Dictionaries are a useful type that allow us to store our data in key, value pairs. Dictionaries themselves are mutable, but, dictionary keys can only be immutable types.

We use dictionaries when we want to be able to quickly access additional data associated with a particular key. A great practical application for dictionaries is memoization. Let’s say you want to save computing power, and store the result for a function called with particular arguments. The arguments could be the key, with the result stored as the value. Next time someone calls your function, you can check your dictionary to see if the answer is pre-computed.

Looking for a key in a large dictionary is extremely fast. Unlike lists, we don’t have to check every item for a match.

dictionary cheat sheet

type dict
use Use for storing data in key, value pairs. Keys used must be immutable data types.
creation {} or dict() for an empty dict. {1: "one", 2: "two"} for a dict with items.
search methods key in my_dict
search speed Searching for a key in a large dictionary is fast.
common methods my_dict[key] to get the value by key, and throw a KeyError if key is not in the dictionary. Use my_dict.get(key) to fail silently if key is not in my_dict. my_dict.items() for all key, value pairs, my_dict.keys() for all keys, and my_dict.values() for all values.
order preserved? Sort of. As of Python 3.6 a dict is sorted by insertion order. Items can’t be accessed by index, only by key.
mutable? Yes. Can add or remove keys from dicts.
in-place sortable? No. dicts don’t have an index, only keys.


Empty dicts

We already learned one of the methods of creating an empty dict when we tried (and failed) to create an empty set with {}. The other way is to use the dict() method.

>>> my_dict = {}
>>> type(my_dict)
<class 'dict'>

>>> my_dict = dict()
>>> type(my_dict)
<class 'dict'>

Creating dicts with items

If we want to create dicts with items in them, we need to pass in key, value pairs. A dict is declared with curly braces {}, followed by a key and a value, separated with a colon :. Multiple key and value pairs are separated with commas ,.

We can call familiar methods on our dictionary, like finding out how many key / value pairs it contains with the built-in len(my_dict) method.

>>> nums = {1: "one", 2: "two", 3: "three"}

>>> len(nums)

Side note: What can be used as keys?

Any type of object, mutable or immutable, can be used as a value but just like sets, dictionaries can only use immutable types as keys. That means you can use int, str, or even tuple as a key, but not a set, list, or other dictionary.

The follow is OK:

>>> my_dict = {1: 1}
>>> my_dict = {1: []}

You’ll see a TypeError: unhashable type: 'list' if you try to use a mutable type, like a list as a dictionary key.

>>> my_dict = {[]: 1}
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: unhashable type: 'list'


Our dict contains key, value pairs. Because a dictionary isn’t ordered, we can’t access the items in it by position. Instead, to access the items in it, we use square-bracket my_dict[key] notation, similar to how we access items in a list with square bracket notation containing the position.

>>> nums = {1: "one", 2: "two", 3: "three"}
>>> nums[1]
>>> nums[2]

Q: What happens when we try to access a key in a dictionary with square bracket notation, but the key isn’t present?

We’ll get a KeyError: key if we try to access my_dict[key] with square bracket notation, but key isn’t in the dictionary.

>>> nums = {1: "one", 2: "two", 3: "three"}
>>> nums[4]

Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
KeyError: 4

One way to get around this is to use the my_dict.get(key) method. Using this method, if the key isn’t present, no error is thrown, and no value (aka the None type) is returned.

>>> nums = {1: "one", 2: "two", 3: "three"}
>>> nums.get(4)

>>> result = nums.get(4)
>>> type(result)
<class 'NoneType'>

If we want to provide a default value if the key is missing, we also pass an optional argument to the my_dict.get(key) method like so: my_dict.get(key, default_val)

>>> nums = {1: "one", 2: "two", 3: "three"}
>>> nums.get(4, "default")

Adding, Removing

To add a new key value pair to the dictionary, you’ll use square-bracket notation.

If you try to put a key into a dictionary that’s already there, you’ll just end up replacing it. To avoid subtle bugs, you can check if a particular key is in a dictionary with the in keyword. We’ll cover that technique in Chapter 6 - Control Statements and Looping.

>>> nums = {1: "one", 2: "two", 3: "three"}
>>> nums[8] = "eight"

>>> nums
{1: 'one', 2: 'two', 3: 'three', 8: 'eight'}

>>> nums[8] = "oops, overwritten"
>>> nums
{1: 'one', 2: 'two', 3: 'three', 8: 'oops, overwritten'}
>>> 8 in nums


Just like with lists an sets, you can update the items in a dictionary with the items from another dictionary.

>>> colors = {"r": "Red", "g": "Green"}
>>> numbers = {1: "one", 2: "two"}
>>> colors.update(numbers)
>>> colors
{'r': 'Red', 'g': 'Green', 1: 'one', 2: 'two'}

Complex Dictionaries

One incredibly useful scenario for dictionaries is storing the values in a list or other sequence. Going into too much detail is outside of the scope of the class, but I’ll show you a quick example:

>>> colors = {"Green": ["Spinach"]}
>>> colors
{'Green': ['Spinach']}
>>> colors["Green"].append("Apples")
>>> colors
{'Green': ['Spinach', 'Apples']}

Working with items, keys, and values

There are three useful methods you need to remember about dictionary access:

  1. my_dict.keys()
  2. my_dict.values()
  3. my_dict.items()

1. my_dict.keys() Getting all the keys in a dictionary

>>> nums = {1: 'one', 2: 'two', 3: 'three', 8: 'eight'}
>>> nums.keys()
dict_keys([1, 2, 3, 8])

2. my_dict.values() Getting all the values in a dictionary.

>>> nums = {1: 'one', 2: 'two', 3: 'three', 8: 'eight'}
>>> nums.values()
dict_values(['one', 'two', 'three', 'eight'])

3. my_dict.items() Getting all the items (key, value pairs) in a dictionary

Notice that my_dict.items() returns a type that looks like a list. It contains two-item tuples containing the key, value pairs.

>>> nums = {1: 'one', 2: 'two', 3: 'three', 8: 'eight'}
>>> nums.items()
dict_items([(1, 'one'), (2, 'two'), (3, 'three'), (8, 'eight')])