Trey Hunner

Python & Django on-site team training

Hire Me For Training

Stop writing lambda expressions in Python

| Comments

It’s hard for me to teach an in-depth Python class without discussing lambda expressions. I almost always get questions about them. My students tend to see them in code on StackOverflow or they see them in a coworker’s code (which, realistically, may have also come from StackOverflow).

I get a lot of questions about lambda, I’m hesitant to recommend my students embrace Python’s lambda expressions. I have had an aversion to lambda expressions for many years, and since I started teaching Python more regularly a few years ago, my aversion to lambda expressions has only grown stronger.

I’m going to explain how I see lambda expressions and why I tend to recommend my students avoid using them.

Lambda expressions in Python: what are they?

Lambda expressions a special syntax in Python for creating anonymous functions. I’ll call the lambda syntax itself a lambda expression and the function you get back from this I’ll call a lambda function.

Python’s lambda expressions allow a function to be created and passed around (often into another function) all in one line of code.

Lambda expressions allow us to take this code:

1
2
3
4
5
6
colors = ["Goldenrod", "Purple", "Salmon", "Turquoise", "Cyan"])

def normalize_case(string):
    return string.casefold()

normalized_colors = map(normalize_case, colors)

And turn it into this code:

1
2
3
colors = ["Goldenrod", "Purple", "Salmon", "Turquoise", "Cyan"])

normalized_colors = map(lambda s: s.casefold(), colors)

Lambda expressions are just a special syntax for making functions. They can only have one statement in them and they return the result of that statement automatically.

The inherent limitations of lambda expressions are actually part of their appeal. When an experienced Python programmer sees a lambda expression they know that they’re working with a function that is only used in one place and does just one thing.

If you’ve ever used anonymous functions in JavaScript before, you can think of Python’s lambda expressions as the same, except they have more restrictions and use a very different syntax than the traditional function syntax.

Where they’re usually used

You’ll typically see lambda expressions used when calling functions (or classes) that accept a function as an argument.

Python’s built-in sorted function accepts a function as its key argument. This key function is used to compute a comparison key when determining the sorting order of items.

So sorted is a great example of a place that lambda expressions are often used:

1
2
3
>>> colors = ["Goldenrod", "purple", "Salmon", "turquoise", "cyan"]
>>> sorted(colors, key=lambda s: s.casefold())
['cyan', 'Goldenrod', 'purple', 'Salmon', 'turquoise']

The above code returns the given colors sorted in a case-insensitive way.

The sorted function isn’t the only use of lambda expressions, but it’s a common one.

The pros and cons of lambda

I frame my thinking around lambda expressions as a constant comparison to using def to define functions. Both of these tools give us functions, but they each have different limitations and use a different syntax.

The main ways lambda expressions are different from def:

  1. They can be immediately passed around (no variable needed)
  2. They can only have a single line of code within them
  3. They return automatically
  4. They can’t have a docstring and they don’t have a name
  5. They use a different and unfamiliar syntax

The fact that lambda expressions can be passed around is their biggest benefit. Returning automatically is neat but not a big benefit in my mind. I find the “single line of code” limitation is neither good nor bad overall. The fact that lambda functions can’t have docstrings and don’t have a name is unfortunate and their unfamiliar syntax can be troublesome for newer Pythonistas.

Overall I feel the cons slightly outweigh the pros of lambda expressions, but my biggest complaint about them is that I find that they tend to be both misused and overused.

Lambda is both misused and overused

When I see a lambda expression in unfamiliar code I immediately become skeptical. When I encounter a lambda expression in the wild, I often find that removing it improves code readability.

Sometimes the issue is that lambda expressions are being misused, meaning they’re used in a way that is nearly always unideal. Other times lambda expressions are simply being overused, meaning they’re acceptable but I’d personally prefer to see the code written a different way.

Let’s take a look at the various ways lambda expressions are misused and overused.

Misuse: naming lambda expressions

PEP8, the official Python style guide, advises never to write code like this:

1
normalize_case = lambda s: s.casefold()

The above statement makes an anonymous function and then assigns it to a variable. The above code ignores the reason lambda functions are useful: lambda functions can be passed around without needing to be assigned to a variable first.

If you want to create a one-liner function and store it in a variable, you should use def instead:

1
def normalize_case(s): return s.casefold()

PEP8 recommends this because named functions are a common and easily understood thing. This also has the benefit of giving our function a proper name, which could make debugging easier. Unlike functions defined with def, lambda functions never have a name (it’s always <lambda>):

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>>> normalize_case = lambda s: s.casefold()
>>> normalize_case
<function <lambda> at 0x7f264d5b91e0>
>>> def normalize_case(s): return s.casefold()
...
>>> normalize_case
<function normalize_case at 0x7f247f68fea0>

If you want to create a function and store it in a variable, define your function using def. That’s exactly what it’s for. It doesn’t matter if your function is a single line of code or if you’re defining a function inside of another function, def works just fine for those use cases.

