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Why do Python lists let you += a tuple, when you can’t + a tuple?

Let’s say you have a list in Python:

>>> mylist = [10, 20, 30]

You want to add something to that list. The most standard way to do this is with the “append” method, which adds its argument to the end of the list:

>>> mylist.append(40)
>>> print(mylist)
[10, 20, 30, 40]

But what if you want to add multiple items to a list? If you’re new to Python, then you might think that you can and should use a “for” loop. For example:

>>> mylist = [10, 20, 30]
>>> new_items = [40, 50, 60]
>>> for one_item in new_items:
        mylist.append(one_item)
>>> print(mylist)
[10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60]

Great, right? But it turns out that there is a smarter and faster way to do this. You can use the += operator. This operator, which invokes the “iadd” (“inplace add”) method on the object to its left, effectively does what we did above, but in much less code:

>>> mylist = [10, 20, 30]
>>> new_items = [40, 50, 60]
>>> mylist += new_items
>>> print(mylist)
[10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60]

It’s not a huge surprise that += can do this. After all, we normally expect += to add and assign to the variable on its left; it works with numbers and strings, as well as other types. And we know that we can use the + operator on lists, too:

>>> [1, 2, 3] + [4, 5, 6]
[1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

Can we join a list and a tuple? Let’s check:

>>> mylist = [10, 20, 30]
>>> t = (40, 50, 60)
>>> mylist + t
Traceback (most recent call last):
File "", line 1, in 
TypeError: can only concatenate list (not "tuple") to list

In other words: No. Trying to add a list and a tuple, even if we’re not affecting either, results in the above error.

Which is why it’s so surprising to many of my students that the following does work:

>>> mylist = [10, 20, 30]
>>> t = (40, 50, 60)
>>> mylist += t
>>> mylist
[10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60]         

That’s right: Adding a list to a tuple with + doesn’t work. But if we use +=, it does.

What gives?

It’s common, when teaching Python, to say that

x += 5

is basically a rewrite of

x = x + 5

And in the majority of cases, that’s actually true. But it’s not always true.

Consider: When you say “x + y” in Python, the “+” operator is translated into a method call. Behind the scenes, no matter what “x” and “y” are, the expression is translated into:

x.__add__(y)

The “__add__” magic method is what’s invoked on an object when it is added to another object. The object on the right-hand side of the “+” is passed as an argument to the method, while the object on the left-hand side is the recipient of the method call. That’s why, if you want your own objects to handle the “+” operator, you need to define the “__add__” method in your class definition. Do that, and things work just fine.

And thus, when we say “x = x + 5”, this is turned into

x = x.__add__(5)

Meaning: First invoke the method, and then assign it back to the variable “x”. In this case, “x” isn’t changing; rather, the variable is now referencing a new object.

Now consider the “+=” operator: It’s translated by Python into “__iadd__”, short for “inplace add.” Notice the slightly different syntax that we use here:

x += y

is translated into

x.__iadd__(y)

Did you see the difference between __add__ and __iadd__? The latter executes the assignment all by itself, internally. You don’t have to capture its output and assign it back to x.

It turns out that the implementation of list.__iadd__ takes the second (right-hand side) argument and adds it, one element at a time, to the list. It does this internally, so that you don’t need to execute any assignment after. The second argument to “+=” must be iterable; if you say

mylist += 5

you will get an error, saying that integers are not iterable. But if you put a string, list, tuple, or any other iterable type on the right-hand side, “+=” will execute a “for” loop on that object, adding each of its elements, one at a time, to the list.

In other words: When you use + on a list, then the right-hand object must be a list. But when you use +=, then any iterable type is acceptable:

>>> mylist = [10, 20, 30]
>>> mylist += [40, 50]       # list
>>> mylist
[10, 20, 30, 40, 50]

>>> mylist += (60, 70)       # tuple
>>> mylist
[10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70]

>>> mylist += 'abc'          # string
>>> mylist
[10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 'a', 'b', 'c']

>>> mylist += {'x':1, 'y':2, 'z':3}    # dict!
>>> mylist
[10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 'a', 'b', 'c', 'x', 'y', 'z']

Does this work with other types? Not really. For example:

>>> t = (10, 20, 30)
>>> t += [40, 50]
Traceback (most recent call last):
File "", line 1, in 
TypeError: can only concatenate tuple (not "list") to tuple         

What happened here? Let’s check the definition of tuple.__iadd__ to find out:

>>> help(tuple.__iadd__)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "", line 1, in 
AttributeError: type object 'tuple' has no attribute '__iadd__'

Wait a second: There is no “__iadd__” method for tuples? If so, then how can “+=” work at all?

Because Python tries to be smart in such cases: If the object implements “__iadd__”, then the “+=” operator invokes it. But if the object lacks an “__iadd__” implementation, then Python does what we all guess it normally does — namely, invoke “__add__”, and then assign the results back to the variable. For example:

>>> class Foo(object):
        def __init__(self, x):
            self.x = x
        def __add__(self, other):
            print("In __add__")
            return Foo(self.x + other.x)

>>> f1 = Foo(10)
>>> f2 = Foo(20)
>>> f1 += f2
In __add__
>>> vars(f1)
{'x': 30}         

In other words, Python notices that our Foo class lacks an implementation of “__iadd__”, and substitutes “__add__” for it, assigning its result (a new instance of Foo) to the original variable.

But if we add (so to speak) the right method, then it’s invoked:

>>> class Foo(object):
        def __init__(self, x):
            self.x = x
        def __add__(self, other):
            print("In __add__")
            return Foo(self.x + other.x)
        def __iadd__(self, other):
            print("In __iadd__")
            self.x = self.x + other.x
            return self         
>>> f1 = Foo(10)
>>> f2 = Foo(20)
>>> f1 += f2
In __iadd__
>>> vars(f1)
{'x': 30}         

In the case of Python lists, __iadd__ was implemented such that it doesn’t just add “other.x” to its own value, but that it iterates over each element of “other.x” in a “for” loop. And thus, while “__add__” with a tuple won’t work, “__iadd__” with just about every iterable data types will.

  • vav says:

    list().extend(iterable) let you add elements without explicit loop

    • reuven says:

      True, list.extend is almost the same thing as +=. (I say “almost,” because it doesn’t use __iadd__. But it has almost precisely the same effect.)

      There are some very small, subtle differences between += and list.extend. For example:


      >>> t = ([10, 20, 30], [100, 200, 300])
      >>> t[0].extend([40, 50, 60]) # works
      >>> t[0] += [70, 80, 90] # error message... but works

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