Strings are not like integers, floats, and Booleans. A string is a sequence, which means it is an ordered collection of other values. In this chapter you’ll see how to access the characters that make up a string, and you’ll learn about some of the methods strings provide.
A String is a Sequence
A string is a sequence of characters. You can access the characters one at a time with the bracket operator:
>>> fruit = 'banana' >>> letter = fruit
The second statement selects character number 1 from
fruit and assigns it to
The expression in brackets is called an index. The index indicates which character in the sequence you want (hence the name).
But you might not get what you expect:
>>> letter 'a'
For most people, the first letter of
a. But for computer scientists, the index is an offset from the beginning of the string, and the offset of the first letter is zero.
>>> letter = fruit >>> letter 'b'
b is the 0th letter (“zero-eth”) of
a is the 1th letter (“one-eth”), and
n is the 2th letter (“two-eth”).
As an index you can use an expression that contains variables and operators:
>>> i = 1 >>> fruit[i] 'a' >>> fruit[i+1] 'n'
But the value of the index has to be an integer. Otherwise you get:
>>> letter = fruit[1.5] TypeError: string indices must be integers
len is a built-in function that returns the number of characters in a string:
>>> fruit = 'banana' >>> len(fruit) 6
To get the last letter of a string, you might be tempted to try something like this:
>>> length = len(fruit) >>> last = fruit[length] IndexError: string index out of range
The reason for the
IndexError is that there is no letter in
'banana' with the index 6. Since we started counting at zero, the six letters are numbered 0 to 5. To get the last character, you have to subtract 1 from length:
>>> last = fruit[length-1] >>> last 'a'
Or you can use negative indices, which count backward from the end of the string. The expression
fruit[-1] yields the last letter,
fruit[-2] yields the second to last, and so on.
Traversal with a
A lot of computations involve processing a string one character at a time. Often they start at the beginning, select each character in turn, do something to it, and continue until the end. This pattern of processing is called a traversal. One way to write a traversal is with a
index = 0 while index < len(fruit): letter = fruit[index] print(letter) index = index + 1
This loop traverses the string and displays each letter on a line by itself. The loop condition is
index < len(fruit), so when
index is equal to the length of the string, the condition is false, and the body of the loop doesn’t run. The last character accessed is the one with the index
len(fruit)-1, which is the last character in the string.
As an exercise, write a function that takes a string as an argument and displays the letters backward, one per line.
Another way to write a traversal is with a
for letter in fruit: print(letter)
Each time through the loop, the next character in the string is assigned to the variable
letter. The loop continues until no characters are left.
The following example shows how to use concatenation (string addition) and a
for loop to generate an abecedarian series (that is, in alphabetical order). In Robert McCloskey’s book Make Way for Ducklings, the names of the ducklings are Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack. This loop outputs these names in order:
prefixes = 'JKLMNOPQ' suffix = 'ack' for letter in prefixes: print(letter + suffix)
The output is:
Jack Kack Lack Mack Nack Oack Pack Qack
Of course, that’s not quite right because
"Quack" are misspelled. As an exercise, modify the program to fix this error.
A segment of a string is called a slice. Selecting a slice is similar to selecting a character:
>>> s = 'Monty Python' >>> s[0:5] 'Monty' >>> s[6:12] 'Python'
[n:m] returns the part of the string from the “n-eth” character to the “m-eth” character, including the first but excluding the last. This behavior is counterintuitive, but it might help to imagine the indices pointing between the characters, as in the figure below.
If you omit the first index (before the colon), the slice starts at the beginning of the string. If you omit the second index, the slice goes to the end of the string:
>>> fruit = 'banana' >>> fruit[:3] 'ban' >>> fruit[3:] 'ana'
If the first index is greater than or equal to the second the result is an empty string, represented by two quotation marks:
>>> fruit = 'banana' >>> fruit[3:3] ''
An empty string contains no characters and has length 0, but other than that, it is the same as any other string.
Continuing this example, what do you think
fruit[:] means? Try it and see.
