[Python-ideas] PEP 531: Existence checking operators

Nick Coghlan ncoghlan at gmail.com
Fri Oct 28 04:30:05 EDT 2016

Hi folks,

After the recent discussions of PEP 505's null-coalescing operator
(and the significant confusion around why anyone would ever want a
feature like that), I was inspired to put together a competing
proposal that focuses more on defining a new "existence checking"
protocol that generalises the current practicises of:

* obj is not None (many different use cases)
* obj is not Ellipsis (in multi-dimensional slicing)
* obj is not NotImplemented (in operand coercion)
* math.isnan(value)
* cmath.isnan(value)
* decimal.getcontext().is_nan(value)

Given that protocol as a basis, it then proceeds to define "?then" and
"?else" as existence checking counterparts to the truth-checking "and"
and "or", as well as "?.", "?[]" and "?=" as abbreviations for
particular idiomatic uses of "?then" and "?else".

I think this approach frames the discussion in a more productive way,
as it gives us a series of questions to consider in order where a
collective answer of "No" at any point would be enough to kill this
particular proposal (or parts of it), but precisely *where* we say
"No" will determine which future alternatives might be worth

1. Do we collectively agree that "existence checking" is a useful
general concept that exists in software development and is distinct
from the concept of "truth checking"?
2. Do we collectively agree that the Python ecosystem would benefit
from an existence checking protocol that permits generalisation of
algorithms (especially short circuiting ones) across different "data
missing" indicators, including those defined in the language
definition, the standard library, and custom user code?
3. Do we collectively agree that it would be easier to use such a
protocol effectively if existence-checking equivalents to the
truth-checking "and" and "or" control flow operators were available?

Only if we have at least some level of consensus on the above
questions regarding whether or not this is a conceptual modeling
problem worth addressing at the language level does it then make sense
to move on to the more detailed questions regarding the specific
proposed *solution* to the problem in the PEP:

4. Do we collectively agree that "?then" and "?else" would be
reasonable spellings for such operators?
5a. Do we collectively agree that "access this attribute only if the
object exists" would be a particularly common use case for such
5b. Do we collectively agree that "access this subscript only if the
object exists" would be a particularly common use case for such
5c. Do we collectively agree that "bind this value to this target only
if the value currently bound to the target nominally doesn't exist"
would be a particularly common use case for such operators?
6a. Do we collectively agree that 'obj?.attr' would be a reasonable
spelling for "access this attribute only if the object exists"?
6b. Do we collectively agree that 'obj?[expr]' would be a reasonable
spelling for "access this subscript only if the object exists"?
6c. Do we collectively agree that 'target ?= expr' would be a
reasonable spelling for "bind this value to this target only if the
value currently bound to the target nominally doesn't exist"?

To be clear, this would be a *really* big addition to the language
that would have significant long term ramifications for how the
language gets taught to new developers.

At the same time, asking whether or not an object represents an
absence of data rather than the truth of a proposition seems to me
like a sufficiently common problem in a wide enough variety of domains
that it may be worth elevating to the level of giving it dedicated
syntactic support.


Rendered HTML version: https://www.python.org/dev/peps/pep-0531/

PEP: 531
Title: Existence checking operators
Version: $Revision$
Last-Modified: $Date$
Author: Nick Coghlan <ncoghlan at gmail.com>
Status: Draft
Type: Standards Track
Content-Type: text/x-rst
Created: 25-Oct-2016
Python-Version: 3.7
Post-History: 28-Oct-2016


Inspired by PEP 505 and the related discussions, this PEP proposes the addition
of two new control flow operators to Python:

* Existence-checking precondition ("exists-then"): ``expr1 ?then expr2``
* Existence-checking fallback ("exists-else"): ``expr1 ?else expr2``

as well as the following abbreviations for common existence checking
expressions and statements:

* Existence-checking attribute access:
  ``obj?.attr`` (for ``obj ?then obj.attr``)
* Existence-checking subscripting:
  ``obj?[expr]`` (for ``obj ?then obj[expr]``)
* Existence-checking assignment:
  ``value ?= expr`` (for ``value = value ?else expr``)

The common ``?`` symbol in these new operator definitions indicates that they
use a new "existence checking" protocol rather than the established
truth-checking protocol used by if statements, while loops, comprehensions,
generator expressions, conditional expressions, logical conjunction, and
logical disjunction.

