We're back after a server migration that caused effbot.org to fall over a bit harder than expected. Expect some glitches.

Objects, values and types

Objects are Python’s abstraction for data. All data in a Python program is represented by objects or by relations between objects. (In a sense, and in conformance to Von Neumann’s model of a stored program computer, code is also represented by objects.)

Every object has an identity, a type and a value. An object’s identity never changes once it has been created; you may think of it as the object’s address in memory. The is operator compares the identity of two objects; the id function returns an integer representing its identity (currently implemented as its address). An object’s type is also unchangeable.

(However, since Python 2.2, a gradual merging of types and classes has been started that makes this and a few other assertions made in this manual not 100% accurate and complete: for example, it is now possible in some cases to change an object’s type, under certain controlled conditions. Until this manual undergoes extensive revision, it must now be taken as authoritative only regarding classic classes, that are still the default, for compatibility purposes, in Python 2.2 and 2.3. For more information, see http://www.python.org/doc/newstyle.html).

An object’s type determines the operations that the object supports (e.g., does it have a length?) and also defines the possible values for objects of that type. The type function returns an object’s type (which is an object itself). The value of some objects can change. Objects whose value can change are said to be mutable; objects whose value is unchangeable once they are created are called immutable. (The value of an immutable container object that contains a reference to a mutable object can change when the latter’s value is changed; however the container is still considered immutable, because the collection of objects it contains cannot be changed. So, immutability is not strictly the same as having an unchangeable value, it is more subtle.) An object’s mutability is determined by its type; for instance, numbers, strings and tuples are immutable, while dictionaries and lists are mutable.

Objects are never explicitly destroyed; however, when they become unreachable they may be garbage-collected. An implementation is allowed to postpone garbage collection or omit it altogether — it is a matter of implementation quality how garbage collection is implemented, as long as no objects are collected that are still reachable. (Implementation note: the current implementation uses a reference-counting scheme with (optional) delayed detection of cyclically linked garbage, which collects most objects as soon as they become unreachable, but is not guaranteed to collect garbage containing circular references. See the [Python Library Reference] for information on controlling the collection of cyclic garbage.)

Note that the use of the implementation’s tracing or debugging facilities may keep objects alive that would normally be collectable. Also note that catching an exception with a try-except statement may keep objects alive.

Some objects contain references to external resources such as open files or windows. It is understood that these resources are freed when the object is garbage-collected, but since garbage collection is not guaranteed to happen, such objects also provide an explicit way to release the external resource, usually a close() method. Programs are strongly recommended to explicitly close such objects. The try-finally statement provides a convenient way to do this.

Some objects contain references to other objects; these are called containers. Examples of containers are tuples, lists and dictionaries. The references are part of a container’s value. In most cases, when we talk about the value of a container, we imply the values, not the identities of the contained objects; however, when we talk about the mutability of a container, only the identities of the immediately contained objects are implied. So, if an immutable container (like a tuple) contains a reference to a mutable object, its value changes if that mutable object is changed.

Types affect almost all aspects of object behavior. Even the importance of object identity is affected in some sense: for immutable types, operations that compute new values may actually return a reference to any existing object with the same type and value, while for mutable objects this is not allowed. E.g., after “a = 1; b = 1”, a and b may or may not refer to the same object with the value one, depending on the implementation, but after “c = []; d = []”, c and d are guaranteed to refer to two different, unique, newly created empty lists. (Note that “c = d = []” assigns the same object to both c and d.)