Behaviour of increment and decrement operators in Python


Question

I notice that a pre-increment/decrement operator can be applied on a variable (like ++count). It compiles, but it does not actually change the value of the variable!

What is the behavior of the pre-increment/decrement operators (++/--) in Python?

Why does Python deviate from the behavior of these operators seen in C/C++?

1
725
12/3/2014 1:17:02 PM

Accepted Answer

++ is not an operator. It is two + operators. The + operator is the identity operator, which does nothing. (Clarification: the + and - unary operators only work on numbers, but I presume that you wouldn't expect a hypothetical ++ operator to work on strings.)

++count

Parses as

+(+count)

Which translates to

count

You have to use the slightly longer += operator to do what you want to do:

count += 1

I suspect the ++ and -- operators were left out for consistency and simplicity. I don't know the exact argument Guido van Rossum gave for the decision, but I can imagine a few arguments:

  • Simpler parsing. Technically, parsing ++count is ambiguous, as it could be +, +, count (two unary + operators) just as easily as it could be ++, count (one unary ++ operator). It's not a significant syntactic ambiguity, but it does exist.
  • Simpler language. ++ is nothing more than a synonym for += 1. It was a shorthand invented because C compilers were stupid and didn't know how to optimize a += 1 into the inc instruction most computers have. In this day of optimizing compilers and bytecode interpreted languages, adding operators to a language to allow programmers to optimize their code is usually frowned upon, especially in a language like Python that is designed to be consistent and readable.
  • Confusing side-effects. One common newbie error in languages with ++ operators is mixing up the differences (both in precedence and in return value) between the pre- and post-increment/decrement operators, and Python likes to eliminate language "gotcha"-s. The precedence issues of pre-/post-increment in C are pretty hairy, and incredibly easy to mess up.
947
5/24/2018 3:00:26 PM

When you want to increment or decrement, you typically want to do that on an integer. Like so:

b++

But in Python, integers are immutable. That is you can't change them. This is because the integer objects can be used under several names. Try this:

>>> b = 5
>>> a = 5
>>> id(a)
162334512
>>> id(b)
162334512
>>> a is b
True

a and b above are actually the same object. If you incremented a, you would also increment b. That's not what you want. So you have to reassign. Like this:

b = b + 1

Or simpler:

b += 1

Which will reassign b to b+1. That is not an increment operator, because it does not increment b, it reassigns it.

In short: Python behaves differently here, because it is not C, and is not a low level wrapper around machine code, but a high-level dynamic language, where increments don't make sense, and also are not as necessary as in C, where you use them every time you have a loop, for example.


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