This new protocol would be made available as ``operator.exists``, with the
following characteristics:

* types can define a new ``__exists__`` magic method (Python) or
  ``tp_exists`` slot (C) to override the default behaviour. This optional
  method has the same signature and possible return values as ``__bool__``.
* ``operator.exists(None)`` returns ``False``
* ``operator.exists(NotImplemented)`` returns ``False``
* ``operator.exists(Ellipsis)`` returns ``False``
* ``float``, ``complex`` and ``decimal.Decimal`` will override the existence
  check such that ``NaN`` values return ``False`` and other values (including
  zero values) return ``True``
* for any other type, ``operator.exists(obj)`` returns True by default. Most
  importantly, values that evaluate to False in a truth checking context
  (zeroes, empty containers) will still evaluate to True in an existence
  checking context

Relationship with other PEPs

While this PEP was inspired by and builds on Mark Haase's excellent work in
putting together PEP 505, it ultimately competes with that PEP due to
significant differences in the specifics of the proposed syntax and semantics
for the feature.

It also presents a different perspective on the rationale for the change by
focusing on the benefits to existing Python users as the typical demands of
application and service development activities are genuinely changing. It
isn't an accident that similar features are now appearing in multiple
programming languages, and while it's a good idea for us to learn from how other
language designers are handling the problem, precedents being set elsewhere
are more relevant to *how* we would go about tackling this problem than they
are to whether or not we think it's a problem we should address in the first


Existence checking expressions

An increasingly common requirement in modern software development is the need
to work with "semi-structured data": data where the structure of the data is
known in advance, but pieces of it may be missing at runtime, and the software
manipulating that data is expected to degrade gracefully (e.g. by omitting
results that depend on the missing data) rather than failing outright.

Some particularly common cases where this issue arises are:

* handling optional application configuration settings and function parameters
* handling external service failures in distributed systems
* handling data sets that include some partial records

It is the latter two cases that are the primary motivation for this PEP - while
needing to deal with optional configuration settings and parameters is a design
requirement at least as old as Python itself, the rise of public cloud
infrastructure, the development of software systems as collaborative networks
of distributed services, and the availability of large public and private data
sets for analysis means that the ability to degrade operations gracefully in
the face of partial service failures or partial data availability is becoming
an essential feature of modern programming environments.

At the moment, writing such software in Python can be genuinely awkward, as
your code ends up littered with expressions like:

* ``value1 = expr1.field.of.interest if expr1 is not None else None``
* ``value2 = expr2["field"]["of"]["interest"] if expr2 is not None else None``
* ``value3 = expr3 if expr3 is not None else expr4 if expr4 is not
None else expr5``

If these are only occasional, then expanding out to full statement forms may
help improve readability, but if you have 4 or 5 of them in a row (which is a
fairly common situation in data transformation pipelines), then replacing them
with 16 or 20 lines of conditional logic really doesn't help matters.

Expanding the three examples above that way hopefully helps illustrate that::

    _expr1 = expr1
    if _expr1 is not None:
        value1 = _expr1.field.of.interest
        value1 = None
    _expr2 = expr2
    if _expr2 is not None:
        value2 = _expr2["field"]["of"]["interest"]
        value2 = None
    _expr3 = expr3
    if _expr3 is not None:
        value3 = _expr3
        _expr4 = expr4
        if _expr4 is not None:
            value3 = _expr4
            value3 = expr5

The combined impact of the proposals in this PEP is to allow the above sample
expressions to instead be written as:

* ``value1 = expr1?.field.of.interest``
* ``value2 = expr2?["field"]["of"]["interest"]``
* ``value3 = expr3 ?else expr4 ?else expr5``

In these forms, almost all of the information presented to the reader is
immediately relevant to the question "What does this code do?", while the
boilerplate code to handle missing data by passing it through to the output
or falling back to an alternative input, has shrunk to two uses of the ``?``
symbol and two uses of the ``?else`` keyword.

