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Wilfredinni
Wilfredinni

Posted on • Originally published at pythoncheatsheet.org

Python Sets: What, Why and How

Python comes equipped with several built-in data types to help us organize our data. These structures include lists, dictionaries, tuples and sets.

From the Python 3 documentation:

A set is an unordered collection with no duplicate elements. Basic uses include membership testing and eliminating duplicate entries. Set objects also support mathematical operations like union, intersection, difference, and symmetric difference.

In this article, we are going to review and see examples of every one of the elements listed in the above definition. Let's start right away and see how we can create them.

Initializing a Set

There are two ways to create a set: one is to provide the built-in function set() with a list of elements, and the other is to use the curly braces {}.

Initializing a set using the set() built-in function:

>>> s1 = set([1, 2, 3])
>>> s1
{1, 2, 3}
>>> type(s1)
<class 'set'>
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Initializing a set using curly braces {}

>>> s2 = {3, 4, 5}
>>> s2
{3, 4, 5}
>>> type(s2)
<class 'set'>
>>>
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As you can see, both options are valid. The problem comes when what we want is an empty one:

>>> s = {}
>>> type(s)
<class 'dict'>
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That's right, we will get a dictionary instead of a set if we use empty curly braces =)

It's a good moment to mention that for the sake of simplicity, all the examples provided in this article will use single digit integers, but sets can have all the hashable data types that Python support. In other words, integers, strings and tuples, but not mutable items like lists or dictionaries:

>>> s = {1, 'coffee', [4, 'python']}
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: unhashable type: 'list'
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Now that you know how to create a set and what type of elements it can contain, let's continue and see why we should always have them in our toolkit.

Why You Should Use Them

When writing code, you can do it in more than a single way. Some are considered to be pretty bad, and others, clear, concise and maintainable. Or "pythonic".

From the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Python:

When a veteran Python developer (a Pythonista) calls portions of code not “Pythonic”, they usually mean that these lines of code do not follow the common guidelines and fail to express its intent in what is considered the best (hear: most readable) way.

Let's start exploring the way that Python sets can help us not just with readability, but also speeding up our programs execution time.

Unordered Collection of Elements

First things first: you can't access a set element using indexes.

>>> s = {1, 2, 3}
>>> s[0]
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: 'set' object does not support indexing
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Or modify them with slices:

>>> s[0:2]
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: 'set' object is not subscriptable
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BUT, if what we need is to remove duplicates, or do mathematical operations like combining lists (unions), we can, and SHOULD always use Sets.

I have to mention that when iterating over, sets are outperformed by lists, so prefer them if that is what you need. Why? well, this article does not intend to explain the inner workings of sets, but if you are interested, here are a couple of links where you can read about it:

No Duplicate Items

While writing this I cannot stop thinking in all the times I used the for loop and the if statement to check and remove duplicate elements in a list. My face turns red remembering that, more than once, I wrote something like this:

>>> my_list = [1, 2, 3, 2, 3, 4]
>>> no_duplicate_list = []
>>> for item in my_list:
...     if item not in no_duplicate_list:
...             no_duplicate_list.append(item)
...
>>> no_duplicate_list
[1, 2, 3, 4]
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Or used a list comprehension:

>>> my_list = [1, 2, 3, 2, 3, 4]
>>> no_duplicate_list = []
>>> [no_duplicate_list.append(item) for item in my_list if item not in no_duplicate_list]
[None, None, None, None]
>>> no_duplicate_list
[1, 2, 3, 4]
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But it's ok, nothing of that matters anymore because we now have the sets in our arsenal:

>>> my_list = [1, 2, 3, 2, 3, 4]
>>> no_duplicate_list = list(set(my_list))
>>> no_duplicate_list
[1, 2, 3, 4]
>>>
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Now let's use the timeit module and see the excecution time of lists and sets when removing duplicates:

>>> from timeit import timeit
>>> def no_duplicates(list):
...     no_duplicate_list = []
...     [no_duplicate_list.append(item) for item in list if item not in no_duplicate_list]
...     return no_duplicate_list
...
>>> # first, let's see how the list perform:
>>> print(timeit('no_duplicates([1, 2, 3, 1, 7])', globals=globals(), number=1000))
0.0018683355819786227
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>>> from timeit import timeit
>>> # and the set:
>>> print(timeit('list(set([1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4]))', number=1000))
0.0010220493243764395
>>> # faster and cleaner =)
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Not only we write fewer lines with sets than with lists comprehensions, we also obtain more readable and performant code.