Strings are Immutable
It is tempting to use the
 operator on the left side of an assignment, with the intention of changing a character in a string. For example:
>>> greeting = 'Hello, world!' >>> greeting = 'J' TypeError: 'str' object does not support item assignment
The “object” in this case is the string and the “item” is the character you tried to assign. For now, an object is the same thing as a value, but we will refine that definition in a later reading.
The reason for the error is that strings are immutable, which means you can’t change an existing string. The best you can do is create a new string that is a variation on the original:
>>> greeting = 'Hello, world!' >>> new_greeting = 'J' + greeting[1:] >>> new_greeting 'Jello, world!'
This example concatenates a new first letter onto a slice of
greeting. It has no effect on the original string.
What does the following function do?
def find(word, letter): index = 0 while index < len(word): if word[index] == letter: return index index = index + 1 return -1
In a sense,
find is the inverse of the
 operator. Instead of taking an index and extracting the corresponding character, it takes a character and finds the index where that character appears. If the character is not found, the function returns -1.
This is the first example we have seen of a return
statement inside a loop. If
word[index] == letter, the function breaks out of the loop and returns immediately.
If the character doesn’t appear in the string, the program exits the loop normally and returns -1.
This pattern of computation—traversing a sequence and returning when we find what we are looking for—is called a search.
As an exercise, modify
find so that it has a third parameter, the index in
word where it should start looking.
Looping and Counting
The following program counts the number of times the letter
a appears in a string:
word = 'banana' count = 0 for letter in word: if letter == 'a': count = count + 1 print(count)
This program demonstrates another pattern of computation called a counter. The variable
count is initialized to 0 and then incremented each time an
a is found. When the loop exits,
count contains the result—the total number of
As an exercise, encapsulate this code in a function named
count, and generalize it so that it accepts the string and the letter as arguments.
Then rewrite the function so that instead of traversing the string, it uses the three-parameter version of
find from the previous section.
Strings provide methods that perform a variety of useful operations. A method is similar to a function—it takes arguments and returns a value—but the syntax is different. For example, the method
upper takes a string and returns a new string with all uppercase letters.
Instead of the function syntax
upper(word), it uses the method syntax
>>> word = 'banana' >>> new_word = word.upper() >>> new_word 'BANANA'
This form of dot notation specifies the name of the method,
upper, and the name of the string to apply the method to,
word. The empty parentheses indicate that this method takes no arguments.
A method call is called an invocation; in this case, we would say that we are invoking
As it turns out, there is a string method named
find that is remarkably similar to the function we wrote:
>>> word = 'banana' >>> index = word.find('a') >>> index 1
In this example, we invoke
word and pass the letter we are looking for as a parameter.
find method is more general than our function; it can find substrings, not just characters:
>>> word.find('na') 2
find starts at the beginning of the string, but it can take a second argument, the index where it should start:
>>> word.find('na', 3) 4
This is an example of an optional argument;
find can also take a third argument, the index where it should stop:
>>> name = 'bob' >>> name.find('b', 1, 2) -1
This search fails because
b does not appear in the index range from 1 to 2, not including 2. Searching up to, but not including, the second index makes
find consistent with the slice operator.
in is a Boolean operator that takes two strings and returns
True if the first appears as a substring in the second:
>>> 'a' in 'banana' True >>> 'seed' in 'banana' False
For example, the following function prints all the letters from
word1 that also appear in
def in_both(word1, word2): for letter in word1: if letter in word2: print(letter)
With well-chosen variable names, Python sometimes reads like English. You could read this loop, “for (each) letter in (the first) word, if (the) letter (appears) in (the second) word, print (the) letter.”
Here’s what you get if you compare apples and oranges:
>>> in_both('apples', 'oranges') a e s
The relational operators work on strings. To see if two strings are equal:
if word == 'banana': print('All right, bananas.')
Other relational operations are useful for putting words in alphabetical order:
if word < 'banana': print('Your word, ' + word + ', comes before banana.') elif word > 'banana': print('Your word, ' + word + ', comes after banana.') else: print('All right, bananas.')
