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A Comprehensive Guide to Positional and Keyword Arguments in Python

Updated: at 04:12 AM

Arguments allow you to pass data to functions and methods in Python. There are two types of arguments in Python - positional arguments and keyword arguments. Understanding how to use them correctly is an important skill for any Python developer.

This comprehensive guide will explain positional and keyword arguments in detail, including when and how to use each type. You’ll learn about:

Table of Contents

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Defining Positional and Keyword Arguments

A positional argument is an argument that is identified by its position in the function call. For example:

def func(a, b, c):
    print(a, b, c)

func(1, 2, 3)

Here 1 gets assigned to a, 2 gets assigned to b, and 3 gets assigned to c. The order matters.

A keyword argument is an argument that is identified by a variable name or keyword when we call the function. For example:

def func(a, b, c):
    print(a, b, c)

func(c=3, b=2, a=1)

Now 1 gets assigned to a, 2 to b, and 3 to c by matching the keyword. The order doesn’t matter here.

So in summary:

When to Use Positional vs Keyword Arguments

Use positional arguments when:

Use keyword arguments when:

Here is an example illustrating when keyword arguments help improve readability:

def greet(greeting, name):
    print(f"{greeting}, {name}!")

greet("Hello", "John")

# Less readable
greet("John", "Hello")

# More readable with keywords
greet(name="John", greeting="Hello")

So in summary, use positional for mandatory ordered arguments, and keywords when you want more flexibility.

Unpacking Argument Lists

You can unpack sequences like lists and tuples into positional arguments using the * operator. For example:

def add(a, b):
    return a + b

my_list = [1, 2]
add(*my_list) # Equivalent to add(1, 2)

And you can unpack dictionaries into keyword arguments using the ** operator:

def func(a, b, c):
    print(a, b, c)

my_dict = {'a': 1, 'b': 2, 'c': 3}
func(**my_dict) # Equivalent to func(a=1, b=2, c=3)

So unpacking lets you flexibly call functions without changing the arguments to match the parameters.

Default Argument Values

You can specify default values for positional and keyword arguments in a function definition:

def func(a, b=2, c=3):
    print(a, b, c)

func(1) # 1 2 3
func(1, 4) # 1 4 3
func(1, c=5) # 1 2 5

The default value gets used if no argument value is passed during the function call. This makes arguments optional and allows omitting them.

Default values get evaluated at function definition time, not call time. So this can be problematic for mutable objects:

# Danger - mutable default value
def add_list(value, my_list=[]):
    return my_list

add_list(1) # [1]
add_list(2) # [1, 2], my_list mutated!

So use immutable objects like None as default values if you want to avoid this:

def add_list(value, my_list=None):
    if my_list is None:
       my_list = []
    return my_list

Variable Length Positional Arguments

You can specify functions that accept an arbitrary number of positional arguments using the *args syntax:

def func(*args):
    for a in args:

func(1, 2, 3) # Prints 1, 2, 3

The *args parameter collects extra arguments into a tuple. This provides flexibility to call the function with any number of positional arguments.

Within the function, you can iterate over the args tuple, or access args elements by index.

Here is an example of a averaging function using *args:

def average(*args):
    return sum(args) / len(args)

average(1, 2) # 1.5
average(1, 3, 4) # 2.67

Keyword-Only Arguments

To force keywords for some arguments, place them after the * parameter:

def func(a, b, *, c, d):
    print(a, b, c, d)

func(1, 2, c=3, d=4) # Works
func(1, 2, 3, 4) # Error - c and d are keyword-only

Now c and d can only be passed by keyword, not position.

Keyword-only arguments are useful to:

For example, Flask uses keyword-only to prevent API changes:

@app.route('/path', methods=['GET', 'POST'])
def view_func():

Common Errors and Best Practices

Here are some common errors to avoid and best practices to follow for arguments in Python:



Do not:

Following PEP 8 style and best practices will help you write Python code that is easy to use, understand, and maintain. Mastering arguments in Python unlocks your ability to design flexible and extensible functions.


This guide covered key concepts about positional and keyword arguments in Python. To summarize:

Properly using arguments allows you to write reusable and robust functions. You now have a comprehensive understanding of working with arguments in Python. Happy coding!