Why are Python lambdas useful?


Question

I'm trying to figure out Python lambdas. Is lambda one of those "interesting" language items that in real life should be forgotten?

I'm sure there are some edge cases where it might be needed, but given the obscurity of it, the potential of it being redefined in future releases (my assumption based on the various definitions of it) and the reduced coding clarity - should it be avoided?

This reminds me of overflowing (buffer overflow) of C types - pointing to the top variable and overloading to set the other field values. It feels like sort of a techie showmanship but maintenance coder nightmare.

1
895
1/21/2017 8:57:52 PM

Accepted Answer

Are you talking about lambda functions? Like

lambda x: x**2 + 2*x - 5

Those things are actually quite useful. Python supports a style of programming called functional programming where you can pass functions to other functions to do stuff. Example:

mult3 = filter(lambda x: x % 3 == 0, [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9])

sets mult3 to [3, 6, 9], those elements of the original list that are multiples of 3. This is shorter (and, one could argue, clearer) than

def filterfunc(x):
    return x % 3 == 0
mult3 = filter(filterfunc, [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9])

Of course, in this particular case, you could do the same thing as a list comprehension:

mult3 = [x for x in [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9] if x % 3 == 0]

(or even as range(3,10,3)), but there are many other, more sophisticated use cases where you can't use a list comprehension and a lambda function may be the shortest way to write something out.

  • Returning a function from another function

    >>> def transform(n):
    ...     return lambda x: x + n
    ...
    >>> f = transform(3)
    >>> f(4)
    7
    

    This is often used to create function wrappers, such as Python's decorators.

  • Combining elements of an iterable sequence with reduce()

    >>> reduce(lambda a, b: '{}, {}'.format(a, b), [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9])
    '1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9'
    
  • Sorting by an alternate key

    >>> sorted([1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9], key=lambda x: abs(5-x))
    [5, 4, 6, 3, 7, 2, 8, 1, 9]
    

I use lambda functions on a regular basis. It took me a while to get used to them, but eventually I came to understand that they're a very valuable part of the language.

973
12/6/2016 11:26:54 AM

lambda is just a fancy way of saying function. Other than its name, there is nothing obscure, intimidating or cryptic about it. When you read the following line, replace lambda by function in your mind:

>>> f = lambda x: x + 1
>>> f(3)
4

It just defines a function of x. Some other languages, like R, say it explicitly:

> f = function(x) { x + 1 }
> f(3)
4

You see? It's one of the most natural things to do in programming.


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