A Python 3000 Question

Duncan Booth duncan.booth at invalid.invalid
Wed Oct 31 14:49:50 CET 2007

Neil Cerutti <horpner at yahoo.com> wrote:

> But if I'm wrong about the performance benefits then I guess I'm
> still in the dark about why len is a builtin. The only compelling
> thing in the linked explation was the signatures of the guys who
> wrote the artible. (Guido does admit he would, "hate to lose it
> as a builtin," but doesn't explain why that should be a bad
> thing).

With most of the builtin functions there is an advantage since they wrap 
a bit of extra logic round the implementation: e.g. getattr hooks to 
__getattr__ or __getattribute__.

With len that doesn't really apply, as the only extra logic seems fairly 
pointless: sequences and mappings implement length differently so you 
could have a type which acts as both and returns different lengths for 
each. Also the result returned from __len__ is cast from a Python object 
to a C value and back again so you can't return a length which is too 
large to convert.

The main benefit that I can think of is that it avoids namespace 
pollution: most Python special methods (the ones you aren't supposed to 
call directly) have the double-underscores flagging them as separate 
from user methods. This is a good thing: you can create a class which 
acts like a builtin sequence, but which has any attributes you fancy: 
the obvious example being the classic "it's a tuple but all the elements 
are also accessible as attributes" returned from time.localtime(), 
os.stat(). Try this in a language like Javascript and nasty things 
happen when your attribute names clash with internal attribute names.

So that's my conclusion: it is a builtin function rather than a method 
in order to avoid polluting the user attribute space of user-defined 

Obviously it isn't an absolute thing: lists and dictionaries do have 
other methods in the user namespace, so the decision to keep len out of 
that namespace is partly a judgement call, and partly historical (I 
think tuples didn't used to have any methods at all).

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