Python does not handle uppercase and lowercase letters the same way people do. All the uppercase letters come before all the lowercase letters, so:
Your word, Pineapple, comes before banana.
A common way to address this problem is to convert strings to a standard format, such as all lowercase, before performing the comparison. Keep that in mind in case you have to defend yourself against a man armed with a Pineapple.
When you use indices to traverse the values in a sequence, it is tricky to get the beginning and end of the traversal right. Here is a function that is supposed to compare two words and return
True if one of the words is the reverse of the other, but it contains two errors:
def is_reverse(word1, word2): if len(word1) != len(word2): return False i = 0 j = len(word2) while j > 0: if word1[i] != word2[j]: return False i = i+1 j = j-1 return True
if statement checks whether the words are the same length. If not, we can return
False immediately. Otherwise, for the rest of the function, we can assume that the words are the same length.
j are indices:
word1 forward while
word2 backward. If we find two letters that don’t match, we can return
False immediately. If we get through the whole loop and all the letters match, we return
If we test this function with the words
"stop", we expect the return value
True, but we get an
>>> is_reverse('pots', 'stop') ... File "reverse.py", line 15, in is_reverse if word1[i] != word2[j]: IndexError: string index out of range
For debugging this kind of error, my first move is to print the values of the indices immediately before the line where the error appears.
while j > 0: print(i, j) # print here if word1[i] != word2[j]: return False i = i+1 j = j-1
Now when I run the program again, I get more information:
>>> is_reverse('pots', 'stop') 0 4 ... IndexError: string index out of range
The first time through the loop, the value of
j is 4, which is out of range for the string ‘pots’. The index of the last character is 3, so the initial value for
j should be
If I fix that error and run the program again, I get:
>>> is_reverse('pots', 'stop') 0 3 1 2 2 1 True
This time we get the right answer, but it looks like the loop only ran three times, which is suspicious. To get a better idea of what is happening, it is useful to draw a state diagram. During the first iteration, the frame for
is_reverse is shown below.
I took some license by arranging the variables in the frame and adding dotted lines to show that the values of
j indicate characters in
Starting with this diagram, run the program on paper, changing the values of
j during each iteration. Find and fix the second error in this function.
- Something a variable can refer to. For now, you can use “object” and “value” interchangeably.
- An ordered collection of values where each value is identified by an integer index.
- One of the values in a sequence.
- An integer value used to select an item in a sequence, such as a character in a string. In Python indices start from 0.
- A part of a string specified by a range of indices.
- empty string
- A string with no characters and length 0, represented by two quotation marks.
- The property of a sequence whose items cannot be changed.
- To iterate through the items in a sequence, performing a similar operation on each.
- A pattern of traversal that stops when it finds what it is looking for.
- A variable used to count something, usually initialized to zero and then incremented.
- A statement that calls a method.
- optional argument
- A function or method argument that is not required.
Read the string method documentation. You might want to experiment with some of them to make sure you understand how they work.
Note: The documentation uses a syntax that might be confusing. For example, in
find(sub[, start[, end]]), the brackets indicate optional arguments. So
sub is required, but
start is optional, and if you include
end is optional.
Using the documentation, answer the following questions:
- What does the
- What does the
There is a string method called
count that is similar to the function we saw earlier. Read the documentation of this method and write an invocation that counts the number of
The following functions are all intended to check whether a string contains any lowercase letters, but at least some of them are wrong. For each function, describe what the function actually does (assuming that the parameter is a string).
def any_lowercase1(s): for c in s: if c.islower(): return True else: return False def any_lowercase2(s): for c in s: if 'c'.islower(): return 'True' else: return 'False' def any_lowercase3(s): for c in s: flag = c.islower() return flag def any_lowercase4(s): flag = False for c in s: flag = flag or c.islower() return flag def any_lowercase5(s): for c in s: if not c.islower(): return False return True
This reading was originally written by Allen Downey in his open source book Think Python 2e. Downey's book is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License, which allows users to copy, modify, and distribute the book.
This reading was modified by Titus H. Klinge in 2021 and presented above under the same license in order to better serve the students of this course.