Module 6: Python Dictionaries


In the last module, you learned about control flow. As you wade into more
complicated waters, embrace the struggle. Approach each problem with
curiosity and the confidence that — with enough time, and allowing yourself
to go down as many false paths as it takes — you’ll be able to figure it out.
It’s rare to see a complex problem and have a fully-formed, correct idea pop
into your head; a big part of programming is trying things out and seeing what
works. You’ll be rewarded for your persistence.


  • Introduction to dictionaries
  • Dictionary basics
  • Dictionary example


Introduction to Dictionaries

Dictionaries are among the most interesting and useful Python data types. They’re a bit like lists, in that they’re a collection of data. However in a list, you access items by index:

>>> fruits = ['apple', 'berry', 'cherry']
>>> print fruits[0]

In a dictionary, you access items by key. So dictionaries are actually a way to store pairs of data, or associations between data (in some other programming languages, this data structure is known as an “associative array”). Let’s look at an example. Let’s say you wanted to track how many of each type of pet you have. You could make a dictionary that looks like this:

my_pets = {'dog': 2, 'cat': 7, 'fish': 4}

Then, if you wanted to know how many cats you have, you would access the number like this:

>>> my_pets['cat']

One key difference between lists and dictionaries: dictionaries are not ordered. You may add items to a dictionary in a particular order, but Python does not track that order (that’s just not someting dictionaries do). So you can’t ask for dictionary items by index, the way you do for lists. You can only ask for an item by key.

Dictionary Basics

So, what can you do with dictionaries? Lots of things:

Creating a dictionary: You use curly braces ({ and }) to create a dictionary. Keys and values are separated by a colon (:) and commas separate pairs of keys and values. With this in mind, let’s have another look at our earlier example:

my_pets = {'dog': 2, 'cat': 7, 'fish': 4}

You may also create an empty dictionary (say, if you live a pet-less life):

your_pets = {}

You can still add to this dictionary later.

Accessing values by key: As we saw in the section before, if you know a key, you can access its corresponding value. For example, to find out how many fish you have, you can use this syntax:

>>> my_pets['fish']

Adding to dictionaries: If you want to add a key/value pair to a dictionary, you use this syntax: dictionary_name[key] = value. For example, if you acquired a pair of llamas:

>>> my_pets['llama'] = 2
>>> my_pets
{'fish': 4, 'dog': 2, 'llama': 2, 'cat': 7}

Remember: dictionaries are un-ordered, so you can’t predict the order that will show when you examine the dictionary.

Updating dictionaries: You got another cat! Lucky you. You can update the dictionary using the same syntax as adding to the dictionary:

>>> my_pets['cat'] = 8

What if you didn’t know how many cats you had before? (Those suckers are hard to track.) You can combine accessing items with updating items like this:

>>> my_pets['cat'] = my_pets['cat'] + 1

This is saying “set the value for the key ‘cat’ to be whatever the value was before plus 1.”

Checking if a key exists in a dictionary: What happens if you try to access a key that doesn’t exist? As you might expect, Python returns an error:

>>> my_pets['weasel']
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
KeyError: 'weasel'

However, you can check to see if a key exists in a dictionary before trying to access it. You’ll want to create a boolean expression (remember those?) with this syntax: key in dictionary_name (you can also check to see if a key is not in the dictionary with key not in dictionary_name). This way you can avoid the error:

>>> if 'weasel' in my_pets:
...    weasel_count = my_pets['weasel']
... else:
...    weasel_count = 0

>>> print 'number of weasels in my menagerie:', weasel_count
number of weasels in my menagerie: 0

Iterating through dictionaries: You can go through dictionary items one-by-one using a similar syntax to lists. Every time through the for loop, your placeholder variable (animal in the code below) will represent the next key in the dictionary. You can access the value for that key from within the for loop. That way, you can access all key/value pairs for the dictionary.

>>> for animal in my_pets:
...     animal_count = my_pets[animal]
...     print animal, 'count:', animal_count
fish count: 4
dog count: 2
llama count: 2
cat count: 9

A Dictionary Example

Let’s use a dictionary to sort words in a sentence by word length. In the my_pets dictionary example above, the keys were strings, and the values were integers. For this example, the keys will be integers (word length), and the values will be lists of strings with that word length. (When working with dictionaries, it’s a good idea to think about what the keys will be and what the values will be before you start.) Let’s check it out.

First, let’s create an empty dictionary to store the word lengths, and a variable for the sentence.

>>> word_lengths = {}
>>> sentence = 'I once knew a gal from Nantucket.'

Now, we’ll have to split the sentence into a list of word strings, so we can look at the word strings one-by-one.

>>> sentence_words = sentence.split()

Then we’ll iterate through each word in the sentence and look at its length. If that word length already exists as a key in the dictionary, we can add the word to the list for that key’s value. Otherwise, we will need to create a new key/value pair for that length before adding the new word.

