Exercise 39: Dictionaries, Oh Lovely Dictionaries
You are now going to learn about the Dictionary data structure in Python. A Dictionary (or "dict") is a way to store data just like a list, but instead of using only numbers to get the data, you can use almost anything. This lets you treat a dict like it's a database for storing and organizing data.
Let's compare what can dicts can do to what lists can do. You see, an list lets you do this:
You can use numbers to "index" into a list, meaning you can use numbers to find out what's in lists. You should know this about lists by now, but make sure you understand that you can only use numbers to get items out of a list.
What a dict does is let you use anything, not just numbers. Yes, a dict associates one thing to another, no matter what it is. Take a look:
You will see that instead of just numbers we're using strings to say what we want from the stuff dictionary. We can also put new things into the dictionary with strings. It doesn't have to be strings though. We can also do this:
In this code I used numbers, and then you can see there are numbers and strings as keys in the dict when I print it. I could use anything. Well, almost but just pretend you can use anything for now.
Of course, a dictionary that you can only put things in is pretty stupid, so here's how you delete things, with the del keyword:
A Dictionary Example
We'll now do an exercise that you must study very carefully. I want you to type this code in and try to understand what's going on. Take note of when you put things in a dict, get from a hash, and all the operations you use. Notice how this example is mapping states to their abbreviations, and then the abbreviations to cities in the states. Remember, "mapping" or "associating" is the key concept in a dictionary.
What You Should See
$ python ex39.py ---------- NY State has: New York OR State has: Portland ---------- Michigan's abbreviation is: MI Florida's abbreviation is: FL ---------- Michigan has: Detroit Florida has: Jacksonville ---------- California is abbreviated CA Michigan is abbreviated MI New York is abbreviated NY Florida is abbreviated FL Oregon is abbreviated OR ---------- FL has the city Jacksonville CA has the city San Francisco MI has the city Detroit OR has the city Portland NY has the city New York ---------- California state is abbreviated CA and has city San Francisco Michigan state is abbreviated MI and has city Detroit New York state is abbreviated NY and has city New York Florida state is abbreviated FL and has city Jacksonville Oregon state is abbreviated OR and has city Portland ---------- Sorry, no Texas. The city for the state 'TX' is: Does Not Exist
What Dictionaries Can Do
Dictionaries are another example of a data structure, and like lists they are one of the most commonly used data structures in programming. A dictionary is used to map or associate things you want to store to keys you need to get them. Again, programmers don't use a term like "dictionary" for something that doesn't work like an actual dictionary full of words, so let's use that as our real world example.
Let's say you want to find out what the word "Honorificabilitudinitatibus" means. Today you would simply copy-paste that word into a search engine and then find out the answer, and we could say a search engine is like a really huge super complex version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Before search engines what you would do is this:
- Go to your library and get "the dictionary". Let's say it's the OED.
- You know "honorificabilitudinitatibus" starts with the letter 'H' so you look on the side of the book for the little tab that has 'H' on it.
- Then you'd skim the pages until you are close to where "hon" started.
- Then you'd skim a few more pages until you found "honorificabilitudinitatibus" or hit the beginning of the "hp" words and realize this word isn't in the OED.
- Once you found the entry, you'd read the definition to figure out what it means.
This process is nearly exactly the way a dict works, and you are basically "mapping" the word "honorificabilitudinitatibus" to its definition. A dict in Python is just like a dictionary in the real world like the OED.
- Do this same kind of mapping with cities and states/regions in your country or some other country.
- Find the Python documentation for dictionaries and try to do even more things to them.
- Find out what you can't do with dictionaries. A big one is that they do not have order, so try playing with that.
Common Student Questions
- What is the difference between a list and a dictionary?
- A list is for an ordered list of items. A dictionary (or dict) is for matching some items (called "keys") to other items (called "values").
- What would I use a dictionary for?
- When you have to take one value and "look up" another value. In fact you could call dictionaries "look up tables."
- What would I use a list for?
- Use a list for any sequence of things that need to be in order, and you only need to look them up by a numeric index.
- What if I need a dictionary, but I need it to be in order?
- Take a look at the collections.OrderedDict data structure in Python. Search for it online to find the documentation.