riddle = {
	"question": "answer",
	"truth": None,

x = riddle.get("truth", False)

What is x?


There comes a time in every programmer’s life where she feels like a program or language is “out to get her”. This is what I eventually came to recognize as a gotcha, or “a feature of a system, a program or a programming language that works in the way it is documented but is counter-intuitive and almost invites mistakes”.

I was recently gotten by a Python convenience function, dict.get(key[, default]), which you might use if you’re working with dictionaries. Let’s make sure it doesn’t get you, too!

The Dictionary

Python has a useful data structure, the dictionary, which is “best [thought of] as an unordered set of key:value pairs”. The cool thing about dictionaries is that they associate almost any one thing to another (whereas a list only associated an index with a value – see Learn Python the Hard Way). With a dictionary, you can store a value with a key, extract a value with a key, or delete a value with a key.

Let’s store a few values to a few keys.

opposites = {
	"Happy": "Sad",
	True: False,
	42: 666

You can add values

opposites["Red"] = "Blue"

and get them with the same subscript syntax.

> "Blue"

What happens when we try to get the value for a key that doesn’t exist?

> Traceback (most recent call last):
> KeyError: "Blue"

There are some cases where, instead of a KeyError, we have a default value for keys that are missing from a dictionary. That’s where get comes in handy.

dict.get(key[, default]))

Return the value for key if key is in the dictionary, else default. If default is not given, it defaults to None, so that this method never raises a KeyError. The Python Standard Library

Let’s say we have a dictionary to keep track of animal sightings. This dictionary has animal names as keys and an integer value for number of sightings.

sightings = {
	"Bear": 3,
	"Cat": 5,
	"Panda": 1,

We want to check whether there have been sightings of the fabled Front-Facing Baby Chick (🐥) lately, but we’re not sure that it’s been stored in the dictionary as a key. We also know that if Front-Facing Baby Chick isn’t a key in the dictionary, we should assume that it has been sighted 0 times.

This is where we use get.

baby_chick_sightings = sightings.get('Front-Facing Baby Chick', 0)

> 0

Awesome! Now we can get a default value from a key instead of a KeyError. This is also much more readable than:

	baby_chick_sightings = sightings['Front-Facing Baby Chick']
except KeyError:
	baby_chick_sightings = 0


baby_chick_sightings = sightings.get('Front-Facing Baby Chick')
if baby_chick_sightings:
	// do something with baby_chick_sightings

Here’s Where They Get You

Your Pythonista friend, Alice, thought she saw a Front-Facing Baby Chick (🐥) but then realized it was a run of the mill Baby Chick (🐤), and she thought that her mistake probably invalidated everyone else’s sightings, too.2 This is how she chose to record it.

sightings["Front-Facing Baby Chick"] = sightings.get("Front-Facing Baby Chick", 0) + 1
sightings["Front-Facing Baby Chick"] = None
sightings["Baby Chick"] = sightings.get("Baby Chick", 0) + 1

	"Bear": 3,
	"Cat": 5,
	"Panda": 1,
	"Front-Facing Baby Chick": None
	"Baby Chick": 1,

What do you think happens now?

Hypothesis: get tries to find the value associated with Front-Facing Baby Chick, and since the value is None, it uses the default value passed in as a parameter, 0.

baby_chick_sightings = sightings.get('Front-Facing Baby Chick', 0)
> None

Not 0, but None. Why?

Under the covers, the implementation of get might look something like this:

def get(dictionary, key, default=None):
        return dictionary[key]
    except KeyError: 
        return default


def get(dictionary, key, default=None):
        value = dictionary[key]
        if not value:
        	return default
    except KeyError: 
        return default

Which makes sense. If you call dict.get("Front-Facing Baby Chick", False), we don’t get a KeyError – we get None, which was a value in the dictionary. Getting a value None associated with a key is different from the key not being in the dictionary, and get does exactly what the docs say: “return the value for key if key is in the dictionary”.

So next time you try to specify a default, non-None value for a key that might be in a dictionary, remember that getting None back will still be possible.

Don’t let them get you 🐥.

Is there ever a reason to set a key’s value to None in a dictionary?
What are your favorite gotchas to watch out for?

  1. X = None 

  2. While Alice decided that her mistake invalidated Front-Facing Baby Chick sightings, she didn’t then attribute the sightings of Front-Facing Baby Chick to sightings of the regular Baby Chick. She just chose to set one key to None. This is mainly a thought exercise, and hopefully you will not encounter Pythonista friends who set keys to None.

    Instead of storing a value, None, to a key, Alice probably should have decremented the value by 1 or deleted the key.