Performance of lists vs. list comprehensions

Steven D'Aprano steve at
Wed Jan 20 07:12:18 CET 2010

On Wed, 20 Jan 2010 05:25:22 +0100, Alf P. Steinbach wrote:

> * Steven D'Aprano:
>> On Tue, 19 Jan 2010 16:20:42 -0500, Gerald Britton wrote:
>>> That's surprising. I wouldn't implement it that way at all.  I'd use a
>>> dynamically-expanding buffer as I suggested.  That way you get a
>>> single pass and don't have to calculate anything before you begin.  In
>>> the best case, you'd use half the memory (the result just fits in the
>>> buffer after its last expansion and no saved tuple).  In the worst
>>> case, the memory use is about the same (you just expanded the buffer
>>> using a 2x expansion rule then you hit the last item).
>> In the worst case, you waste 50% of the memory allocated.
> Yes. That is a good argument for not doing the expanding buffer thing.
> But such buffers may be generally present anyway, resulting from
> optimization of "+".

As near as I can determine, the CPython optimization you are referring to 
doesn't use the "double the buffer when needed" technique. It operates on 
a completely different strategy. As near as I can tell (as a non-C 
speaker), it re-sizes the string in place to the size actually needed, 
thus reducing the amount of copying needed.

The optimization patch is here:

and some history (including Guido's opposition to the patch) here:

Nevertheless, the patch is now part of CPython since 2.4, but must be 
considered an implementation-specific optimization. It doesn't apply to 
Jython, and likely other implementations.

> Using CPython 2.6.4 in Windows XP:
[snip time measurements]
> Here the linear increase of times indicate that the "+" is being
> optimized using an expanding buffer for the string.

Be careful of jumping to the conclusion from timings that a certain 
algorithm is used. All you can really tell is that, whatever the 
algorithm is, it has such-and-such big-oh behaviour.

> If only the minimal
> space was allocated each time then one would expect O(n^2) behavior
> instead of the apparently O(n) above.

I don't follow that reasoning.

> Example of that O(n^2) behavior given below.

The example shown demonstrates that the + optimization only applies in 
certain specific cases. In fact, it only applies to appending:

s += t
s = s + t

but not prepending or concatenation with multiple strings:

s = t + s
s += t + u

However, keep in mind that the CPython keyhole optimizer will take 
something like this:

s += "x" + "y"

and turn it into this:

s += "xy"

which the concatenation optimization does apply to. Optimizations make it 
hard to reason about the behaviour of algorithms!


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