2.2. Variables

One of the most basic but important features of a programming language is the ability to store a value to be used later. We do this by assigning the value to a particular name, and then referring to the value using that name in a later line of code. These names with assigned values are called variables.

Definition

A variable is a name that is used to represent a value that can change when a program is run.

2.2.1. Variable Assignment

Assignment statements both create new variables and give them values:

This example makes three assignments. The first assigns the string value "Hi there!" to a new variable named message; the second assigns the integer 17 to n; and the third assigns the (approximate) value of \(\pi\) to pi as a floating point number.

Notice that if you run this code, nothing is output. Assigning variables does not print their values or produce any other output.

Syntax Pattern

Assignment statements have the form:

<variable> = <expression>

Python interprets this in two steps:

  1. Evaluate the expression on the right.

  2. Assign the resulting value to the variable on the left.

Assignment always “goes from right to left.”

So what happens if you get it backwards? Try running this:

Tip

Assignment is not equality.

Though assignment uses the = sign, do not think of it as “equals.” Writing n = 17 does not mean “n equals 17,” at least not forever. Remember that n is a variable, and so it can change.

The statement n = 17 means, and you should read it as, “n is assigned the value 17” or “n gets 17.”

This also explains why 17 = n is invalid: “17 gets n” doesn’t make sense.

It can be very useful to visualize how programs work to understand them better. When visualizing variable assignments, it is common to think of them as connections or arrows leading from a variable’s name to the value that it references. The figure below illustrates this for the three variables in the example code above.

Visual representation of variables referencing values.

A visual representation of variables referencing values.

You can see a similar visual representation of variables and their values in any of the code in this book by using the “CodeLens” view in any Active Code block. Try it with the block of example code above.

To output the value of a variable, you can use a print statement. (If you are working in a notebook or an interpreter, you can simply type the variable name as the last line of a cell to display its value. )

Variables have types, just like values do. The type of a variable is the type of the value it refers to.

Check your understanding

Q-1: After running this code:

var1 = 1
var2 = '2'

The type of var1 will be .

The type of var2 will be .

Make two variables, one named x and one named word.

And assign x the value 123 and assign word the value "horse".

2.2.2. Variable Names and Keywords

Programmers should choose names for variables that are meaningful and help others understand what the variable is used for in the program.

Python has syntax rules about valid variable names. If you don’t follow these rules, you will either get a syntax error or a semantic error: you might create something that is valid syntax but doesn’t at all mean what you think it does.

Syntax Rule

Variable names must:

  • Be made of letters, digits, and underscore characters _.

  • Always begin with a letter or an underscore (not a digit).

  • Never contain spaces.

Case matters. Count and count are different variables.

Although it is legal to use uppercase letters, by convention we don’t. Capitalized names are generally used for classes, which we’ll see later. If we follow this convention, then we can easily see whether a name is a variable or a class just based on whether or not it is capitalized.

The underscore character _ is often used in names with multiple words, such as my_name or airspeed_of_unladen_swallow. Variable names can start with an underscore character, but we generally avoid doing this unless we are writing library code for others to use.

If you give a variable an illegal name, you will get a syntax error. In this code, each of the variable names is illegal.

76trombones = "big parade"
more$ = 1000000
class = "Computer Science 101"

76trombones is illegal because it does not begin with a letter. more$ is illegal because it contains an illegal character, the dollar sign. But what’s wrong with class?

It turns out that class is one of Python’s keywords. Keywords are part of the language’s formal definition, and they cannot be used as variable names.

Python reserves 33 keywords:

False    class      finally   is         return
None     continue   for       lambda     try
True     def        from      nonlocal   while
and      del        global    not        with
as       elif       if        or         yield
assert   else       import    pass
break    except     in        raise

You might want to keep this list handy. If the interpreter complains about one of your variable names and you don’t know why, see if it is on this list.

2.2.3. Choosing Good Variable Names

As long as you follow the simple rules of variable naming and avoid keywords, you have a lot of choice when you name your variables. In the beginning, this choice can be confusing both when you read a program and when you write your own programs. For example, the following three programs are identical in terms of what they accomplish, but very different when you read them and try to understand them.

a = 35.0
b = 12.50
c = a * b
print(c)
hours = 35.0
rate = 12.50
pay = hours * rate
print(pay)
x1q3z9ahd = 35.0
x1q3z9afd = 12.50
x1q3p9afd = x1q3z9ahd * x1q3z9afd
print(x1q3p9afd)

The Python interpreter sees all three of these programs as exactly the same but humans see and understand these programs quite differently. Humans will most quickly understand the intent of the second program because the programmer has chosen variable names that reflect their intent regarding what data will be stored in each variable.

Tip

Choose names for your variables that will be descriptive and meaningful to you and anyone else reading your code. Generally, they should describe or relate to the information held by that variable. Doing this consistently will help you and others understand your code and what each variable is used for.

We call these wisely chosen variable names “mnemonic variable names.” The word mnemonic means “memory aid”. We choose mnemonic variable names to help us remember why we created the variable in the first place.

While this all sounds great, and it is a very good idea to use mnemonic variable names, mnemonic variable names can get in the way of a beginning programmer’s ability to parse and understand code. This is because beginning programmers have not yet memorized the keywords (there are only 33 of them) and sometimes variables with names that are too descriptive start to look like part of the language and not just well-chosen variable names.

Take a quick look at the following Python sample code which loops through some data. We will cover loops soon, but for now try to just puzzle through what this means:

for word in words:
    print(word)

What is happening here? Which of the tokens (for, word, in, etc.) are keywords and which are just variable names? Does Python understand at a fundamental level the notion of words? Beginning programmers have trouble separating what parts of the code must be the same as this example and what parts of the code are simply choices made by the programmer.

After a pretty short period of time, you will know the most common keywords, and you will start to see the keywords jumping out at you:

for word in words:
    print(word)

The parts of the code that are defined by Python (for, in, print, and :) are in bold, and the programmer-chosen variables (word and words) are not in bold. Many text editors are aware of Python syntax and will “highlight” it, coloring keywords differently to give you clues to keep your variables and keywords separate. You’ll notice all of the code in this book is highlighted as well. After a while you will begin to read Python and quickly determine what is a variable and what is a keyword.