8. Strings

In this chapter, we dive into a bit more depth on strings.

8.1. Traversal with a while loop

There are a number of situations in which a string must be processed one character at a time. We’ve already done this with for loops, but while loops give us some additional flexibility. Often, we start at the beginning, select each character in turn, do something to it, and continue until the end. This pattern of processing is called a traversal. For example:

index = 0
while index < len(fruit):
    letter = fruit[index]
    print letter
    index += 1

This loop traverses the string and displays each letter on a line by itself. The loop condition is index < len(fruit), so when index is equal to the length of the string, the condition is false, and the body of the loop is not executed. The last character accessed is the one with the index len(fruit)-1, which is the last character in the string.


  1. Write a function that takes a string as an argument and displays the letters backward, one per line.
  2. Write a function that takes a string as an argument and displays the letters backward, all on the same line. (A space between letters is ok.)
  3. Write a function that takes a string as a parameter and returns the number of 'x's that appear before the first 'z' in the string. For example, calling the function with the string 'xaxxyz! x?' should yield the count 3, since there are 3 'x's that appear before the 'z' in the string.

The following example shows how to use concatenation (string addition) and a for loop to generate an abecedarian series (that is, in alphabetical order). In Robert McCloskey’s book Make Way for Ducklings, the names of the ducklings are Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack. This loop outputs these names in order:

prefixes = 'JKLMNOPQ'
suffix = 'ack'

for letter in prefixes:
    print letter + suffix

The output is:


Of course, that’s not quite right because “Ouack” and “Quack” are misspelled.


  1. Modify the program to fix this error.
  2. Modify the program to use a while loop instead of a for loop.

8.2. String slices

A segment of a string is called a slice. Selecting a slice is similar to selecting a character:

>>> s = 'Monty Python'
>>> print s[0:5]
>>> print s[6:12]

The operator [n:m] returns the part of the string from the “n-eth” character to the “m-eth” character, including the first but excluding the last. This behavior is counterintuitive, but it might help to imagine the indices pointing between the characters, as in the following diagram:


If you omit the first index (before the colon), the slice starts at the beginning of the string. If you omit the second index, the slice goes to the end of the string:

>>> fruit = 'banana'
>>> fruit[:3]
>>> fruit[3:]

If the first index is greater than or equal to the second the result is an empty string, represented by two quotation marks:

>>> fruit = 'banana'
>>> fruit[3:3]

An empty string contains no characters and has length 0, but other than that, it is the same as any other string.

Another way to slice a string is to use three indices. The third value is referred to as the step:

>>> fruit = 'banana'
>>> fruit[0:5:2]

The three slice indices work similarly to the three arguments to the range function. In fact, you can think of the three slice parameters as being used in a range function call to generate the indices of values to be extracted (“sliced out”) from the string. range(0,5,2) would give the list [0, 2, 4], so the slice yields a string composed of the characters at indices 0, 2, and 4.


  1. Given that fruit is a string, what does fruit[:] mean?
  2. Can you construct a string slice that will return a reversed copy of the string?

8.3. Strings are immutable

It is tempting to use the [] operator on the left side of an assignment, with the intention of changing a character in a string. For example:

>>> greeting = 'Hello, world!'
>>> greeting[0] = 'J'
TypeError: object does not support item assignment

The “object” in this case is the string and the “item” is the character you tried to assign. For now, an object is the same thing as a value, but we will refine that definition later. An item is one of the values in a sequence.

The reason for the error is that strings are immutable, which means you can’t change an existing string. The best you can do is create a new string that is a variation on the original:

>>> greeting = 'Hello, world!'
>>> new_greeting = 'J' + greeting[1:]
>>> print new_greeting
Jello, world!

This example concatenates a new first letter onto a slice of greeting. It has no effect on the original string.

8.4. Searching

What does the following function do? Read the function carefully before moving on. If it helps, you can trace the operation of two different calls to this function: find('magic', 'i') and find('magic', 'z').

def find(word, letter):
    index = 0
    while index < len(word):
        if word[index] == letter:
            return index
        index = index + 1
    return -1

In a sense, find is the opposite of the [] operator. Instead of taking an index and extracting the corresponding character, it takes a character and finds the index where that character appears. If the character is not found, the function returns -1.

This is the first example we have seen of a return statement inside a loop. If word[index] == letter, the function breaks out of the loop and returns immediately.

If the character doesn’t appear in the string, the program exits the loop normally and returns -1.

