Python syntax

Martin McBride, 2018-04-05
In section Python language

In this article we will look at the main differences in Python syntax compared to other languages. In this section, by other languages we mainly mean C like languages (C/C++, Java etc), as these are the most commonly used languages.


Python uses the # character to mark the rest of the line as a comment (similar to // in other languages). It doesn't use support block comments (there is no equivalent to /* ... */).


  • Python does not require a semicolon at the end of a statement
  • Every statement must be on a separate line
x = a + b


  • Variables are untyped - any variable can hold any type of data
  • Variables do not need to be declared, you create a variable by assigning a value to it
x = 3         # x holds an integer
y = 7.8       # y holds a float
x = 'abc'     # Now x holds a string

Code blocks

  • Like other languages, Python uses nested blocks for if statements, loops and function bodies
  • A block is introduced by a colon
  • All statements in a block must be indented by the same amount
  • The end of a block is indicated by the indentation returning to its previous level
if a > b:      # Colon starts block
      a = b      # This line is part of the if block
      b = 0      # This line is also part of the if block
print(a)       # This line is not part of the if block

If statements

  • Python uses if and else like many other languages
  • You can use elif for extra clauses
  • It is not necessary to put brackets around conditions, and most programmers don't
  • Python has no switch statement - use if statements with elif clauses instead
if a == 1
    # Case 1
elif a == 2
    # Case 2
    # Other cases


  • Python uses comparison operators such as > or != similar to many other languages
  • Compound conditions use keywords and, or, not (rather than &&, ||, !)
  • A numerical value of 0 tests as false, any other value is true. Similarly a list or string tests as false if empty, true if not empty

While loops

  • Similar to other languages, but with Python block syntax
  • There is no do ... while construct
a = 5
while a > 0:
      a -= 1

For loops

  • for loops always loop over a sequence, such as a list or the characters of a string
  • The range function creates a sequence of numbers, similar to a tradition C style for loop
for i in range(5):   # equivalent to for(i = 0; i < 5; i++)

Defining functions

  • Functions are defined using def keyword
  • Parameters can be given default values
  • There are many more options, see declaring functions
def add(a, b, c=0):       # c is optional, defaults to 0
      return a + b + c

Calling functions

  • Similar to other languages
  • Parameters with default values can be omitted
  • You can use parameter names, either for clarity or to reorder them
  • There are many more options, see calling functions
 add(1, 2)             # c defaults to 0
 add(2, 4, 6)          # c is now 6
 add (a=2, b=4, c=6)   # Naming the parameters

If you found this article useful, you might be interested in the book Functional Programming in Python, or other books, by the same author.


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