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__name__ dunder attribute | Pydon't 🐍

This Pydon't walks you through the usages of the __name__ dunder method and how to use it effectively.

(If you are new here and have no idea what a Pydon't is, you may want to read the Pydon't Manifesto.)

Introduction

In this Pydon't we will take a look at the __name__ attribute. If you Google it, you will find a ton of results explaining one use case of the __name__ attribute, so in this Pydon't I'll try to tell you about another couple of use cases so that you learn to use __name__ effectively in your Python programs.

In this Pydon't, you will:

• learn about the idiomatic usage of __name__ to create “main” functions in Python;
• learn about the read-only attribute __name__ that many built-in objects get;
• see how __name__ is used in a convention involving logging; and
• see some code examples of the things I will be teaching.

What is __name__?

__name__ is a special attribute in Python. It is special because it is a dunder attribute, which is just the name that we give, in Python, to attributes whose names start and end with a double underscore. (I explain in greater detail what a dunder attribute/method is in a previous Pydon't.)

You can look __name__ up in the Python documentation, and you will find two main results that we will cover here. One of the results talks about __main__ as a module attribute, while the other result talks about __main__ as an attribute to built-in object types.

The module attribute __name__

The most commonly known use case for __name__ is as a module attribute, when using __name__ to create “main” functions in Python. What this means is that you can use __name__ to determine programmatically if your code is being ran directly as a script or if it is being imported from another module.

How can we do this? Simple!

Go ahead and write the following line in your print_name.py file:

print(__name__)

Now open your command line and run the script:

 > python print_name.py
__main__

What this is showing you is that the attribute __name__ was automatically set to "__main__" when you ran your code as a script. This is relevant because that is not what happens when you import your code from elsewhere.

As an example, go ahead and write the following line into your importer.py file:

import print_name

Then go ahead and run this new Python script:

 > python importer.py
print_name

Where is that "print_name" being printed from? Well, the only print statement you have is in the print_name.py file, so that was definitely the place from where the printed value came out. Notice that some code got executed (and some things were printed to the console) just by importing code from another module.

Also, notice that the value printed matches the name of the file it came from. Here, we see that __name__ was automatically set to the name of the file it was in (print_name) when the code from print_name was imported from importer.

So, we see that __name__ takes on different values depending on whether the code is ran directly as a script or imported from elsewhere.

When you write code, you often write a couple of functions that help you solve your problem, and then you apply those functions to the problem you have at hands.

For example, when I wrote some Python code to count valid passwords in an efficient manner, I wrote a class to represent an automaton in a file called automaton.py:

# automaton.py

class Automaton:
# ...

That class was problem-agnostic, it just implemented some basic behaviour related to automatons. It just so happened that that behaviour was helpful for me to solve the problem of counting passwords efficiently, so I imported that Automaton class in another file and wrote a little program to solve my problem. Thus, we can say that the majority of the times that I will use the code in my automaton.py file will be to import it from elsewhere and to use it.

However, I also added a little demo of the functionality of the Automaton class in the automaton.py file. Now, the problem is that I don't want this little demo to run every time the Automaton class is imported by another program, so I have to figure out a way to only run the demo if the automaton.py file is ran directly as a script... The reason is that my demo code has some print statements that wouldn't make sense to a user that just did import automaton from within another script... Imagine importing a module into your program and suddenly having a bunch of prints in your console!

Now, we can use __name__ to avoid that! We have seen that __name__ is set to "__main__" when a script is ran directly, so we just have to check that:

# automaton.py

class Automaton:
# ...

if __name__ == "__main__":
print("Demo code.")

This is the most well-known use case of __name__. This is why you will commonly see snippets like

if __name__ == "__main__":
main()

It is just the Pythonic way of separating the functions and classes and other definitions, that might be useful for you to import later on, from the code that you only want to run if your program is the main piece of code being executed.

By the way, this global variable __name__ really is a variable that just gets initialised without you having to do anything. But you can assign to it, even though it is unlikely that you might need to do that. Hence, this code is perfectly valid:

__name__ = "My name!"
if __name__ == "__main__":
# This will never run:
print("Inside the __main__ if.")

__name__ as an object type attribute

There is another Pythonic use case for the __name__ attribute, another common usage pattern that employs __name__. This pattern I will teach you about now doesn't have to do with module attributes, but with object type attributes.

As you may be aware, all objects have a type that tells you “what” that object is.

Here are a couple of common types:

>>> type(0.5)
<class 'float'>
>>> type("hello")
<class 'str'>
>>> type(sum)
<class 'builtin_function_or_method'>

Notice how the built-in type tells you what is the class of which the object is an instance. For example, "hello" is a string and that is why type("hello") returns <class 'str'>, which clearly contains the name of the class in there: it is the 'str' in there, between the single quotes.

With this information, how would you implement a get_type_name function that only returns the string with the type name, without the extra <class> fluff?

Give it some thought.