This pattern of computation—traversing a sequence and returning when we find what we are looking for—is called a search.


  1. Modify find so that it has a third parameter, the index in word where it should start looking.
  2. Write a function named findall that takes a character to search for and a string, and returns a list of indices where the character is found in the string.

8.5. Looping and counting

The following program counts the number of times the letter a appears in a string:

word = 'banana'
count = 0
for letter in word:
    if letter == 'a':
        count = count + 1
print count

This program demonstrates another pattern of computation called a counter. The variable count is initialized to 0 and then incremented each time an a is found. When the loop exits, count contains the result—the total number of a’s.


  1. Encapsulate this code in a function named count, and generalize it so that it accepts the string and the letter as arguments.
  2. Rewrite this function so that instead of traversing the string, it uses the three-parameter version of find from the previous section.
  3. Rewrite the function so that instead of passing a single character as a parameter, another string can be passed to the function. Try to generalize the function so that it works for any length of substring.

8.6. string methods

A method is similar to a function —it takes arguments and returns a value—but the syntax is different. For example, the method upper takes a string and returns a new string with all uppercase letters:

Instead of the function syntax upper(word), it uses the method syntax word.upper().

>>> word = 'banana'
>>> new_word = word.upper()
>>> print new_word

This form of dot notation specifies the name of the method, upper, and the name of the string to apply the method to, word. The empty parentheses indicate that this method takes no argument.

A method call is called an invocation; in this case, we would say that we are invoking upper on the word.

As it turns out, there is a string method named find that is remarkably similar to the function we wrote:

>>> word = 'banana'
>>> index = word.find('a')
>>> print index

In this example, we invoke find on word and pass the letter we are looking for as a parameter.

Actually, the find method is more general than our function; it can find substrings, not just characters:

>>> word.find('na')

It can take as a second argument the index where it should start:

>>> word.find('na', 3)

And as a third argument the index where it should stop:

>>> name = 'bob'
>>> name.find('b', 1, 2)

This search fails because b does not appear in the index range from 1 to 2 (not including 2).


  1. There is a string method called count that is similar to the function in the previous exercise. Read the documentation of this method and write an invocation that counts the number of as in 'banana'.

There are quite a few string methods, and you’ll probably want to take a look at the documentation: http://docs.python.org/library/stdtypes.html#string-methods. Below, we review several of the useful methods:

method description
upper Return an upper-cased copy of the string.
lower Return a lower-cased copy of the string.
capitalize Return a copy of the string with the first character
count(s) Return the number of non-overlapping occurrences
  of the substring s in the string.
replace(old, new) Return a copy of the string with all occurrences of
  old replaced by new.
strip Return a copy of the string with leading and trailing
  “whitespace” characters removed (spaces, tabs, and
  newline characters).
split Return a list of words in the string, separating the
  string by any whitespace characters.

Note that several of the methods above can take optional parameters, which modify the behavior of the method. Refer to the Python documentation for details on the various string methods.

8.7. Character-numeric duality

Internal to a computer, all data are represented numerically: images, sounds, videos, strings, and characters. Sometimes it is useful to be able to process characters numerically instead of as single-character strings. Python includes two built-in functions to help with this: ord and chr.

ord(ch) returns the numeric, or ordinal value of a character. chr(n) returns the character corresponding to a given number n. For example:

>>> ord('A')
>>> ord('B')
>>> ord('C')
>>> ord('a')
>>> ord('b')
>>> chr(99)
>>> chr(100)

As you can see above, upper case letters and lower case letters are each organized sequentially. Upper case letters start at the ordinal value 65, and lower case letters start at 97. Knowing these specific numbers is not important; it is useful to observe, however, that they’re organized sequentially.

The mappings between characters and their numeric equivalents is defined by several standards. The most historically relevant one is the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, or ASCII: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ascii. Unfortunately, ASCII, as the name suggests, is United States (and English) centric and cannot accommodate character sets from other languages such as Chinese, Russian, or Korean. The Unicode standard was developed to accommodate international character sets. Unicode is beyond the scope of this class, but if you’re interested, you can read more on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicode.

8.8. String comparison and ordering

As we’ve already seen, the relational operators work on strings. However, Python does not handle uppercase and lowercase letters the same way that people do. All the uppercase letters come before all the lowercase letters, so 'Pineapple' comes before 'banana'.

A common way to address this problem is to convert strings to a standard format, such as all lowercase, before performing the comparison. Keep that in mind in case you have to defend yourself against a man armed with a Pineapple.