In the first two examples, the 31 character boilerplate clause
`` if exprN is not None else None`` (minimally 27 characters for a single letter
variable name) has been replaced by a single ``?`` character, substantially
improving the signal-to-pattern-noise ratio of the lines (especially if it
encourages the use of more meaningful variable and field names rather than
making them shorter purely for the sake of expression brevity).

In the last example, two instances of the 21 character boilerplate,
`` if exprN is not None`` (minimally 17 characters) are replaced with single
characters, again substantially improving the signal-to-pattern-noise ratio.

Furthermore, each of our 5 "subexpressions of potential interest" is included
exactly once, rather than 4 of them needing to be duplicated or pulled out
to a named variable in order to first check if they exist.

The existence checking precondition operator is mainly defined to provide a
clear conceptual basis for the existence checking attribute access and
subscripting operators:

* ``obj?.attr`` is roughly equivalent to ``obj ?then obj.attr``
* ``obj?[expr]``is roughly equivalent to ``obj ?then obj[expr]``

The main semantic difference between the shorthand forms and their expanded
equivalents is that the common subexpression to the left of the existence
checking operator is evaluated only once in the shorthand form (similar to
the benefit offered by augmented assignment statements).

Existence checking assignment

Existence-checking assignment is proposed as a relatively straightforward
expansion of the concepts in this PEP to also cover the common configuration
handling idiom:

* ``value = value if value is not None else expensive_default()``

by allowing that to instead be abbreviated as:

* ``value ?= expensive_default()``

This is mainly beneficial when the target is a subscript operation or
subattribute, as even without this specific change, the PEP would still
permit this idiom to be updated to:

* ``value = value ?else expensive_default()``

The main argument *against* adding this form is that it's arguably ambiguous
and could mean either:

* ``value = value ?else expensive_default()``; or
* ``value = value ?then value.subfield.of.interest``

The second form isn't at all useful, but if this concern was deemed significant
enough to address while still keeping the augmented assignment feature,
the full keyword could be included in the syntax:

* ``value ?else= expensive_default()``

Alternatively, augmented assignment could just be dropped from the current
proposal entirely and potentially reconsidered at a later date.

Existence checking protocol

The existence checking protocol is including in this proposal primarily to
allow for proxy objects (e.g. local representations of remote resources) and
mock objects used in testing to correctly indicate non-existence of target
resources, even though the proxy or mock object itself is not None.

However, with that protocol defined, it then seems natural to expand it to
provide a type independent way of checking for ``NaN`` values in numeric types
- at the moment you need to be aware of the exact data type you're working with
(e.g. builtin floats, builtin complex numbers, the decimal module) and use the
appropriate operation (e.g. ``math.isnan``, ``cmath.isnan``,
``decimal.getcontext().is_nan()``, respectively)

Similarly, it seems reasonable to declare that the other placeholder builtin
singletons, ``Ellipsis`` and ``NotImplemented``, also qualify as objects that
represent the absence of data moreso than they represent data.

Proposed symbolic notation

Python has historically only had one kind of implied boolean context: truth
checking, which can be invoked directly via the ``bool()`` builtin. As this PEP
proposes a new kind of control flow operation based on existence checking rather
than truth checking, it is considered valuable to have a reminder directly
in the code when existence checking is being used rather than truth checking.

