[SOLVED] In Python, when should I use a function instead of a method?


The Zen of Python states that there should only be one way to do things- yet frequently I run into the problem of deciding when to use a function versus when to use a method.

Let’s take a trivial example- a ChessBoard object. Let’s say we need some way to get all the legal King moves available on the board. Do we write ChessBoard.get_king_moves() or get_king_moves(chess_board)?

Here are some related questions I looked at:

The answers I got were largely inconclusive:

Why does Python use methods for some functionality (e.g. list.index()) but functions for other (e.g. len(list))?

The major reason is history. Functions were used for those operations that were generic for a group of types and which were
intended to work even for objects that didn’t have methods at all
(e.g. tuples). It is also convenient to have a function that can
readily be applied to an amorphous collection of objects when you use
the functional features of Python (map(), apply() et al).

In fact, implementing len(), max(), min() as a built-in function is actually less code than implementing them as methods for each type.
One can quibble about individual cases but it’s a part of Python, and
it’s too late to make such fundamental changes now. The functions have
to remain to avoid massive code breakage.

While interesting, the above doesn’t really say much as to what strategy to adopt.

This is one of the reasons – with custom methods, developers would be
free to choose a different method name, like getLength(), length(),
getlength() or whatsoever. Python enforces strict naming so that the
common function len() can be used.

Slightly more interesting. My take is that functions are in a sense, the Pythonic version of interfaces.

Lastly, from Guido himself:

Talking about the Abilities/Interfaces made me think about some of our
“rogue” special method names. In the Language Reference, it says, “A
class can implement certain operations that are invoked by special
syntax (such as arithmetic operations or subscripting and slicing) by
defining methods with special names.” But there are all these methods
with special names like __len__ or __unicode__ which seem to be
provided for the benefit of built-in functions, rather than for
support of syntax. Presumably in an interface-based Python, these
methods would turn into regularly-named methods on an ABC, so that
__len__ would become

class container:
  def len(self):
    raise NotImplemented

Though, thinking about it some more, I don’t see why all syntactic
operations wouldn’t just invoke the appropriate normally-named method
on a specific ABC. “<“, for instance, would presumably invoke
object.lessthan” (or perhaps “comparable.lessthan“). So another
benefit would be the ability to wean Python away from this
mangled-name oddness, which seems to me an HCI improvement

Hm. I’m not sure I agree (figure that :-).

There are two bits of “Python rationale” that I’d like to explain

First of all, I chose len(x) over x.len() for HCI reasons (def
came much later). There are two intertwined reasons actually, both HCI:

(a) For some operations, prefix notation just reads better than
postfix — prefix (and infix!) operations have a long tradition in
mathematics which likes notations where the visuals help the
mathematician thinking about a problem. Compare the easy with which we
rewrite a formula like x*(a+b) into x*a + x*b to the clumsiness of
doing the same thing using a raw OO notation.

(b) When I read code that says len(x) I know that it is asking for
the length of something. This tells me two things: the result is an
integer, and the argument is some kind of container. To the contrary,
when I read x.len(), I have to already know that x is some kind of
container implementing an interface or inheriting from a class that
has a standard len(). Witness the confusion we occasionally have when
a class that is not implementing a mapping has a get() or keys()
method, or something that isn’t a file has a write() method.

Saying the same thing in another way, I see ‘len’ as a built-in
operation. I’d hate to lose that. I can’t say for sure whether you meant that or not, but ‘def len(self): …’ certainly sounds like you
want to demote it to an ordinary method. I’m strongly -1 on that.

The second bit of Python rationale I promised to explain is the reason
why I chose special methods to look __special__ and not merely
special. I was anticipating lots of operations that classes might want
to override, some standard (e.g. __add__ or __getitem__), some not so
standard (e.g. pickle’s __reduce__ for a long time had no support in C
code at all). I didn’t want these special operations to use ordinary
method names, because then pre-existing classes, or classes written by
users without an encyclopedic memory for all the special methods,
would be liable to accidentally define operations they didn’t mean to
implement, with possibly disastrous consequences. Ivan Krstić
explained this more concise in his message, which arrived after I’d
written all this up.

–Guido van Rossum (home page: http://www.python.org/~guido/)

My understanding of this is that in certain cases, prefix notation just makes more sense (ie, Duck.quack makes more sense than quack(Duck) from a linguistic standpoint.) and again, the functions allow for “interfaces”.

In such a case, my guess would be to implement get_king_moves based solely on Guido’s first point. But that still leaves a lot of open questions regarding say, implementing a stack and queue class with similar push and pop methods- should they be functions or methods? (here I would guess functions, because I really want to signal a push-pop interface)

TLDR: Can someone explain what the strategy for deciding when to use functions vs. methods should be?


My general rule is this – is the operation performed on the object or by the object?

if it is done by the object, it should be a member operation. If it could apply to other things too, or is done by something else to the object then it should be a function (or perhaps a member of something else).

When introducing programming, it is traditional (albeit implementation incorrect) to describe objects in terms of real-world objects such as cars. You mention a duck, so let’s go with that.

class duck: 
    def __init__(self):pass
    def eat(self, o): pass 
    def crap(self) : pass
    def die(self)

In the context of the “objects are real things” analogy, it is “correct” to add a class method for anything which the object can do. So say I want to kill off a duck, do I add a
.kill() to the duck? No… as far as I know animals do not commit suicide. Therefore if I want to kill a duck I should do this:

def kill(o):
    if isinstance(o, duck):
    elif isinstance(o, dog):
        print "WHY????"
    elif isinstance(o, nyancat):
        raise Exception("NYAN "*9001)
       print "can't kill it."

Moving away from this analogy, why do we use methods and classes? Because we want to contain data and hopefully structure our code in a manner such that it will be reusable and extensible in the future. This brings us to the notion of encapsulation which is so dear to OO design.

The encapsulation principal is really what this comes down to: as a designer you should hide everything about the implementation and class internals which it is not absolutely necessarily for any user or other developer to access. Because we deal with instances of classes, this reduces to “what operations are crucial on this instance“. If an operation is not instance specific, then it should not be a member function.

what @Bryan said. If it operates on an instance and needs to access data which is internal to the class instance, it should be a member function.

Answered By – arrdem

Answer Checked By – Clifford M. (BugsFixing Volunteer)

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