Pythonic code: using the standard library

By Matt Layman on May 9, 2017

This post continues a series on “Pythonic” code. Pythonic code is code that fits well with the design of the Python language. The previous post explored the possibilities with Python’s built-in functions. This fifth post will peek into the standard library and highlight how many amazing tools are available with no setup.

  1. The list comprehension
  2. The with statement
  3. The property decorator
  4. Built-in functions
  5. Using the standard library
  6. Leveraging packages

Using the standard library

To quote from the Python documentation:

keep this under your pillow

Python is an extremely productive programming language. Its visual style lends itself to great readability and clarity. Its guiding principles are beautiful ambitions for programming language design. And its included software, known as the standard library, is meant to make you as productive as possible with minimal effort.

The main reason that the standard library requires minimal effort is because it comes installed with the Python language. The Python community likes to say that the language has “batteries included.”

This batteries included philosophy gives developers a wide choice of software that solves many problems. Having so much software introduces a challenge. In my last post on built-in functions, I noted that I covered less than 10% of the built-ins. That challenge is amplified to an even bigger extent for the standard library since there are well over 200 modules.

For this post, I’d like to give you, dear reader, an idea of some tasks that the standard library can handle. With this idea in hand, I hope you’ll be inspired to browse the documentation when trying to solve some of your own problems.

Making use of the standard library will certainly make your code more Pythonic. Let’s look at some examples to see why.

The Excel task

Microsoft Excel has an unbelievable influence on the world. It is a very powerful tool that small and large businesses alike use regularly to manage data. I have personally witnessed brilliant people do amazing things with Excel and its rich functions and tools. In spite of that, Excel has limitations where a general progamming language like Python does not.

When you encounter some data task that Excel can’t handle, you may want to consider the csv module. Exporting your data to CSV format and manipulating it in Python opens up all the expressive options of the language.

import csv

with open('financials.csv') as csvfile:
    reader = csv.DictReader(csvfile)
    for row in reader:
        print(row['profit'], row['revenue'])

This example shows financial data added to standard Python dictionary objects. The keys to the dictionary are determined by the first row of the CSV file. You could imagine forecasting or mixing the data with other sources to do complex analysis, and determine the traits that help contribute to the success of the company. The csv module may be your best friend to ingest that data.


Once upon a time, I wrote Perl code. This Perl code was used to manage the complexity of IBM Rational ClearCase, a beast of a version control system (if you think Git is complicated, please allow me to introduce you to ClearCase. :) ). The Perl code that I wrote targeted a UNIX-like operating system, and I was tasked with adding cross-platform support on Windows. The ensuing experience was horrible. The team I was on made heavy use of File::Spec, but it was still painful.

When I started doing development in Python, I learned about modules that made file handling much better: os and shutil.

os and its buddy module os.path make file management doable.

The documentation for os is completely intimidating, but there are very handy functions in there. You can remove files (os.remove), make directories (os.mkdir), and take action on every file in a directory by “walking” through it (os.walk).

os.path includes functions to manipulate file paths. The cool part is that file paths are handled in a cross-platform way by default.

# Don't do this.
path = 'path/to/data.csv'
# Instead, do this.
path = os.path.join('path', 'to', 'data.csv')

The os.path.join version is a bit longer, but you know that it will produce path/to/data.csv on Linux and macOS and path\to\data.csv on Windows.

shutil is a module that I use specifically for two functions: shutil.copytree and shutil.rmtree. These two functions let you copy or delete an entire directory and all its contents.

The newest module to shake things up in file handling is pathlib. I don’t have much experience with this because I haven’t written much Python 3 only code, but it seems really powerful.

>>> from pathlib import Path
>>> p = Path('data')
>>> q = p / 'to' / 'data.csv'
>>> q

The programmer’s chainsaw: regular expressions

A chainsaw can make short work of cutting down a tree or it can saw off your arm. Handle a chainsaw well and you’ll be rewarded. Be careless with it and it will cause you serious pain. Regular expressions are exactly like that. A regular expression is a powerful developer tool that can save or ruin your day depending on how you wield it. The goal of a regular expression is to find a pattern in data and do something if there is a match to the pattern.

Python includes the re module as your gateway to handling regular expressions. The documentation for this module is possibly more intimidating than the os module, but that’s because regular expressions are essentially a domain specific language for pattern matching. If you take the time to learn regular expressions, you can get some really cool things done.

Let’s consider an introductory example for regular expressions:

>>> import re
>>> pattern = re.compile('abc')
>>> bool(pattern.match('abcde'))
>>> bool(pattern.match('def'))
>>> bool(pattern.match('ABC'))
>>> pattern = re.compile('abc', re.IGNORECASE)
>>> bool(pattern.match('ABC'))

We can see how the regular expression pattern can be applied to various strings to see if they match. Also, it’s possible to add extra options like re.IGNORECASE to change the behavior of the pattern matching.

Matching is useful, but it gets even better when we can pull out information in the match. Check this out:

>>> pattern = re.compile('Hi, (\w+)')
>>> match = pattern.match('Hi, Matt')

We extracted a name from a greeting. This example is a little tame yet the idea is fierce. If you can describe the pattern that you desire, you can tear through huge volumes of data for your search.


The Python standard library is very useful. In this post, I’ve showed that it can:

These examples barely cover what is available. Describing each of these modules would take many years of posts. If you want to learn more, I can suggest you read the Python 3 Module of the Week series from Doug Hellmann. Doug covers a number of popular modules in great depth, and they are worth a read.

In my next Pythonic code post, we’re going to explore writing Pythonic code by using packages from the Python Package Index (a.k.a. PyPI). Thanks for reading!

If you want to chat about this with me, I'm @mblayman on Twitter.

Matt Layman

Matt is the lead software engineer at Storybird.

Always eager to talk about Python and other technology topics, Matt organizes Python Frederick in Frederick, Maryland (NW of Washington D.C.) and seeks to grow software skills for people in his community.