8.9. Debugging

When you use indices to traverse the values in a sequence, it is tricky to get the beginning and end of the traversal right. Here is a function that is supposed to compare two words and return True if one of the words is the reverse of the other, but it contains two errors:

def is_reverse(word1, word2):
    if len(word1) != len(word2):
        return False

    i = 0
    j = len(word2)

    while j > 0:
        if word1[i] != word2[j]:
            return False
        i = i+1
        j = j-1

    return True

The first if statement checks whether the words are the same length. If not, we can return False immediately and then, for the rest of the function, we can assume that the words are the same length.

i and j are indices: i traverses word1 forward while j traverses word2 backward. If we find two letters that don’t match, we can return False immediately. If we get through the whole loop and all the letters match, we return True.

If we test this function with the words “pots” and “stop”, we expect the return value True, but we get an IndexError:

>>> is_reverse('pots', 'stop')
  File "reverse.py", line 15, in is_reverse
    if word1[i] != word2[j]:
IndexError: string index out of range

For debugging this kind of error, my first move is to print the values of the indices immediately before the line where the error appears.

while j > 0:
    print i, j        # print here

    if word1[i] != word2[j]:
        return False
    i = i+1
    j = j-1

Now when I run the program again, I get more information:

>>> is_reverse('pots', 'stop')
0 4
IndexError: string index out of range

The first time through the loop, the value of j is 4, which is out of range for the string 'pots'. The index of the last character is 3, so the initial value for j should be len(word2)-1.

If I fix that error and run the program again, I get:

>>> is_reverse('pots', 'stop')
0 3
1 2
2 1

This time we get the right answer, but it looks like the loop only ran three times, which is suspicious. To get a better idea of what is happening, it is useful to draw a state diagram. During the first iteration, the frame for is_reverse looks like this:

State diagram for ``is_reverse`` example.

State diagram for is_reverse example.

I took a little license by arranging the variables in the frame and adding dotted lines to show that the values of i and j indicate characters in word1 and word2.


  1. Starting with this diagram, execute the program on paper, changing the values of i and j during each iteration. Find and fix the second error in this function.

8.10. Glossary

Something a variable can refer to. For now, you can use “object” and “value” interchangeably.
An ordered set; that is, a set of values where each value is identified by an integer index.
One of the values in a sequence.
An integer value used to select an item in a sequence, such as a character in a string.
A part of a string specified by a range of indices.
empty string:
A string with no characters and length 0, represented by two quotation marks.
The property of a sequence whose items cannot be assigned.
To iterate through the items in a sequence, performing a similar operation on each.
A pattern of traversal that stops when it finds what it is looking for.
A variable used to count something, usually initialized to zero and then incremented.
A function that is associated with an object and called using dot notation.
A statement that calls a method.

8.11. Exercises

  1. Write a function named inboth that takes two strings as parameters, and returns a list of all the characters that are contained in both strings. Write the function in a case-sensitive way.

  2. Rewrite the inboth function to work in a case-insensitive way.

  3. The following functions are all intended to check whether a string contains any lowercase letters, but at least some of them are wrong. For each function, describe what the function actually does (assuming that the parameter is a string).

    def any_lowercase1(s):
        for c in s:
            if c.islower():
                return True
                return False
    def any_lowercase2(s):
        for c in s:
            if 'c'.islower():
                return 'True'
                return 'False'
    def any_lowercase3(s):
        for c in s:
            flag = c.islower()
        return flag
    def any_lowercase4(s):
        flag = False
        for c in s:
            flag = flag or c.islower()
        return flag
    def any_lowercase5(s):
        for c in s:
            if not c.islower():
                return False
        return True
  4. ROT13 is a weak form of encryption that involves “rotating” each letter in a word by 13 places [1]. To rotate a letter means to shift it through the alphabet, wrapping around to the beginning if necessary, so ‘A’ shifted by 3 is ‘D’ and ‘Z’ shifted by 1 is ‘A’.

    Write a function called rotate_word that takes a string and an integer as parameters, and that returns a new string that contains the letters from the original string “rotated” by the given amount.

    For example, “cheer” rotated by 7 is “jolly” and “melon” rotated by -10 is “cubed”.

  5. Write a program that asks for a phrase, then computes and prints the number of words and number of characters in the phrase.

  6. Write a program that asks for a phrase, then computes the number of upper and lower case letters, and prints the two counts.

[1]See http://wikipedia.org/wiki/ROT13.