On this page:
9.2.1 Creating and Using a Dictionary
9.2.2 Searching Through the Values in a Dictionary
9.2.3 Dictionaries with More Complex Values
9.2.4 Dictionaries versus Dataclasses

9.2 Dictionaries

    9.2.1 Creating and Using a Dictionary

    9.2.2 Searching Through the Values in a Dictionary

    9.2.3 Dictionaries with More Complex Values

    9.2.4 Dictionaries versus Dataclasses


So far, we have seen several ways to process sequential data such as lists. In each of Pyret and Python, we can use filter and map to perform certain operations that yield lists. In Pyret, we used recursion to aggregate list data into a single value. In Python, we used for-loops for this task. While we could use recursion or for-loops for filter and map tasks as well, using these named operators makes it easier for someone else to quickly read your code and understand what kind of operation it is performing.

This observation raises a question though: are there other common code patterns that get written with recursion or for-loops that would benefit from specialized handling?

As an example, imagine that we had a dataclass for airline flights. Each flight has its origin and destination cities, the flight code (including the airline name and flight number), and the number of seats on the flight. Imagine also that we have functions to look up the destination and seating capacity of individual flights:

class Flight:
    from_city: str
    to_city: str
    code: str
    seats: int

schedule = [Flight('NYC','PVD','CSA-342',50),

def destination1(for_code: str, flights: list):
   '''get the destination of the flight with the given code'''
   for fl in flights:
      if fl.code == for_code:
          return fl.to_city

def capacity1(for_code: str, flights: list):
   '''get the seating capacity of the flight with the given code'''
   for fl in flights:
      if fl.code == for_code:
          return fl.seats

Do Now!

Look at the similarity between destination1 and capacity1. How might we share the common code between these two functions?

Both destination1 and capacity1 traverse the list of flights looking for the one with the given flight-code, then extract a piece of information from that flight. The for-loop isn’t doing anything other than looking for the desired flight data. This suggests that a find_flight helper could be useful here:

def find_flight(for_code: str, flights: list):
   '''return the flight with the given code'''
   for fl in flights:
      if fl.code == for_code:
          return fl

def destination2(for_code: str, flights: list):
    return find_flight(for_code, flights).to_city

def capacity2(for_code: str, flights: list):
    return find_flight(for_code, flights).seats

Searching for a single element from a list based on a specific piece of information is common in many programs. This is so common, in fact, that languages provide special data structures and operations just to help with this task. In Python, this data structure is called a dictionary (hashmap, hashtable, and associative arrays are names for similar data structures in other languages, though there are key nuances that distinguish all these variations).

9.2.1 Creating and Using a Dictionary

A dictionary maps unique values (called keys) to corresponding pieces of data for each key (called values). Here is our flight example written instead as a dictionary instead of a list:

sched_dict = {'CSA-342': Flight('NYC','PVD','CSA-342',50),
              'CSA-590': Flight('PVD','ORD','CSA-590',50),
              'CSA-723': Flight('NYC','ORD','CSA-723',120),
              'CSA-145': Flight('ORD','DEN','CSA-145',175),
              'CSA-647': Flight('BOS','ORD','CSA-647',80)

The general form of a dictionary is:

{key1: value1,
 key2: value2,
 key3: value3,

Dictionaries are designed to enable easy lookup of values give a key. To get the


associated with key 'CSA-145', we can write simply:


To get the number of seats on flight 'CSA-145', we can simply write:


In other words, the dictionary data structure removes the need to traverse a list to find the Flight with a specific key. The dictionary lookup operation does that work for us. Actually, dictionaries are even more nuanced: depending on how they are designed, dictionaries can retrieve the value for a key without traversing all the values (or even any other value). In general, you can assume that dictionary-based lookup is significantly faster than a list-based one. How this works is a more advanced topic; some of this content is explained in [SECREF].

One limitation of dictionaries is that they allow only one value per key. Let’s consider a different example, this time one that uses rooms in a building as keys and occupants as values:

office_dict = {410: 'Farhan',
               411: 'Pauline',
               412: 'Marisol',
               413: 'Saleh'}

What if someone new moves into office 412? In Python, we can the value for that key as follows:

office_dict[412] = 'Zeynep'

Now, any use of office_dict[412] will evaluate to 'Zeynep' instead of 'Marisol'.

9.2.2 Searching Through the Values in a Dictionary

What if we wanted to find all of the flights with more than 100 seats? For this, we have to search through all of the key-value pairs and check their balances. This again sounds like we need a for-loop. What does that look like on a dictionary though?