Here is a possibility:

>>> def get_type_name(obj):
...     return str(type(obj)).split("'")[1]
...
>>> get_type_name("hello")
'str'
>>> get_type_name(sum)
'builtin_function_or_method'

Is this a good solution? I think we can definitely do better.

The documentation tells us that many built-in object types and definitions come with its __name__ attribute, which is “the name of the class, function, method, descriptor, or generator instance”.

Therefore, a better implementation of the get_type_name function would be

>>> def get_type_name(obj):
...     return type(obj).__name__
...
>>> get_type_name("hello")
'str'
>>> get_type_name(sum)
'builtin_function_or_method'

This is much shorter, much cleaner (doesn't have nested function calls, for example), and much easier to read, as the code says what it is doing. The name we picked for our function is good already, because it is easy to make an educated guess about what the function does, but it is much better if the body of the function itself makes it absolutely clear that we are getting what we want!

This ability of reaching out for the __name__ of things is useful, for example, when you want to print an error message because you expected an argument of some type and, instead, you got something else. Using __name__ you can get prettier error messages.

You can query the __name__ of things other than built-in types. You can also query the name of functions, for example:

>>> sum.__name__
'sum'
>>> get_type_name.__name__
'get_type_name'

This might be relevant if you get ahold of a function in a programmatic way and need to figure out what function it is:

>>> import random
>>> fn = random.choice([sum, get_type_name])
>>> fn.__name__
'sum'

I don't think you are likely to receive a function from a random.choice call, but this just shows how you can use __name__ to figure out what function you are looking at.

Another great thing that already comes with a __name__ is your custom classes. If you define a class, __name__ will be a very clean way of accessing the pretty class name without having to jump through too many hoops or doing hacky string processing:

>>> class A():
...     pass
...
>>> A
<class '__main__.A'>
>>> A.__name__
'A'
>>> a = A()
>>> a
>>> type(a)
<class '__main__.A'>
>>> type(a).__name__
'A'

Similarly to the module __name__, the __name__ attribute of types, functions, etc, can be assigned directly:

>>> type(a).__name__
'A'
>>> A.__name__ = "name..?"
>>> type(a).__name__
'name..?'

Sometimes this is useful, for example when you need to copy some metadata from one object to another.

Examples in code

I showed you what is the meaning that the __name__ attribute has, both as a module attribute and as an attribute of type objects, and now I will show you how this knowledge can be put to practice. I will be drawing my examples from the Python Standard Library, as per usual.

Defining a command line interface to the module code

If you take a look at the calendar module, you will find functions to deal with calendars in various ways. If you inspect the source code, you will see that the implementation of the module ends with the following two lines:

# From Lib/calendar.py in Python 3.9.2
if __name__ == "__main__":
main(sys.argv)

In short, the module defines a series of functions that people might want to import from elsewhere, but if the program is run directly, then it will call the function main, passing it in whatever arguments the program received from the terminal.

As an example, try running the following on your command line:

 > python -m calendar 2021 6
June 2021
Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa Su
1  2  3  4  5  6
7  8  9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30

This shows a great example of how a module might have something interesting/useful to run if it is started as the main program. The function main in the calendar module implements a simple command line interface with the argparse module, and thus the main function is simply an entry point to the code that the module already defined.

Just out of curiosity, the Python Standard Library for my installation of Python 3.9.2 has 2280 .py files, and if you look for it, you can find the line if __name__ == "__main__": in 469 files, a little over a fifth of the files... So this really is a common pattern in Python!

Pretty error messages

Deleting from an enum

Like I mentioned before, if you want to get the name of the type of an object, type(obj).__name__ is likely to be the way to go about doing that.

An example of where this shows up is in the enum module. The enum modules gives support to enumerations in Python, which are sets of symbolic names (members) bound to unique, constant values.

Here is an example enumeration:

>>> import enum
>>> class Colour(enum.Enum):
...   RED = "RED"
...   GREEN = "GREEN"
...   BLUE = "BLUE"
...

Now we have a way of talking about specific colours:

>>> Colour.RED
<Colour.RED: 'RED'>
>>> Colour.BLUE
<Colour.BLUE: 'BLUE'>

Now, what if we want to delete one of the colours? For example, GREEN?

>>> del Colour.GREEN
Traceback (most recent call last):
File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
File "C:\Program Files\Python39\lib\enum.py", line 382, in __delattr__
raise AttributeError("%s: cannot delete Enum member." % cls.__name__)
AttributeError: Colour: cannot delete Enum member.

We can't delete GREEN from the enum because the GREEN attribute isn't just like any other class attribute, it is actually an integral part of the enumeration structure, and so the implementers of this module guarded the class against this type of deletions.

The question is, how did they get the pretty name of my Colour class? I don't even have to show you the code, you can just look at the error message above, that says we got an AttributeError inside the Colour enum. What was the line of code that produced this pretty error message? It was the following line:

raise AttributeError("%s: cannot delete Enum member." % cls.__name__)

In this line, cls is already a class, something like this:

>>> Colour          # <--
<enum 'Colour'>     # <-- this is what cls is...
# By the way, this is *not* a string.

