[Python-Dev] PEP 265 - Sorting Dictionaries by Value

Grant Griffin grant.griffin@iowegian.com
Mon, 20 Aug 2001 22:05:52 -0500

PEP: 265
Title: Sorting Dictionaries by Value
Version: $Revision: 0.1 $
Author: g2@iowegian.com (Grant Griffin)
Status: Draft
Type: Standards Track
Created: 8-Aug-2001
Python-Version: 2.2


This PEP suggests a "sort by value" operation for dictionaries.  The
primary benefit would be in terms of "batteries included" support for a
common Python idiom which, in its current form, is both difficult for
beginners to understand and cumbersome for all to implement.


A common use of dictionaries is to count occurrences by setting the
value of d[key] to "1" on its first occurrence, then increment the
value on each subsequent occurrence.  This can be done several
different ways, but the "get" method is the most succinct:

	d[key] = d.get(key, 0) + 1

Once all occurrences have been counted, a common use of the resulting
dictionary is to print the occurrences in occurrence-sorted order, often
with the largest value first.

This leads to a need to sort a dictionary's items by value.  The
canonical method of doing so in Python is to first use d.items() to get
a list of the dictionary's items, then invert the ordering of each
item's tuple from (key, value) into (value, key), then sort the list;
since Python sorts the list based on the first item of the tuple, the
list of (inverted) items is therefore sorted by value.  If desired, the
list can then be reversed, and the (value, key) tuples can be re-
inverted back to (key, value).  (However, in my experience, the
inverted tuple ordering is fine for most purposes, e.g. printing out
the list.)

For example, given an occurrence count of:

 >>> d = {'a':2, 'b':23, 'c':5, 'd':17, 'e':1}

we might do:

 >>> items = d.items()
 >>> items = [(v, k) for (k, v) in items]
 >>> items.sort()
 >>> items.reverse()		# so largest is first
 >>> items = [(k, v) for (v, k) in items]

resulting in:

 >>> items
[('b', 23), ('d', 17), ('c', 5), ('a', 2), ('e', 1)]

which shows the list in by-value order, largest first.  (In this case,
'b' was found to have the most occurrences.)

This works fine, but is "hard to use" in two aspects.  First, although
this idiom is known to veteran Pythoneers, it is not at all obvious to
newbies--either in terms of its algorithm (inverting the ordering of
item tuples) or its implementation (using list comprehensions--which
are difficult for beginners.)  Second, it requires having to repeatedly
type a lot of "gunge", resulting in both tedium and mistakes.

We therefore would rather Python provide a method of sorting
dictionaries by value which would be both easy for newbies to
understand (or, better yet, not to _have to_ understand) and easier for
all to use.


As Tim Peters has pointed out, this sort of thing brings on the problem
of trying to be all things to all people.  Therefore, we will limit its
scope to try to hit "the sweet spot".  Unusual cases (e.g. sorting via
a custom comparison function) can, of course, be handled "manually"
using present methods.

Here are some simple possibilities:

The "items" method of dictionaries can be augmented with new parameters
having default values that provide for full backwards-compatibility:

	1) items(sort_by_values=0, reversed=0)

or maybe just:

        2) items(sort_by_values=0)

since reversing a list is easy enough.

Alternatively, items() could simply let us control the (key, value)

	3) items(values_first=0)

Again, this is fully backwards-compatible.  It does less "work" than
the others, but it at least eases the most complicated/tricky part of
the sort-by-value problem: inverting the order of item tuples.  Using
this is very simple:

	items = d.items(1)
	items.reverse()		# (if desired)

The primary drawback of the preceding three approaches is the
additional overhead for the parameter-less "items()" case, due to
having to process default parameters.  (However, if one assumes that
items() gets used primarily for creating sort-by-value lists, this is
not really a drawback in practice.)

Alternatively, we might add a new dictionary method which somehow
embodies "sorting".  This approach offers two advantages.  First, it
avoids adding overhead to the items() method.  Second, it is perhaps
more accessible to newbies: when they go looking for a method for
sorting dictionaries, they hopefully run into this one, and they will
not have to understand the finer points of tuple inversion and list
sorting to achieve sort-by-value.

To allow the four basic possibilities of sorting by key/value and in
forward/reverse order, we could add this method:

	4) sorted_items(by_value=0, reversed=0)

I believe the most common case would actually be "by_value=1,
reversed=1", but the defaults values given here might lead to fewer
surprises by users: sorted_items() would be the same as items()
followed by sort().

Finally (as a last resort), we could use:

	5) items_sorted_by_value(reversed=0)


The proposed dictionary methods would necessarily be implemented in C.
Presumably, the implementation would be fairly simple since it involves
just adding a few calls to Python's existing machinery.


Aside from the run-time overhead already addressed in possibilities 1-
3, concerns with this proposal probably will fall into the categories
of "feature bloat" and/or "code bloat".  However, I believe that
several of the suggestions made here will result in quite minimal
bloat, resulting in a good tradeoff between bloat and "value added".

Tim Peters has noted that implementing this in C might not be
significantly faster than implementing it in Python today.  However,
the major benefits intended here are "accessibility" and "ease of use",
not "speed".  Therefore, as long as it is not noticeably slower (in the
case of plain "items()", speed need not be a consideration.


A related thread called "counting occurrences" appeared on
comp.lang.python in August, 2001.  This included examples of approaches
to systematizing the sort-by-value problem by implementing it as
reusable Python functions and classes.


This document has been placed in the public domain.

Also...this just in from Tim Peters:

Here's one to add to the PEP as an alternative:


where sort_specifier is one of these strings:


The first 4 sort by keys first, the second 4 by values first.  The string to
the right of '->' says whether you want a list of (key, value) pairs,
(value, key) pairs, just keys, or just values.

So to sort by values and return only the keys (corresponding to increasing
order of values),


There are two other sort_specifier possibilities:


dict.sort('k') is the same as ksort(dict):

def ksort(dict):
     return x

and similarly for dict.sort('v') returning dict.values() sorted.

Reversals are the user's problem.

Your comments and suggestions are welcome and appreciated.  I think the two 
big questions for the community here are:

1) Is this useful enough to justify the feature/code bloat?  (Tim has 
suggested that this might be a hard sell to Guido, so if you like it in 
whatever form, let's hear from you!)
2) Of all the many possibilities, which do you find the most useful and 

thanks-much-ly y'rs,


Grant R. Griffin                                       g2@dspguru.com
Publisher of dspGuru                           http://www.dspguru.com
Iowegian International Corporation            http://www.iowegian.com