Turns out, it looks much like writing a for loop on a list (at least in Python). Here’s a program that creates a list of the flights with more than 100 seats:

above_100 = []

# the room variable takes on each key in the dictionary
for flight_code in sched_dict:
    if sched_dict[flight_code].seats > 100:

Here, the for-loop iterates over the keys. Within the loop, we use each key to retrieve its corresponding Flight, perform the balance check on the Flight, then put the Flight in our running list if it meets our criterion.


Create a dictionary that maps names of classrooms or meeting rooms to the numbers of seats that they have. Write expressions to:

  1. Look up how many seats are in a specific room

  2. Change the capacity of a specific room to have 10 more seats than it did initially

  3. Find all rooms that can seat at least 50 students

9.2.3 Dictionaries with More Complex Values

Do Now!

A track-and-field tournament needs to manage the names of the players on the individual teams that will be competing. For example, “Team Red” has “Shaoming” and “Lijin”, “Team Green” contains “Obi” and ”Chinara”, and “Team Blue” has “Mateo” and “Sophia”. Come up with a way to organize the data that will allow the organizers to easily access the names of the players on each team, keeping in mind that there could be many more teams than just the three listed here.

This feels like a dictionary situation, in that we have a meaningful key (the team name) with which we want to access values (the names of the players). However, we have already said that dictionaries allow only one value per key. Consider the following code:

players = {}
players["Team Red"] = "Shaoming"
players["Team Red"] = "Lijin"

Do Now!

What would be in the dictionary after running this code? If you aren’t sure, try it out!

How do we store multiple player names under the same key? The insight here is that the collection of players, not an individual player, is what we want to associate with the team name. We should therefore store a list of players under each key, as follows:

players = {}
players["Team Red"] = ["Shaoming", "Lijin"]
players["Team Green"] = ["Obi", "Chinara"]
players["Team Blue"] = ["Mateo", "Sophia"]

The values in a dictionary aren’t limited to being basic values. They can be arbitrarily complex, including lists, tables, or even other dictionaries (and more!). There is still only one value per key, which is the requirement of a dictionary.

9.2.4 Dictionaries versus Dataclasses

Previously, we learned about dataclasses as a way to create compound data in Python. Here again is the ToDoItem dataclass that we introduced earlier, as well as an example datum for that class:

class ToDoItem:
    descr: str
    due: date
    tags: list

milk = ToDoItem("buy milk", date(2020, 7, 27), ["shopping", "home"]

One could view the field names in the dataclass as akin to keys in a dictionary. If we did so, we could also capture the milk datum via a dictionary as follows:

milk_dict = {"descr": "buy milk",
             "due": date(2020, 7, 27),
             "tags": ["shopping", "home"]

Do Now!

Create a dictionary to capture the compound datum

ToDoItem("grade hwk", date(2020, 7, 27), ["teaching"])

Do Now!

Create a to-do list named myTD_D that contains a list of dictionaries, rather than a list of dataclasses.

Putting these two approaches side-by-side, here’s the contrast:

myTD_L = [ToDoItem("buy milk", date(2020, 7, 27), ["shopping", "home"]),
          ToDoItem("grade hwk", date(2020, 7, 27), ["teaching"]),
          ToDoItem("meet students", date(2020, 7, 26), ["research"])

myTD_D = [milk_dict,
          {"descr": "grade hwk",
           "due": date(2020, 7, 27),
           "tags": ["teaching"]
          {"descr": "meet students",
           "due": date(2020, 7, 26),
           "tags": ["research"]

Do Now!

What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of each of dataclasses and dictionaries to represent compound data?

Dataclasses have a fixed number of fields, while directories allow arbitrary numbers of keys. Dataclass fields can be annotated with types (which most languages will check when you make new data); dictionaries can use fixed types for each of keys and values, though this gets restrictive when using dictionaries to capture dataclasses with fields of different types. Dataclasses give you a function name for creating new data, whereas with dictionaries you’d have to create such a function on your own.

Overall, dataclasses come with more linguistic support for error checking: you can’t supply data for the wrong number of fields or field values of the wrong type. Dictionaries are more flexible: you can support optional fields more easily, including adding new fields/keys as a program runs. Each of these makes more sense in some programming situations.

Do Now!

Write a function ToDoItem_D that takes a description, due date, and list of tags and returns a dictionary with keys for each field of a to-do item.


Python programmers tend to make substantial use of dictionaries. In this chapter, we’ve seen dictionaries used in two different settings:

As a general rule, it is better to use dataclasses for the second setting when you have a fixed set of fields. The use of dictionaries for dataclasses is somewhat associated with programming practices in the Python community (less so in other languages). The first setting, however, is a common use of dictionaries in nearly all languages, especially since dictionaries are usually built to provide fast access to the data associated with a specific key.