So we could get its __name__ directly and produce a pretty error message, or at least as pretty as error messages go.

Doing argument validation

Another similar use case can be found in the fractions module. This module provides a function, called from_decimal, to convert a Decimal number (from the decimal module) into an exact fraction. From my description of the function maybe you understood it, but this from_decimal function expects a decimal.Decimal instance, and errors out if the argument given is not such a thing:

>>> import fractions
>>> fractions.Fraction.from_decimal("3")
Traceback (most recent call last):
File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
File "C:\Program Files\Python39\lib\fractions.py", line 188, in from_decimal
raise TypeError(
TypeError: Fraction.from_decimal() only takes Decimals, not '3' (str)

Now the error message isn't enough because the code spans a couple of different lines, but here is the type validation that the from_decimal function performs:

# From Lib/fractions.py in Python 3.9.2
class Fraction(numbers.Rational):
# ...

@classmethod
def from_decimal(cls, dec):
"""Converts a finite Decimal instance to a rational number, exactly."""
from decimal import Decimal
if isinstance(dec, numbers.Integral):
dec = Decimal(int(dec))
elif not isinstance(dec, Decimal):
raise TypeError(
"%s.from_decimal() only takes Decimals, not %r (%s)" %
(cls.__name__, dec, type(dec).__name__))
return cls(*dec.as_integer_ratio())

Notice how the function takes a dec and tries to convert it to a Decimal if the argument isn't a Decimal but is easy to treat as one. That is why giving 3 to the function doesn't give an error:

>>> fractions.Fraction.from_decimal(3)
Fraction(3, 1)

However, "3" is not a numbers.Integral and it is also not a Decimal, so dec fails the tests and we end up with

raise TypeError(
"%s.from_decimal() only takes Decimals, not %r (%s)" %
(cls.__name__, dec, type(dec).__name__))

Notice how we even have two __name__ usages here. The first one is similar the example above with Enum, and we take our cls (that is already a class) and simply ask for its name. That is the part of the code that built the beginning of the message:

TypeError: Fraction.from_decimal() ...
^^^^^^^^

Then we print the value that actually got us into trouble, and that is what the dec is doing there:

TypeError: Fraction.from_decimal() only takes Decimals, not '3' ...
^^^

Finally, we want to tell the user what it is that the user passed in, just in case it isn't clear from the beginning of the error message. To do that, we figure out the type of dec and then ask for its __name__, hence the type(dec).__name__ in the code above. This is what produces the end of the error message:

TypeError: Fraction.from_decimal() only takes Decimals, not '3' (str)
^^^

This type(obj).__name__ pattern is also very common. In my 3.9.2 installation of the Python Standard Library, it appeared 138 times in 74 different .py files. The specific cls.__name__ pattern also showed up a handful of times.

Logging convention

For the final code example I will be showing you a common convention that is practised when using the logging module to log your programs.

The logging module provides a getLogger function to the users, and that getLogger function accepts a name string argument. This is so that getLogger can return a logger with the specified name.

On the one hand, you want to name your loggers so that, inside huge applications, you can tell what logging messages came from where. On the other hand, the getLogger function always returns the same logger if you give it the same name, so that inside a single module or file, you don't need to pass the logger around, you can just call getLogger always with the same name.

Now, you want to get your logger by using always the same name and you also want the name to identify clearly and unequivocally the module that the logging happened from. This shows that hand-picking something like "logger" is a bad idea, as I am likely to pick the same logger name as other developers picked in their code, and so our logging will become a huge mess if our code interacts.

The other obvious alternative is to name it something specific to the module we are in, like the file name. However, if I set the logger name to the file name by hand, I know I will forget to update it if I end up changing the file name, so I am in a bit of a pickle here...

Thankfully, this type of situation is a textbook example of when the __name__ attribute might come in handy!

The __name__ attribute gives you a readable name that clearly identifies the module it is from, and using __name__ even means that your logging facilities are likely to behave well if your code interacts with other code that also does some logging.

This is why using getLogger(__name__) is the recommended convention in the documentation and that is why this pattern is used approximately 84% of the times! (It is used in 103 .py files out of the 123 .py files that call the getLogger function in the Python Standard Library.)

Conclusion

Here's the main takeaway of this Pydon't, for you, on a silver platter:

The __name__ attribute is a dynamic attribute that tells you the name of the module you are in, or the name of the type of your variables.

This Pydon't showed you that:

• __name__ is a module attribute that tells you the name of the module you are in;
• __name__ can be used to tell if a program is being ran directly by checking if __name__ is __main__;
• you can and should use __name__ to access the pretty name of the types of your objects;
• __name__ is an attribute that can be assigned to without any problem;
• the if statement if __name__ == "__main__": is a very Pythonic way of making sure some code only runs if the program is ran directly;
• the pattern type(obj).__name__ is a simple way of accessing the type name of an object; and
• there is a well-established convention that uses __name__ to set the name of loggers when using the logging module.

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