if statement – Why does python use else after for and while loops?

if statement – Why does python use else after for and while loops?

A common construct is to run a loop until something is found and then to break out of the loop. The problem is that if I break out of the loop or the loop ends I need to determine which case happened. One method is to create a flag or store variable that will let me do a second test to see how the loop was exited.

For example assume that I need to search through a list and process each item until a flag item is found and then stop processing. If the flag item is missing then an exception needs to be raised.

Using the Python forelse construct you have

for i in mylist:
    if i == theflag:
        break
    process(i)
else:
    raise ValueError(List argument missing terminal flag.)

Compare this to a method that does not use this syntactic sugar:

flagfound = False
for i in mylist:
    if i == theflag:
        flagfound = True
        break
    process(i)

if not flagfound:
    raise ValueError(List argument missing terminal flag.)

In the first case the raise is bound tightly to the for loop it works with. In the second the binding is not as strong and errors may be introduced during maintenance.

Its a strange construct even to seasoned Python coders. When used in conjunction with for-loops it basically means find some item in the iterable, else if none was found do …. As in:

found_obj = None
for obj in objects:
    if obj.key == search_key:
        found_obj = obj
        break
else:
    print(No object found.)

But anytime you see this construct, a better alternative is to either encapsulate the search in a function:

def find_obj(search_key):
    for obj in objects:
        if obj.key == search_key:
            return obj

Or use a list comprehension:

matching_objs = [o for o in objects if o.key == search_key]
if matching_objs:
    print(Found {}.format(matching_objs[0]))
else:
    print(No object found.)

It is not semantically equivalent to the other two versions, but works good enough in non-performance critical code where it doesnt matter whether you iterate the whole list or not. Others may disagree, but I personally would avoid ever using the for-else or while-else blocks in production code.

See also [Python-ideas] Summary of for…else threads

if statement – Why does python use else after for and while loops?

Theres an excellent presentation by Raymond Hettinger, titled Transforming Code into Beautiful, Idiomatic Python, in which he briefly addresses the history of the for ... else construct. The relevant section is Distinguishing multiple exit points in loops starting at 15:50 and continuing for about three minutes. Here are the high points:

  • The for ... else construct was devised by Donald Knuth as a replacement for certain GOTO use cases;
  • Reusing the else keyword made sense because its what Knuth used, and people knew, at that time, all [for statements] had embedded an if and GOTO underneath, and they expected the else;
  • In hindsight, it should have been called no break (or possibly nobreak), and then it wouldnt be confusing.*

So, if the question is, Why dont they change this keyword? then Cat Plus Plus probably gave the most accurate answer – at this point, it would be too destructive to existing code to be practical. But if the question youre really asking is why else was reused in the first place, well, apparently it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Personally, I like the compromise of commenting # no break in-line wherever the else could be mistaken, at a glance, as belonging inside the loop. Its reasonably clear and concise. This option gets a brief mention in the summary that Bjorn linked at the end of his answer:

For completeness, I should mention that with a slight change in
syntax, programmers who want this syntax can have it right now:

for item in sequence:
    process(item)
else:  # no break
    suite

* Bonus quote from that part of the video: Just like if we called lambda makefunction, nobody would ask, What does lambda do?

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