The pattern is easy to generalize to other sequence-bunching needs. Of course, it’s even easier with iterators and generators in Python 2.2, but even Python 2.1 is pretty good at this already. Sequence adaptation is an important general issue that arises particularly often when you are sequentially reading and/or writing files; see Recipe 4.10 for another example.

For Python 2.1, we need an index of the underlying sequence of lines and a way to check that our _ _getitem_ _ method is being called with properly sequential indexes (as the for statement does), so we expose the line_num and para_num indexes as useful attributes of our object. Thus, client code can determine our position during a sequential scan, in regard to the indexing on the underlying line sequence, the paragraph sequence, or both, without needing to track it itself.

The code uses two separate loops, each in a typical pattern:

while 1: 
    if xxx: break

The first loop skips over zero or more separators that may occur between arbitrary paragraphs. Then, a separate loop accumulates nonseparators into a result list, until the underlying file finishes or a separator is encountered.

It’s an elementary issue, but quite important to performance, to build up the result as a list of strings and combine them with ''.join at the end. Building up a large string as a string, by repeated application of += in a loop, is never the right approach—it’s slow and clumsy. Good Pythonic style demands using a list as the intermediate accumulator when building up a string.

The show_paragraphs function demonstrates all the simple features of the Paragraphs class and can be used to unit-test the latter by feeding it a known text file.

Python 2.2 makes it very easy to build iterators and generators. This, in turn, makes it very tempting to build a more lightweight version of the by-paragraph buncher as a generator function, with no classes involved:

from _ _future_ _ import generators

def paragraphs(fileobj, separator='\n'):
    if separator[-1:] != '\n': separator += '\n'
    paragraph = []
    for line in fileobj:
        if line == separator:
            if paragraph:
                yield ''.join(paragraph)
                paragraph = []
    if paragraph: yield ''.join(paragraph)

We don’t get the line and paragraph numbers, but the approach is much more lightweight, and it works polymorphically on any fileobj that can be iterated on to yield a sequence of lines, not just a file or file-like object. Such useful polymorphism is always a nice plus, particularly considering that it’s basically free. Here, we have merged the loops into one, and we use the intermediate list paragraph itself as the state indicator. If the list is empty, we’re skipping separators; otherwise, we’re accumulating nonseparators.

See Also

Recipe 4.10; documentation on the xreadlines module in the Library Reference; the Big Design Up Front Wiki page (

Get Python Cookbook now with O’Reilly online learning.

O’Reilly members experience live online training, plus books, videos, and digital content from 200+ publishers.