Note: remember that sets are unordered, so there is no guarantee that when converting them back to a list the order of the elements is going to be preserved.

From the Zen of Python:

Beautiful is better than ugly.

Explicit is better than implicit.

Simple is better than complex.

Flat is better than nested.

Aren't sets just Beautiful, Explicit, Simple and Flat? =)

Membership Tests

Every time we use an if statement to check if an element is, for example, in a list, you are doing a membership test:

my_list = [1, 2, 3]
>>> if 2 in my_list:
...     print('Yes, this is a membership test!')
...
Yes, this is a membership test!
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And sets are more performant than lists when doing them:

>>> from timeit import timeit
>>> def in_test(iterable):
...     for i in range(1000):
...             if i in iterable:
...                     pass
...
>>> timeit('in_test(iterable)',
... setup="from __main__ import in_test; iterable = list(range(1000))",
... number=1000)
12.459663048726043
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>>> from timeit import timeit
>>> def in_test(iterable):
...     for i in range(1000):
...             if i in iterable:
...                     pass
...
>>> timeit('in_test(iterable)',
... setup="from __main__ import in_test; iterable = set(range(1000))",
... number=1000)
0.12354438152988223
>>>
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Note: the above tests come from this StackOverflow thread.

So if you are doing comparisons like this in huge lists, it should speed you a good bit if you convert that list into a set.

How to Use Them

Now that you know what a set is and why you should use them, let's do a quick tour and see how can we modify and operate with them.

Adding Elements

Depending on the number of elements to add, we will have to choose between the add() and update() methods.

add() will add a single element:

>>> s = {1, 2, 3}
>>> s.add(4)
>>> s
{1, 2, 3, 4}
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And update() multiple ones:

>>> s = {1, 2, 3}
>>> s.update([2, 3, 4, 5, 6])
>>> s
{1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6} 
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Remember, sets remove duplicates.

Removing Elements

If you want to be alerted when your code tries to remove an element that is not in the set, use remove(). Otherwise, discard() provides a good alternative:

>>> s = {1, 2, 3}
>>> s.remove(3)
>>> s
{1, 2}
>>> s.remove(3)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
KeyError: 3
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discard() won't raise any errors:

>>> s = {1, 2, 3}
>>> s.discard(3)
>>> s
{1, 2}
>>> s.discard(3)
>>> # nothing happens!
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We can also use pop() to randomly discard an element:

>>> s = {1, 2, 3, 4, 5}
>>> s.pop()  # removes an arbitrary element
1
>>> s
{2, 3, 4, 5}
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Or clear() to remove all the values from a set:

>>> s = {1, 2, 3, 4, 5}
>>> s.clear()  # discard all the items
>>> s
set()
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union()

union() or | will create a new set that contains all the elements from the sets we provide:

>>> s1 = {1, 2, 3}
>>> s2 = {3, 4, 5}
>>> s1.union(s2)  # or 's1 | s2'
{1, 2, 3, 4, 5}
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intersection()

intersection or & will return a set containing only the elements that are common in all of them:

>>> s1 = {1, 2, 3}
>>> s2 = {2, 3, 4}
>>> s3 = {3, 4, 5}
>>> s1.intersection(s2, s3)  # or 's1 & s2 & s3'
{3}
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difference()

Using diference() or -, creates a new set with the values that are in "s1" but not in "s2":

>>> s1 = {1, 2, 3}
>>> s2 = {2, 3, 4}
>>> s1.difference(s2)  # or 's1 - s2'
{1}
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symmetric_diference()

symetric_difference or ^ will return all the values that are not common between the sets.

>>> s1 = {1, 2, 3}
>>> s2 = {2, 3, 4}
>>> s1.symmetric_difference(s2)  # or 's1 ^ s2'
{1, 4}
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Conclusions

I hope that after reading this article you know what a set is, how to manipulate their elements and the operations they can perform. Knowing when to use a set will definitely help you write cleaner code and speed up your programs.

If you have any doubts, please leave a comment and I will gladly try to answer them. Also, don´t forget that if you already understand sets, they have their own place in the Python Cheatsheet, where you can have a quick reference and refresh what you already know.

Discussion (1)

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Leonardo Furtado

Great work! It is very usefull <3