The mathematical symbol for existence assertions is U+2203 'THERE EXISTS': ``∃``

Accordingly, one possible approach to the syntactic additions proposed in this
PEP would be to use that already defined mathematical notation:

* ``expr1 ∃then expr2``
* ``expr1 ∃else expr2``
* ``obj∃.attr``
* ``obj∃[expr]``
* ``target ∃= expr``

However, there are two major problems with that approach, one practical, and
one pedagogical.

The practical problem is the usual one that most keyboards don't offer any easy
way of entering mathematical symbols other than those used in basic arithmetic
(even the symbols appearing in this PEP were ultimately copied & pasted
from [3]_ rather than being entered directly).

The pedagogical problem is that the symbols for existence assertions (``∃``)
and universal assertions (``∀``) aren't going to be familiar to most people
the way basic arithmetic operators are, so we wouldn't actually be making the
proposed syntax easier to understand by adopting ``∃``.

By contrast, ``?`` is one of the few remaining unused ASCII punctuation
characters in Python's syntax, making it available as a candidate syntactic
marker for "this control flow operation is based on an existence check, not a
truth check".

Taking that path would also have the advantage of aligning Python's syntax
with corresponding syntax in other languages that offer similar features.

Drawing from the existing summary in PEP 505 and the Wikipedia articles on
the "safe navigation operator [1]_ and the "null coalescing operator" [2]_,
we see:

* The ``?.`` existence checking attribute access syntax precisely aligns with:

  * the "safe navigation" attribute access operator in C# (``?.``)
  * the "optional chaining" operator in Swift (``?.``)
  * the "safe navigation" attribute access operator in Groovy (``?.``)
  * the "conditional member access" operator in Dart (``?.``)

* The ``?[]`` existence checking attribute access syntax precisely aligns with:

  * the "safe navigation" subscript operator in C# (``?[]``)
  * the "optional subscript" operator in Swift (``?[].``)

* The ``?else`` existence checking fallback syntax semantically aligns with:

  * the "null-coalescing" operator in C# (``??``)
  * the "null-coalescing" operator in PHP (``??``)
  * the "nil-coalescing" operator in Swift (``??``)

To be clear, these aren't the only spelling of these operators used in other
languages, but they're the most common ones, and the ``?`` symbol is the most
common syntactic marker by far (presumably prompted by the use of ``?`` to
introduce the "then" clause in C-style conditional expressions, which many
of these languages also offer).

Proposed keywords

Given the symbolic marker ``?``, it would be syntactically unambiguous to spell
the existence checking precondition and fallback operations using the same
keywords as their truth checking counterparts:

* ``expr1 ?and expr2`` (instead of ``expr1 ?then expr2``)
* ``expr1 ?or expr2`` (instead of ``expr1 ?else expr2``)

However, while syntactically unambiguous when written, this approach makes
the code incredibly hard to *pronounce* (What's the pronunciation of "?"?) and
also hard to *describe* (given reused keywords, there's no obvious shorthand
terms for "existence checking precondition (?and)" and "existence checking
fallback (?or)" that would distinguish them from "logical conjunction (and)"
and "logical disjunction (or)").

We could try to encourage folks to pronounce the ``?`` symbol as "exists",
making the shorthand names the "exists-and expression" and the
"exists-or expression", but there'd be no way of guessing those names purely
from seeing them written in a piece of code.

Instead, this PEP takes advantage of the proposed symbolic syntax to introduce
a new keyword (``?then``) and borrow an existing one (``?else``) in a way
that allows people to refer to "then expressions" and "else expressions"
without ambiguity.

These keywords also align well with the conditional expressions that are
semantically equivalent to the proposed expressions.

For ``?else`` expressions, ``expr1 ?else expr2`` is equivalent to::

    _lhs_result = expr1
    _lhs_result if operator.exists(_lhs_result) else expr2

Here the parallel is clear, since the ``else expr2`` appears at the end of
both the abbreviated and expanded forms.

