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Engineering LibreTexts

3.8: Short-Circuit Evaluation of Logical Expressions

When Python is processing a logical expression such as x >= 2 and (x/y) > 2, it evaluates the expression from left to right. Because of the definition of and, if x is less than 2, the expression x >= 2 is False and so the whole expression is False regardless of whether (x/y) > 2 evaluates to True or False.

When Python detects that there is nothing to be gained by evaluating the rest of a logical expression, it stops its evaluation and does not do the computations in the rest of the logical expression. When the evaluation of a logical expression stops because the overall value is already known, it is called short-circuiting the evaluation.

 

While this may seem like a fine point, the short-circuit behavior leads to a clever technique called the guardian pattern. Consider the following code sequence in the Python interpreter:

>>> x = 6
>>> y = 2
>>> x >= 2 and (x/y) > 2
True
>>> x = 1
>>> y = 0
>>> x >= 2 and (x/y) > 2
False
>>> x = 6
>>> y = 0
>>> x >= 2 and (x/y) > 2
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
ZeroDivisionError: division by zero
>>>

The third calculation failed because Python was evaluating (x/y) and y was zero, which causes a runtime error. But the second example did not fail because the first part of the expression x >= 2 evaluated to False so the (x/y) was not ever executed due to the short-circuit rule and there was no error.

We can construct the logical expression to strategically place a guard evaluation just before the evaluation that might cause an error as follows:

>>> x = 1
>>> y = 0
>>> x >= 2 and y != 0 and (x/y) > 2
False
>>> x = 6
>>> y = 0
>>> x >= 2 and y != 0 and (x/y) > 2
False
>>> x >= 2 and (x/y) > 2 and y != 0
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
ZeroDivisionError: division by zero
>>>

In the first logical expression, x >= 2 is False so the evaluation stops at the and. In the second logical expression, x >= 2 is True but y != 0 is False so we never reach (x/y).

In the third logical expression, the y != 0 is after the (x/y) calculation so the expression fails with an error.

In the second expression, we say that y != 0 acts as a guard to insure that we only execute (x/y) if y is non-zero.