Keyword-only arguments in Python

Python allows you to pass arguments in two ways – either by their position or by their name (keyword):1

def foo(x, y):
    print(x, y)

# the following all print 5 10
foo(5, 10)
foo(5, y=10)
foo(x=5, y=10)  

It works the same if a function accepts keyword arguments:2

def bar(x=5, y=10):
    print(x, y)

# the following all print 4 8
bar(4, 8)
bar(4, y=8)
bar(x=4, y=8)

If a particular keyword argument is not provided, its default value is used:

>>> bar(2)  # y is omitted
2 10

It is quite common to use keyword arguments to define “extra” options that can be passed to a callable, and if omitted, their default value is used. That can improve readability, because it is enough to only pass the options whose value differs from the default:

def cat(x, y, to_upper=False, strip=True):
    """Concatenate given strings."""
    if strip:
       x, y = x.strip(), y.strip()

    result = x + y

    if to_upper:
        result = result.upper()

    return result


# returns 'foobar'
cat('  foo ', 'bar ')

# the following both return '  foo bar '
cat('  foo ', 'bar ', False, False)
cat('  foo ', 'bar ', strip=False)

You will probably agree that the second form is indeed more clean.

Positional arguments pitfalls

The ability to pass keyword arguments by position as demonstrated in the introduction can, if not careful, bite you, especially if you do not have a thorough test coverage in place as a safety net. Let’s say that there is a piece of code which invokes the cat() function using positional arguments only:

cat('  foo ', 'bar ', True)  # returns 'FOOBAR'

Let’s also say that suddenly one of the team members gets an inspiration and decides that it would be great to sort all keyword parameters alphabetically. You know, for readability. Before you can express your doubt, he eagerly refactors the function, swapping the two keyword parameters:

def cat(x, y, strip=True, to_upper=False):
    ...

If you have proper tests in place, good for you, but if you don’t, you might not realize, that this change just introduced a bug:

cat('  foo ', 'bar ', True)  # now returns 'foobar'

The poor 'FOOBAR' return value just got demoted to its lowercase version. This would not have happened if the option would be passed as a keyword argument, i.e. to_upper=True.

Another source of potential errors is accidentally passing an option value through a positional argument. Let’s imagine another contrived scenario where a new team member uses intuition to deduce how the cat() function works. Of course – it’s just a version of sum() adjusted to work with strings!

>>> cat('  foo ', 'bar ', 'baz')  # the original cat
'FOOBAR'

Erm…

The option to_upper was assigned the value 'baz' which is truthy, but it is probably not what the caller intended to achieve.

It can be argued that this behavior is a bit unintuitive, and that it would be nice if we could somehow force the callers to explicitly pass keyword arguments by their name (keyword), and not their position.

Making the arguments keyword-only (Python 3)

The trick is to swallow any redundant positional arguments, preventing them from filling the keyword arguments:

def demo(x, y, *args, separator='___'):
    print(x, y, args, sep=separator)


>>> demo(10, 20, 30, 40)
10___20___(30, 40)

>>> demo(10, 20, 30, 40, separator='---')
10---20---(30, 40)

Any positional arguments beyond the first two (30 and 40) get swallowed by the args tuple, and the only way to specify a different separator is through an explicit keyword argument. To complete the picture, we just need to prevent the callers to pass in too many positional arguments, and we can do this with a simple check if args is not empty:

if args:
    raise TypeError('Too many positional arguments given.')

What’s more, if we omit the variable arguments tuple’s name altogether, we get the above check for free!
Plus a useful error message on top of it, demo:

def demo2(x, y, *, separator='___'):
    print(x, y, sep=separator)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           


>>> demo2(1, 2, 3, separator=';')
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: demo2() takes 2 positional arguments but 3 positional arguments (and 1 keyword-only argument) were given
Keyword-only arguments in Python 2

Unfortunately, if we try the same approach in Python 2, it will complain and raise a syntax error. We cannot specify individual keyword arguments after *args, but we can specify that a function accepts a variable number of keyword arguments, and then manually unpack it:

def foo(x, y, *args, **kwargs):
    option_a = kwargs.pop('option_a', 'default_A')
    option_b = kwargs.pop('option_b', 'default_B')

    if args or kwargs:
        raise TypeError('Too many positional and/or keyword arguments given.')

We also have to manually check if the caller has passed any unexpected positional and/or keyword arguments by testing the args tuple and the kwargs dict (after popping all expected items from it) – both should be empty.

Cumbersome indeed, not to mention that the function signature is not as pretty as it could be. But that’s what we have in Python 2.


  1. The following few examples assume either Python 3, or that print_function is imported from the __future__ module if using Python 2. 
  2. The fourth invocation option, i.e. saying foo(x=5, 10), is not listed, because it is a syntax error – positional arguments must precede any keyword arguments. 

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