For ``?then`` expressions, ``expr1 ?then expr2`` is equivalent to::

    _lhs_result = expr1
    expr2 if operator.exists(_lhs_result) else _lhs_result

Here the parallel isn't as immediately obvious due to Python's traditionally
anonymous "then" clauses (introduced by ``:`` in ``if`` statements and suffixed
by ``if`` in conditional expressions), but it's still reasonably clear as long
as you're already familiar with the "if-then-else" explanation of conditional
control flow.

Risks and concerns


Learning to read and write the new syntax effectively mainly requires
internalising two concepts:

* expressions containing ``?`` include an existence check and may short circuit
* if ``None`` or another "non-existent" value is an expected input, and the
  correct handling is to propagate that to the result, then the existence
  checking operators are likely what you want

Currently, these concepts aren't explicitly represented at the language level,
so it's a matter of learning to recognise and use the various idiomatic
patterns based on conditional expressions and statements.

Magic syntax

There's nothing about ``?`` as a syntactic element that inherently suggests
``is not None`` or ``operator.exists``. The main current use of ``?`` as a
symbol in Python code is as a trailing suffix in IPython environments to
request help information for the result of the preceding expression.

However, the notion of existence checking really does benefit from a pervasive
visual marker that distinguishes it from truth checking, and that calls for
a single-character symbolic syntax if we're going to do it at all.

Conceptual complexity

This proposal takes the currently ad hoc and informal concept of "existence
checking" and elevates it to the status of being a syntactic language feature
with a clearly defined operator protocol.

In many ways, this should actually *reduce* the overall conceptual complexity
of the language, as many more expectations will map correctly between truth
checking with ``bool(expr)`` and existence checking with
``operator.exists(expr)`` than currently map between truth checking and
existence checking with ``expr is not None`` (or ``expr is not NotImplemented``
in the context of operand coercion, or the various NaN-checking operations
in mathematical libraries).

As a simple example of the new parallels introduced by this PEP, compare::

    all_are_true = all(map(bool, iterable))
    at_least_one_is_true = any(map(bool, iterable))
    all_exist = all(map(operator.exists, iterable))
    at_least_one_exists = any(map(operator.exists, iterable))

Design Discussion

Subtleties in chaining existence checking expressions

Similar subtleties arise in chaining existence checking expressions as already
exist in chaining logical operators: the behaviour can be surprising if the
right hand side of one of the expressions in the chain itself returns a
value that doesn't exist.

As a result, ``value = arg1 ?then f(arg1) ?else default()`` would be dubious for
essentially the same reason that ``value = cond and expr1 or expr2`` is dubious:
the former will evaluate ``default()`` if ``f(arg1)`` returns ``None``, just
as the latter will evaluate ``expr2`` if ``expr1`` evaluates to ``False`` in
a boolean context.

Ambiguous interaction with conditional expressions

In the proposal as currently written, the following is a syntax error:

* ``value = f(arg) if arg ?else default``

While the following is a valid operation that checks a second condition if the
first doesn't exist rather than merely being false:

* ``value = expr1 if cond1 ?else cond2 else expr2``

The expression chaining problem described above means that the argument can be
made that the first operation should instead be equivalent to:

* ``value = f(arg) if operator.exists(arg) else default``

requiring the second to be written in the arguably clearer form:

* ``value = expr1 if (cond1 ?else cond2) else expr2``

Alternatively, the first form could remain a syntax error, and the existence
checking symbol could instead be attached to the ``if`` keyword:

* ``value = expr1 if? cond else expr2``

Existence checking in other truth-checking contexts

The truth-checking protocol is currently used in the following syntactic

* logical conjunction (and-expressions)
* logical disjunction (or-expressions)
* conditional expressions (if-else expressions)
* if statements
* while loops
* filter clauses in comprehensions and generator expressions

In the current PEP, switching from truth-checking with ``and`` and ``or`` to
existence-checking is a matter of substituting in the new keywords, ``?then``
and ``?else`` in the appropriate places.

