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Engineering LibreTexts

8.13: List arguments

When you pass a list to a function, the function gets a reference to the list. If the function modifies a list parameter, the caller sees the change. For example, delete_head removes the first element from a list:

def delete_head(t):
    del t[0]

Here's how it is used:

>>> letters = ['a', 'b', 'c']
>>> delete_head(letters)
>>> print(letters)
['b', 'c']

The parameter t and the variable letters are aliases for the same object.

It is important to distinguish between operations that modify lists and operations that create new lists. For example, the append method modifies a list, but the + operator creates a new list:


>>> t1 = [1, 2]
>>> t2 = t1.append(3)
>>> print(t1)
[1, 2, 3]
>>> print(t2)

>>> t3 = t1 + [3]
>>> print(t3)
[1, 2, 3]
>>> t2 is t3

This difference is important when you write functions that are supposed to modify lists. For example, this function does not delete the head of a list:

def bad_delete_head(t):
    t = t[1:]              # WRONG!

The slice operator creates a new list and the assignment makes t refer to it, but none of that has any effect on the list that was passed as an argument.


An alternative is to write a function that creates and returns a new list. For example, tail returns all but the first element of a list:

def tail(t):
    return t[1:]

This function leaves the original list unmodified. Here's how it is used:

>>> letters = ['a', 'b', 'c']
>>> rest = tail(letters)
>>> print(rest)
['b', 'c']

Exercise 1:

Write a function called chop that takes a list and modifies it, removing the first and last elements, and returns None.

Then write a function called middle that takes a list and returns a new list that contains all but the first and last elements.