Misuse: needless function calls

I frequently see lambda expressions used to wrap around a function that was already appropriate for the problem at hand.

For example take this code:

1
sorted_numbers = sorted(numbers, key=lambda n: abs(n))

The person who wrote this code likely learned that lambda expressions are used for making a function that can be passed around. But they missed out on a slightly bigger picture idea: all functions in Python (not just lambda functions) can be passed around.

Since abs (which returns the absolute value of a number) is a function and all functions can be passed around, we could actually have written the above code like this:

1
sorted_numbers = sorted(numbers, key=abs)

Now this example might feel contrived, but it’s not terribly uncommon to overuse lambda expressions in this way. Here’s another example I’ve seen:

1
2
pairs = [(4, 11), (8, 8), (5, 7), (11, 3)]
sorted_by_smallest = sorted(pairs, key=lambda items: min(items))

Because we’re accepting exactly the same arguments as we’re passing into min, we don’t need that extra function call. We can just pass the min function to key instead:

1
2
pairs = [(4, 11), (8, 8), (5, 7), (11, 3)]
sorted_by_smallest = sorted(pairs, key=min)

You don’t need a lambda function if you already have another function that does what you want.

Overuse: simple, but non-trivial functions

It’s common to see lambda expressions used to make a function that returns a couple of values in a tuple:

1
2
colors = ["Goldenrod", "Purple", "Salmon", "Turquoise", "Cyan"])
colors_by_length = sorted(colors, key=lambda c: (len(c), c.casefold()))

That key function here is helping us sort these colors by their length followed by their case-normalized name.

This code is the same as the above code, but I find it more readable:

1
2
3
4
5
6
def length_and_alphabetical(string):
    """Return sort key: length first, then case-normalized string."""
    return (len(string), string.casefold())

colors = ["Goldenrod", "Purple", "Salmon", "Turquoise", "Cyan"])
colors_by_length = sorted(colors, key=length_and_alphabetical)

This code is quite a bit more verbose, but I find the name of that key function makes it clearer what we’re sorting by. We’re not just sorting by the length and we’re not just sorting by the color: we’re sorting by both.

If a function is important, it deserves a name. You could argue that most functions that are used in a lambda expression are so trivial that they don’t deserve a name, but there’s often little downside to naming functions and I find it usually makes my code more readable overall.

Naming functions often makes code more readable, the same way using tuple unpacking to name variables instead of using arbitrary index-lookups often makes code more readable.

Overuse: when multiple lines would help

Sometimes the “just one line” aspect of lambda expressions cause us to write code in convoluted ways. For example take this code:

1
2
points = [((1, 2), 'red'), ((3, 4), 'green')]
points_by_color = sorted(points, key=lambda p: p[1])

We’re hard-coding an index lookup here to sort points by their color. If we used a named function we could have used tuple unpacking to make this code more readable:

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
def color_of_point(point):
    """Return the color of the given point."""
    (x, y), color = point
    return color

points = [((1, 2), 'red'), ((3, 4), 'green')]
points_by_color = sorted(points, key=color_of_point)

Tuple unpacking can improve readability over using hard-coded index lookups. Using lambda expressions often means sacrificing some Python language features, specifically those that require multiple lines of code (like an extra assignment statement).

Overuse: lambda with map and filter

Python’s map and filter functions are almost always paired with lambda expressions. It’s common to see StackOverflow questions asking “what is lambda” answered with code examples like this:

1
2
3
>>> numbers = [2, 1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 18]
>>> squared_numbers = map(lambda n: n**2, numbers)
>>> odd_numbers = filter(lambda n: n % 2 == 1, numbers)

I find these examples a bit confusing because I almost never use map and filter in my code.

Python’s map and filter functions are used for looping over an iterable and making a new iterable that either slightly changes each element or filters the iterable down to only elements that match a certain condition. We can accomplish both of those tasks just as well with list comprehensions or generator expressions:

1
2
3
>>> numbers = [2, 1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 18]
>>> squared_numbers = (n**2 for n in numbers)
>>> odd_numbers = (n for n in numbers if n % 2 == 1)

Personally, I’d prefer to see the above generator expressions written over multiple lines of code (see my article on comprehensions) but I find even these one-line generator expressions more readable than those map and filter calls.

The general operations of mapping and filtering are useful, but we really don’t need the map and filter functions themselves. Generator expressions are a special syntax that exists just for the tasks of mapping and filtering. So my advice is to use generator expressions instead of the map and filter functions.

Misuse: sometimes you don’t even need to pass a function

What about cases where you need to pass around a function that performs a single operation?

Newer Pythonistas who are keen on functional programming sometimes write code like this:

1
2
3
4
from functools import reduce

numbers = [2, 1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 18]
total = reduce(lambda x, y: x + y, numbers)

This code adds all the numbers in the numbers list. There’s an even better way to do this:

1
2
numbers = [2, 1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 18]
total = sum(numbers)

Python’s built-in sum function was made just for this task.

