This article explains why you should use isinstance instead of type and its relationship to Python duck typing.

Python 🐍 has 2 built-ins that are often misused: type and isinstance. The built-in type tells you the type of an object... So, many beginners think you should use type to check the type of an object. Sounds reasonable!

>>> type(3)  # Tells me the type of `3` is `int`
<class 'int'>

>>> type(3.14)  # Tells me the `type` of `3.14` is `float`.
<class 'float'>

>>> x = 4.0  # Is 4.0 an integer or a float?
>>> if type(x) == int:  # Seems like a reasonable check, right?
...     print("'Tis an int!")
... else:
...     print("'Tis a float.")
'Tis a float.

But here's why you should use isinstance: β€œPython is a dynamically typed language.” What does this mean? It means that the types of things are dynamic – they can change. For example, a variable x can start by holding a string, which can then change into an integer, and then into a list:

>>> x = "3"
>>> type(x)
<class 'str'>

>>> x = int(x)
>>> type(x)
<class 'int'>

>>> x = [None] * x
>>> type(x)
<class 'list'>

This also means that, when you write a function, you can't tell what types of arguments you'll get. E.g., I may write a function to compute square roots of numbers. I want numbers. But nothing stops you from calling my function with a string:

>>> def sqrt(x):
...     return pow(x, .5)
>>> sqrt("sqrt goes BOOM")
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
  File "<stdin>", line 2, in sqrt
TypeError: unsupported operand type(s) for ** or pow(): 'str' and 'float'

The error above may be surprising. I called sqrt and get an error in **/pow..?

So, maybe I should check the type of the argument I get? Let me check if it's an integer or a float, and if it's not, I complain more accurately.

That's when I might think of using type:

def sqrt(x):
    if type(x) not in (int, float):
        raise TypeError("Can only compute square roots of ints and floats.")
    return pow(x, .5)

But when I write code like this, I'm not taking into account Python's duck typing. What's duck typing?

"If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck."

In other words, I don't need the argument to be exactly an int or a float.

For example, imagine I create a toy class for positive floats only:

>>> class Pos(float):
...     def __init__(self, value):
...         if value <= 0:
...             raise ValueError("Pos MUST be positive.")

Notice how little I wrote to define Pos. And yet, I can already do plenty with Pos objects:

>>> p = Pos(4.51234) 
>>> f"The value of p squared is approximately {pow(p, 2):.2f}."
'The value of p squared is approximately 20.36.'

How can I use pow and string formatting with instances of Pos without defining the functionality? Because, for the purposes of pow and formatting, Pos objects look a lot like floats. Therefore, pow and formatting make use of the float-related features to implement that behaviour.

As we've seen, pow works on instances of Pos... So, can I compute square roots of my instances of Pos? As of now, not really:

>>> sqrt(p)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
  File "<stdin>", line 3, in sqrt
TypeError: Can only compute square roots of ints and floats.

Why not? Because I'm checking if my argument is an int or a float!

But instances of Pos behave pretty much like floats, so maybe we could change the function sqrt:

  • instead of checking if we really have floats or integers...
  • we can just check if the argument looks like a float or an integer!

If it does, compute the square root!

With me so far? Because this is the essence of duck typing! If something walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, just pretend it's a duck and get it over with.

How do we check, in Python 🐍, if something looks like a duck? We use isinstance:

>>> p = Pos(4.51234)
>>> def sqrt(x):
...     if not isinstance(x, (int, float)):
...         raise TypeError("Can only compute square roots of ints and floats.")
...     return pow(x, .5)
>>> sqrt(p)

Most of the times, you don't need a specific type, so no need to use type. You just need things that look like those types, hence you use isinstance.

Can you go back to some code you wrote previously and find a check with type that you can replace with isinstance?

I hope this cleared some doubts you might have had about isinstance and/or duck typing in Python. If you have questions, feel free to ask them in the comments below.

I like writing about Python, so follow me @mathsppblog if you like reading about Python πŸ˜‰


When writing code:

  • don't check if you really have a duck (type);
  • instead, check if you have something that looks enough like a duck (isinstance).

I hope this made sense!

Share this article with others if it did! πŸš€

I'll see you around. πŸ‘‹

This article was generated automatically from this thread I published on Twitter @mathsppblog. Then it was edited lightly.

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