What is the meaning of a single and a double underscore before an object name?


Question

Can someone please explain the exact meaning of having leading underscores before an object's name in Python? Also, explain the difference between a single and a double leading underscore. Also, does that meaning stay the same whether the object in question is a variable, a function, a method, etc.?

1
1160
3/27/2019 2:24:22 PM

Accepted Answer

Single Underscore

Names, in a class, with a leading underscore are simply to indicate to other programmers that the attribute or method is intended to be private. However, nothing special is done with the name itself.

To quote PEP-8:

_single_leading_underscore: weak "internal use" indicator. E.g. from M import * does not import objects whose name starts with an underscore.

Double Underscore (Name Mangling)

From the Python docs:

Any identifier of the form __spam (at least two leading underscores, at most one trailing underscore) is textually replaced with _classname__spam, where classname is the current class name with leading underscore(s) stripped. This mangling is done without regard to the syntactic position of the identifier, so it can be used to define class-private instance and class variables, methods, variables stored in globals, and even variables stored in instances. private to this class on instances of other classes.

And a warning from the same page:

Name mangling is intended to give classes an easy way to define “private” instance variables and methods, without having to worry about instance variables defined by derived classes, or mucking with instance variables by code outside the class. Note that the mangling rules are designed mostly to avoid accidents; it still is possible for a determined soul to access or modify a variable that is considered private.

Example

>>> class MyClass():
...     def __init__(self):
...             self.__superprivate = "Hello"
...             self._semiprivate = ", world!"
...
>>> mc = MyClass()
>>> print mc.__superprivate
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
AttributeError: myClass instance has no attribute '__superprivate'
>>> print mc._semiprivate
, world!
>>> print mc.__dict__
{'_MyClass__superprivate': 'Hello', '_semiprivate': ', world!'}
1042
10/18/2018 11:25:18 AM

Excellent answers so far but some tidbits are missing. A single leading underscore isn't exactly just a convention: if you use from foobar import *, and module foobar does not define an __all__ list, the names imported from the module do not include those with a leading underscore. Let's say it's mostly a convention, since this case is a pretty obscure corner;-).

The leading-underscore convention is widely used not just for private names, but also for what C++ would call protected ones -- for example, names of methods that are fully intended to be overridden by subclasses (even ones that have to be overridden since in the base class they raise NotImplementedError!-) are often single-leading-underscore names to indicate to code using instances of that class (or subclasses) that said methods are not meant to be called directly.

For example, to make a thread-safe queue with a different queueing discipline than FIFO, one imports Queue, subclasses Queue.Queue, and overrides such methods as _get and _put; "client code" never calls those ("hook") methods, but rather the ("organizing") public methods such as put and get (this is known as the Template Method design pattern -- see e.g. here for an interesting presentation based on a video of a talk of mine on the subject, with the addition of synopses of the transcript).


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