>>> for word in sentence_words:
...     # get the word length
...     word_len = len(word)
...     # is that word length in the dictionary?
...     if word_len not in word_lengths:
...         # if not, let's add it, with an empty list for a value
...         word_lengths[word_len] = []
...     # Now that we know the word length exists in the dict (since it
...     # was either there before, or we just added it), we can add the
...     # word to the value list for that length
...     word_lengths[word_len].append(word)

The first time through the loop, word will be ‘I’, and word_len will be 1. Is 1 a key in the word_lengths dictionary? Nope, because the dictionary is empty at this point. So the conditional will be true, and we will add a key/value pair to the dictionary:

word_lengths[1] = []

and word_lengths now looks like this:

{1: []}

After that, we will add the word ‘I’ to the (empty) list for word_lengths[1]. So, at the end of the first iteration of the loop, word_lengths looks like this:

{1: ['I']}

The next word? ‘once’. This word has length 4, which is also not in the dictionary yet. So the same thing will happen as with the first word: the dictionary gets another key (4) whose value will be a list containing the word ‘once’. Now word_lengths looks like this:

{1: ['I'], 4: ['once']}

The next word is ‘knew’. Now things are starting to get interesting, because this word’s length — 4 — is already a key in the word_lengths dictionary. So the boolean expression in the conditional evaluates to false, and no new key is added to the dictionary. But: the word ‘knew’ is appended to the value for the key 4, so word_lengths looks like this after the third iteration:

{1: ['I'], 4: ['once', 'knew']}

After the loop has gone through each word in sentence_words, word_lengths will look like this:

{1: ['I', 'a'], 3: ['gal'], 4: ['once', 'knew', 'from'], 10: ['Nantucket.']}

Dictionaries! The amazing sorting machines!

Practice Section


Login to your account and start a new repl here. Title it

Complete the practice problems below on

  1. Create an empty dictionary called soccer_team
  2. Add a string value (of your choice) for the key ‘team_name’
  3. Add an integer value for the key ‘team_ranking’, indicating the team’s ranking in the league (1 being highest, 12 being lowest).
  4. Add a list value for the key ‘player_names’ — the list should contain at least three player names.
  5. Uh oh. The team lost a game. Update the team ranking to be one more than it was before (bonus: do this in a way that it would work even if you didn’t know what the number happened to be before).
  6. New player! Add ‘David Beckham’ to the ‘player_names’ list.
  7. Write a conditional that prints ‘Hooray!’ if the team ranking is 3 or better, and prints ‘Better luck next time’ if the team ranking is 4 or worse.
  8. Write a loop that prints each player’s name.
  9. Write a conditional expression that prints out the team color if the key ‘team_color’ exists; otherwise print out ‘The team is currently colorless.’
  10. Add a ‘team_color’ key and whatever color you want (as a string) for a value. Then run the conditional in (9) again to see it print the color.
  11. Iterate over the soccer_team dictionary and print each key and value. You don’t need to print each player individually when it gets to the player list; you can simply print out the list as a whole.



In the following problems, you’ll find code that is invalid or not allowed in some way. Read the code, and see if you can predict what is wrong. When you’re ready, hover over the solution area to reveal the error message that Python shows, along with an explanation of what is going wrong.

  1. What’s wrong with this code?
>>> spanish_to_english = { 'hola': 'hello', 'adios': 'goodbye', 'paz': 'peace'}
>>> second_word = spanish_to_english[2]

Dictionaries are unordered

You can’t reference dictionary items by index, because dictionaries are unordered. You can only reference dictionary items by key.

>>> second_word = spanish_to_english[2]
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
KeyError: 2

If you want to know the English word corresponding to ‘adios’, you would reference it this way: spanish_to_english['adios'].

  1. What’s wrong with this code?
>>> program_count = { 'Python': 5, 'JavaScript': 2, 'Swift': 1 }
>>> total_program_count = 0
>>> for value in program_count:
...     total_program_count = total_program_count + value
>>> print 'total program count:', total_program_count

Dictionaries iterate over keys

When you iterate over a Python dictionary, you are iterating over the keys, not the values. Even though the programmer chose to call the variable value, it’s actually going to represent ‘Python’, ‘JavaScript’ or ‘Swift’ – not 5, 2, or 1.

>>> for value in program_count:
...     total_program_count = total_program_count + value
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 2, in <module>
TypeError: unsupported operand type(s) for +: 'int' and 'str'

Since value is a string (‘Python’, ‘JavaScript’, or ‘Swift’, depending on which iteration), and total_program_count is an int (0), Python indicates that it can’t add these two variable data types. If you got this, give yourself a pat on the back. It was a tough one!

External Resources

Final Assignment

Create a new repl session called

Create a dictionary called cake_ingredients. Each key should be an ingredient (such as ‘butter’), and each value should be the number of cups of that ingredient that you need. Here are the ingredients for a cake that you can use:

  • butter: 1 cup
  • shortening: 0.5 cup
  • sugar: 3 cups
  • egg substitute: 1.5 cups
  • flour: 3 cups
  • milk: 1 cup
  • salt: 0.01 cup
  • baking powder: 0.01 cup

(Most bakers would call 0.01 cup “half a teaspoon”. 😉 )

Iterate through through the dictionary, and print out each ingredient and how many cups you would need to make two cakes.

Then, ask the user for an ingredient. If the user enters an ingredient that is in this cake, return the number of cups for one cake. If the user enters an ingredient that isn’t in this cake, return a message that the ingredient isn’t in the cake.

Your output should look something like this (it’s ok if you end up with a different order of ingredients):

To make two cakes, you need:
2 cups of butter
1 cups of shortening
6 cups of sugar
3 cups of egg substitute
6 cups of flour
2 cups of milk
0.02 cups of salt
0.02 cups of baking powder
What ingredient do you want to know about? sugar
One cake has 3 cups of sugar.

If you run the file again, it might look like this:

To make two cakes, you need:
2 cups of butter
1 cups of shortening
6 cups of sugar
3 cups of egg substitute
6 cups of flour
2 cups of milk
0.02 cups of salt
0.02 cups of baking powder
What ingredient do you want to know about? gym socks
This cake does not contain gym socks.