3.1. For Loops

We’ve seen a few example programs so far that operate on multiple pieces of data in order and/or repeat some sequence of instructions repeatedly. This type of flow is called a loop, because the program loops back around to repeat instructions it just completed. We call each time we execute the body of a loop an iteration.

Visual representation of a loop.

A visual representation of a loop.

Often, especially when dealing with large amounts of data, we want to loop through a set of things such as a list of words, the lines in a file, or a list of numbers. Lists will be covered in detail in a later chapter, but for now, it’s enough to know that we can create a list of values by writing multiple values separated by commas between [ and ] symbols:

When we have a list of things to loop through, we can construct a for loop using a for statement. A for loop starts with a for statement and includes one or more indented lines below it that make up the loop body. For example:

In Python terms, the variable friends is a list of four strings, and the for loop goes through the list and executes the body once for each of the four strings in the list. The loop can be read like this: “For each value in friends, put that value into the variable friend and run the statements in the body of the for loop once.”

Looking at the for loop, for and in are reserved Python keywords, and friend and friends are variables. In particular, friend is the loop variable or iteration variable for the for loop. The variable friend changes for each iteration of the loop and controls when the for loop completes. The loop variable successively gets each of the strings stored in the friends variable in order.

The CodeLens tool can help you see how for loops execute, step-by-step. In the above example, try the “Show in CodeLens” button. As you step through the code, watch the friend variable. See how it gets a new value from the list in each iteration of the loop?

Syntax Pattern

For loops have the form:

for <var> in <sequence>:

Python interprets this as follows:

  1. Check to see if any values remain in <sequence>. If not, the loop ends. Otherwise:

  2. Take the next value in <sequence> and assign it to <var>.

  3. Execute the statements in <body>.

  4. Repeat (go back to step 1).

There are a few important rules to keep in mind:

  1. <var> is the loop variable, and it can be any valid variable name. It is created and assigned values by the loop itself.

  2. <sequence> is any sequence of values. For now, lists are the one type of sequence we’ve seen, but there will be others.

  3. The <body> is one or more Python statements, all indented below the for statement. They all have to be indented by the same amount. Usually we use 4 spaces to indent each line.

  4. Don’t forget the colon : at the end of the for statement! It is required for the loop to be valid Python syntax.

Remember, all for loops follow the same rules. If you ever encounter a new for loop that doesn’t look quite like one you’ve seen before, you can still just apply those rules to interpret the loop, step-by-step, to figure out what it does. In a sense, you can think like the computer, applying the exact same rules it does when interpreting the code, to figure out what code does.

You might find the following flowchart helpful when thinking about for loops. This shows all of the steps and decisions that Python makes when interpreting a for loop. If you can remember those three basic steps and the structure that orders and organizes them, you can apply that understanding to any for loop you see.

Visual flowchart illustrating the execution of a for loop.

Flowchart illustrating the execution of a for loop.

Beyond reading and understanding for loops, you need to learn how to write code using for loops. One of the best ways to do that is to see examples of for loops and to consider how they are being used.

For example, the loop in the example code below is used to repeat the instructions in its body a certain number of times, but the loop variable x is never used. This is a valid way to write a for loop. Before you run the code, try to think through what it will do, then check your guess.

In this case, the values from the list things are assigned into x one at a time, but they have no effect beyond that. The number of elements in the list still matters, though, because that controls the number of times the loop repeats here.

In practice, we wouldn’t put those random values into the list just to control the number of times the loop repeats. If we just want a loop to repeat 10 times, for example, it would be confusing to anyone reading the code if we accomplish that by putting 10 arbitrary values in a list. Instead, Python provides a function called range() that we can use to generate a sequence of values of a given length.

The range() function generates a sequence of integers based on the argument you give it. For example, range(10) generates a sequence of 10 integers, from 0 to 9 counting up by one. range(3) generates three integers: 0, 1, and 2. So if we write a for loop with a call to range(10) as the loop’s sequence, the loop will repeat 10 times. We can also access the values the range() function generates by using the loop variable inside the loop.

Or for a slightly more involved example:

This last example adds up the values that the range() function generates, storing a growing sum in the total variable and printing it out after the loop is finished. [Remember, the CodeLens tool is an excellent way to see what a for loop is doing step-by-step! In addition to running the code examples here, use CodeLens until you can correctly guess what the program is going to do at each step.]

Check your understanding

Q-1: Fill in the blanks based on how the following code executes.

values = [10, 5, 9, 23, 7, 2]
for val in values:
    print(val * 10)

The loop will iterate times.

The first value the code prints is .

The second value the code prints is .

The last value the code prints is .

Q-2: Fill in the blanks based on how the following code executes.

for i in range(5):
    print("I have", i, "cookies.")

The loop will iterate times.

The last line the code prints is “I have cookies.”.

In the ActiveCode below, write code using a for loop to print each of the words in the list provided on a line by itself.

In the ActiveCode below, write code using a for loop to print the length of each of the strings in the list provided. The “length” of a string is the number of characters in it. (Remember the len() function.)