For other truth-checking contexts, it proposes either importing and
using the ``operator.exists`` API, or else continuing with the current idiom
of checking specifically for ``expr is not None`` (or the context appropriate

The simplest possible enhancement in that regard would be to elevate the
proposed ``exists()`` API from an operator module function to a new builtin

Alternatively, the ``?`` existence checking symbol could be supported as a
modifier on the ``if`` and ``while`` keywords to indicate the use of an
existence check rather than a truth check.

However, it isn't at all clear that the potential consistency benefits gained
for either suggestion would justify the additional disruption, so they've
currently been omitted from the proposal.

Defining expected invariant relations between ``__bool__`` and ``__exists__``

The PEP currently leaves the definition of ``__bool__`` on all existing types
unmodified, which ensures the entire proposal remains backwards compatible,
but results in the following cases where ``bool(obj)`` returns ``True``, but
the proposed ``operator.exists(obj)`` would return ``False``:

* ``NaN`` values for ``float``, ``complex``, and ``decimal.Decimal``
* ``Ellipsis``
* ``NotImplemented``

The main argument for potentially changing these is that it becomes easier to
reason about potential code behaviour if we have a recommended invariant in
place saying that values which indicate they don't exist in an existence
checking context should also report themselves as being ``False`` in a truth
checking context.

Failing to define such an invariant would lead to arguably odd outcomes like
``float("NaN") ?else 0.0`` returning ``0.0`` while ``float("NaN") or 0.0``
returns ``NaN``.


Arbitrary sentinel objects

This proposal doesn't attempt to provide syntactic support for the "sentinel
object" idiom, where ``None`` is a permitted explicit value, so a
separate sentinel object is defined to indicate missing values::

    _SENTINEL = object()
    def f(obj=_SENTINEL):
        return obj if obj is not _SENTINEL else default_value()

This could potentially be supported at the expense of making the existence
protocol definition significantly more complex, both to define and to use:

* at the Python layer, ``operator.exists`` and ``__exists__`` implementations
  would return the empty tuple to indicate non-existence, and otherwise return
  a singleton tuple containing a reference to the object to be used as the
  result of the existence check
* at the C layer, ``tp_exists`` implementations would return NULL to indicate
  non-existence, and otherwise return a `PyObject *` pointer as the
  result of the existence check

Given that change, the sentinel object idiom could be rewritten as::

    class Maybe:
      SENTINEL = object()
      def __init__(self, value):
          self._result = (value,) is value is not self.SENTINEL else ()
      def __exists__(self):
          return self._result

    def f(obj=Maybe.SENTINEL):
        return Maybe(obj) ?else default_value()

However, I don't think cases where the 3 proposed standard sentinel values (i.e.
``None``, ``Ellipsis`` and ``NotImplemented``) can't be used are going to be
anywhere near common enough for the additional protocol complexity and the loss
of symmetry between ``__bool__`` and ``__exists__`` to be worth it.


The Abstract already gives the gist of the proposal and the Rationale gives
some specific examples. If there's enough interest in the basic idea, then a
full specification will need to provide a precise correspondence between the
proposed syntactic sugar and the underlying conditional expressions that is
sufficient to guide the creation of a reference implementation.



As with PEP 505, actual implementation has been deferred pending in-principle
interest in the idea of adding these operators - the implementation isn't
the hard part of these proposals, the hard part is deciding whether or not
this is a change where the long term benefits for new and existing Python users
outweigh the short term costs involved in the wider ecosystem (including
developers of other implementations, language curriculum developers, and
authors of other Python related educational material) adjusting to the change.



.. [1] Wikipedia: Safe navigation operator

.. [2] Wikipedia: Null coalescing operator

.. [3] FileFormat.info: Unicode Character 'THERE EXISTS' (U+2203)


This document has been placed in the public domain under the terms of the
CC0 1.0 license: https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/

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

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