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Engineering LibreTexts

9.1: Dictionaries

dictionary is like a list, but more general. In a list, the index positions have to be integers; in a dictionary, the indices can be (almost) any type.

You can think of a dictionary as a mapping between a set of indices (which are called keys) and a set of values. Each key maps to a value. The association of a key and a value is called a key-value pair or sometimes an item.

As an example, we'll build a dictionary that maps from English to Spanish words, so the keys and the values are all strings.

The function dict creates a new dictionary with no items. Because dict is the name of a built-in function, you should avoid using it as a variable name.


>>> eng2sp = dict()
>>> print(eng2sp)

The curly brackets, {}, represent an empty dictionary. To add items to the dictionary, you can use square brackets:


>>> eng2sp['one'] = 'uno'

This line creates an item that maps from the key 'one' to the value "uno". If we print the dictionary again, we see a key-value pair with a colon between the key and value:

>>> print(eng2sp)
{'one': 'uno'}

This output format is also an input format. For example, you can create a new dictionary with three items. But if you print eng2sp, you might be surprised:

>>> eng2sp = {'one': 'uno', 'two': 'dos', 'three': 'tres'}
>>> print(eng2sp)
{'one': 'uno', 'three': 'tres', 'two': 'dos'}

The order of the key-value pairs is not the same. In fact, if you type the same example on your computer, you might get a different result. In general, the order of items in a dictionary is unpredictable.

But that's not a problem because the elements of a dictionary are never indexed with integer indices. Instead, you use the keys to look up the corresponding values:

>>> print(eng2sp['two'])

The key 'two' always maps to the value "dos" so the order of the items doesn't matter.

If the key isn't in the dictionary, you get an exception:


>>> print(eng2sp['four'])
KeyError: 'four'

The len function works on dictionaries; it returns the number of key-value pairs:


>>> len(eng2sp)

The in operator works on dictionaries; it tells you whether something appears as a key in the dictionary (appearing as a value is not good enough).


>>> 'one' in eng2sp
>>> 'uno' in eng2sp

To see whether something appears as a value in a dictionary, you can use the method values, which returns the values as a list, and then use the in operator:


>>> vals = list(eng2sp.values())
>>> 'uno' in vals

The in operator uses different algorithms for lists and dictionaries. For lists, it uses a linear search algorithm. As the list gets longer, the search time gets longer in direct proportion to the length of the list. For dictionaries, Python uses an algorithm called a hash table that has a remarkable property: the in operator takes about the same amount of time no matter how many items there are in a dictionary. I won't explain why hash functions are so magical, but you can read more about it at


Exercise 1: [wordlist2]


Write a program that reads the words in words.txt and stores them as keys in a dictionary. It doesn't matter what the values are. Then you can use the in operator as a fast way to check whether a string is in the dictionary.