[Python-Dev] Do we need __length_hint__ at all? (Was PEP 0424: A method for exposing a length hint)

Nick Coghlan ncoghlan at gmail.com
Mon Jul 16 15:23:18 CEST 2012

On Mon, Jul 16, 2012 at 7:21 PM, Tim Golden <mail at timgolden.me.uk> wrote:
>> Speaking of which - I find this bikeshed disgusting.
> Disgusting? Irritating, perhaps, but why should a PEP -- even one whose
> purpose is to codify existing practice -- not result in discussions
> about its subject matter?
> The final P stands for Proposal, not for Pronouncement.

Indeed - I'd be worried if any PEP sailed through python-dev review
without a thorough kicking of the tires. Yes, it can be annoying
having to bring people up to speed on issues that they aren't familiar
with, but that's generally a sign that there is relevant background
information *missing from the PEP*.

PEP's aren't supposed to be written just for people that are already
intimately familiar with a problem - they're supposed to provide
enough background that they stand on their own.

In this case, the key points that I think need to be added:

- more background on why the __length_hint__ API exists in CPython in
the first place: to minimise potentially expensive data copies (due to
memory reallocation) when creating a concrete container from an
iterator. This includes when creating them from another concrete
container via an intermediate iterator. This is why at least the
following produce objects that define __length_hint__ in CPython:


As well as any user defined sequence that relies on the default
sequence iterator:
    >>> class MySeq():
    ...     def __getitem__(self, idx):
    ...         return idx
    ...     def __len__(self):
    ...         return 10
    >>> hasattr(iter(MySeq()), "__length_hint__")

- clarification on the implications of it only being a "hint":
specifically, as it may be an over- or underestimate, you *cannot*
rely on the hint to decide whether or not to iterate over the object
when a valid length is returned (as a value of zero may be an
underestimate). However, it does allow you to presize your container
more appropriately than just starting at zero as usual, thus achieving
the aim of reducing the risk of unnecessary memory copies.

That's the basic proposal. Separate from that, there are a few
suggestions for *enhancement* beyond what CPython currently uses (and
has demonstrated a clear need for):

- adding operator.length_hint(). This makes sense to me, as it makes
it much easier to use the API when implementing a container type in
Python. It's also a pretty simple addition.

- adding a C level type slot. I'm personally -1 on this one in the
context of the PEP. I don't think the current PEP (which is really
aimed at standardisation for PyPy's benefit) should be weighed down
with this CPython specific implementation detail.  As a separate
proposal, independent of this PEP, from someone that cares
specifically about micro-optimising this API for CPython, and
(preferably) can produce benchmark numbers to show the additional
implementation complexity is worthwhile, then I wouldn't object. I
just don't want this orthogonal concern to derail the standardisation

- distinguishing between different reasons for saying "don't
preallocate any space" (i.e. returning zero). I still haven't heard a
convincing rationale for this one - it seems to be based on the notion
that the case of skipping the iteration step for a genuinely empty
iterable is worth optimising. This idea just doesn't make sense when
any legitimate length value that is returned can't be trusted to be
completely accurate - you have to iterate to confirm the actual

- making it possible to fail *fast* when a known infinite iterator
(like itertools.cycle or itertools.count) is passed to a concrete
container. I think this is best covered in the PEP by explicitly
stating that some types may implement __length_hint__ to always raise
TypeError rather than defining a magic return value that means "I'm

- making it possible for iterators like enumerate, map and filter to
delegate __length_hint__ to their underlying iterator. This seems
potentially worth doing, but requires resolving the problem that
Raymond noted with handling the difference in internal behaviour
between enumerate("abc") and enumerate(iter("abc")). Again, it would
be unfortunate to see the PEP held up over this.

- making it possible to define __length_hint__ for generator-iterator
objects. While this is a nice idea, again, I don't think it's
something that this particular PEP should be burdened with.

My main point is that the current __length_hint__ behaviour has
already proven its value in the real world. The PyPy team would like
that behaviour codified, so they can be reasonably sure both
implementations are doing the same thing. Many of the enhancements I
have listed above may be suitable material for future enhancement
proposals, but I'm not seeing any requested functionality that would
be actively *blocked* by simply codifying the status quo.

The PEP itself already has this general tone, but I think that it
should be even more emphatic that it's about codifying the status quo,
*not* about modifying it with ideas haven't been proven useful through
past experience.


Nick Coghlan   |   ncoghlan at gmail.com   |   Brisbane, Australia

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