The sum function, along with a number of other specialized Python tools, are easy to overlook. But I’d encourage you to seek out the more specialized tools when you need them because they often make for more readable code.

Instead of passing functions into other functions, look into whether there is a more specialized way to solve your problem instead.

Overuse: using lambda for very simple operations

Let’s say instead of adding numbers up, we’re multiply numbers together:

1
2
3
4
from functools import reduce

numbers = [2, 1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 18]
product = reduce(lambda x, y: x * y, numbers, 1)

The above lambda expression is necessary because we’re not allowed to pass the * operator around as if it were a function. If there was a function that was equivalent to *, we could pass it into the reduce function instead.

Python’s standard library actually has a whole module meant to address this problem:

1
2
3
4
5
from functools import reduce
from operator import mul

numbers = [2, 1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 18]
product = reduce(mul, numbers, 1)

Python’s operator module exists to make various Python operators easy to use as functions. If you’re practicing functional(ish) programming, Python’s operator module is your friend.

In addition to providing functions corresponding to Python’s many operators, the operator module provides a couple common higher level functions for accessing items and attributes and calling methods.

There’s itemgetter for accessing indexes of a list/sequence or keys of a dictionary/mapping:

1
2
3
4
5
6
# Without operator: accessing a key/index
rows_sorted_by_city = sorted(rows, key=lambda row: row['city'])

# With operator: accessing a key/index
from operator import itemgetter
rows_sorted_by_city = sorted(rows, key=itemgetter('city'))

There’s also attrgetter for accessing attributes on an object:

1
2
3
4
5
6
# Without operator: accessing an attribute
products_by_quantity = sorted(products, key=lambda p: p.quantity)

# With operator: accessing an attribute
from operator import attrgetter
products_by_quantity = sorted(products, key=attrgetter('quantity'))

And methodcaller for calling methods on an object:

1
2
3
4
5
6
# Without operator: calling a method
sorted_colors = sorted(colors, key=lambda s: s.casefold())

# With operator: calling a method
from operator import methodcaller
sorted_colors = sorted(colors, key=methodcaller('casefold'))

I usually find that using the functions in the operator module makes my code clearer than if I’d used an equivalent lambda expression.

Overuse: when higher order functions add confusion

A function that accepts a function as an argument is called a higher order function. Higher order functions are the kinds of functions that we tend to pass lambda functions to.

The use of higher order functions is common when practicing functional programming. Functional programming isn’t the only way to use Python though: Python is a multi-paradigm language so we can mix and match coding disciplines to make our code more readable.

Compare this:

1
2
3
4
from functools import reduce

numbers = [2, 1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 18]
product = reduce(lambda x, y: x * y, numbers, 1)

To this:

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
def multiply_all(numbers):
    """Return the product of the given numbers."""
    product = 1
    for n in numbers:
        product *= n
    return product

numbers = [2, 1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 18]
product = multiply_all(numbers)

The second code is longer, but folks without a functional programming background will often find it easier to understand.

Anyone who has gone through one of my Python training courses can probably understand what that multiply_all function does, whereas that reduce/lambda combination is likely a bit more cryptic for many Python programmers.

In general, passing one function into another function, tends to make code more complex, which can hurt readability.

Should you ever use lambda expressions?

So I find the use of lambda expressions problematic because:

  • lambda expressions are an odd and unfamiliar syntax to many Python programmers
  • lambda functions inherently lack a name or documentation, meaning reading their code is the only way to figure out what they do
  • lambda expressions can have only one statement in them so certain language features that improve readability, like tuple unpacking, can’t be used with them
  • lambda functions can often be replaced with already existing functions in the standard libray or built-in to Python

Lambda expressions are rarely more immediately readable than a well-named function. While a def statement is often more understandable, Python also has a number of features that can be used to replace lambda expressions, including special syntaxes (comprehensions), built-in functions (sum), and standard library functions (in the operators module).

I’d say that using lambda expressions is acceptable only if your situation meets all four of these criteria:

  1. The operation you’re doing is trivial: the function doesn’t deserve a name
  2. Having a lambda expression makes your code more understandable than the function names you can think of
  3. You’re pretty sure there’s not already a function that does what you’re looking for
  4. Everyone on your team understands lambda expressions and you’ve all agreed to use them

If any of those four statements don’t fit your situation, I’d recommend writing a new function using def and (whenever possible) embracing a function that already exists within Python that already does what you’re looking for.

Like my teaching style?

Want to learn more about Python? I share my favorite Python resources and answer Python questions every week through live chats. Sign up below and I’ll answer your questions about how to make your Python code more descriptive, more readable, and more Pythonic.


Comments

Write more Pythonic code

I send out 1 Python exercise every week through a Python skill-building service called Python Morsels.

If you’d like to improve your Python skills every week, sign up!

Enter your email below to get started: