Thiru Thiru - 7 months ago 22
Python Question

What is key=lambda

While using some built-in functions like sorted, sum...
I noticed the usage of


What is lambda? How does it work?

What other functions use key=lambda?

Are there any other key values like,


A lambda is an anonymous function:

>>> f = lambda: 'foo'
>>> print f()

It is often used in functions such as sorted() that take a callable as a parameter (often the key keyword parameter). You could provide an existing function instead of a lambda there too, as long as it is a callable object.

Take the sorted() function as an example. It'll return the given iterable in sorted order:

>>> sorted(['Some', 'words', 'sort', 'differently'])
['Some', 'differently', 'sort', 'words']

but that sorts uppercased words before words that are lowercased. Using the key keyword you can change each entry so it'll be sorted differently. We could lowercase all the words before sorting, for example:

>>> def lowercased(word): return word.lower()
>>> lowercased('Some')
>>> sorted(['Some', 'words', 'sort', 'differently'], key=lowercased)
['differently', 'Some', 'sort', 'words']

We had to create a separate function for that, we could not inline the def lowercased() line into the sorted() expression:

>>> sorted(['Some', 'words', 'sort', 'differently'], key=def lowercased(word): return word.lower())
  File "<stdin>", line 1
    sorted(['Some', 'words', 'sort', 'differently'], key=def lowercased(word): return word.lower())
SyntaxError: invalid syntax

A lambda on the other hand, can be specified directly, inline in the sorted() expression:

 >>> sorted(['Some', 'words', 'sort', 'differently'], key=lambda word: word.lower())
['differently', 'Some', 'sort', 'words']

Lambdas are limited to one expression only, the result of which is the return value.

There are loads of places in the Python library, including built-in functions, that take a callable as keyword or positional argument. There are too many to name here, and they often play a different role.