Mutable and Immutable in Python

Object mutability is one of the characteristics that makes Python a dynamically typed language. Today, we are going to understand: what is object mutability?

Though Mutable and Immutable in Python is a very basic concept, it can at times be a little confusing due to the intransitive nature of immutability.

Contributed by: Karuna Kumari

This article will help you understand:

  • What is Mutable and Immutable?
  • How can you create these objects?
  • Where can you use them?
  • What are some of the watch outs?

In Python, everything is treated as an object. Every object has these three attributes:

  • Identity – This refers to the address that the object refers to in the computer’s memory.
  • Type – This refers to the kind of object that is created. For example- integer, list, string etc. 
  • Value – This refers to the value stored by the object. For example – List=[1,2,3] would hold the numbers 1,2 and 3

While ID and Type cannot be changed once it’s created, values can be changed for Mutable objects.

What is Mutable and Immutable?

Mutability is a property that allows change/update. Immutability on the other hand doesn’t allow change.

Now we have two new terminologies: Mutable and Immutable in Python.  Let’s discuss them one by one. 

Mutable: It is a fancy way of saying that the internal state of the object is changed/mutated. So, the simplest definition one can have is – An object whose internal state can be changed is MUTABLE.

Now the question arises, what are all mutable objects do we have in Python? If you try and concentrate on various built-in functions you have been using so far, you would be able to identify all the mutable objects in Python. However, let me go ahead and list them out for you –

  • Lists
  • Sets
  • Dictionaries
  • User Defined Classes (It purely depends upon the user to define the characteristics) 

I believe, rather than diving deep into the theory aspects of mutable and immutable in Python, a simple code would be the best way to depict what it means in Python. Hence, let us discuss the below code step-by-step:

#Creating a list which contains name of Indian cities  

cities = [‘Delhi’, ‘Mumbai’, ‘Kolkata’]

# Printing the elements from the list cities, separated by a comma & space

for city in cities:
		print(city, end=’, ’)

Output [1]: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata

#Printing the location of the object created in the memory address in hexadecimal format

print(hex(id(cities)))

Output [2]: 0x1691d7de8c8

#Adding a new city to the list cities

cities.append(‘Chennai’)

#Printing the elements from the list cities, separated by a comma & space 

for city in cities:
	print(city, end=’, ’)

Output [3]: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai

#Printing the location of the object created in the memory address in hexadecimal format

print(hex(id(cities)))

Output [4]: 0x1691d7de8c8

The above example shows us that we were able to change the internal state of the object ‘cities’ by adding one more city ‘Chennai’ to it, yet, the memory address of the object did not change. This confirms that we did not create a new object, rather, the same object was changed or mutated. Hence, we can say that the object which is a type of list with reference variable name ‘cities’ is a MUTABLE OBJECT.

Let us now discuss the term IMMUTABLE. Considering that we understood what mutable stands for, it is obvious that the definition of immutable will have ‘NOT’ included in it. Here is the simplest definition of immutable– An object whose internal state can NOT be changed is IMMUTABLE.

Again, if you try and concentrate on different error messages, you have encountered, thrown by the respective IDE; you use you would be able to identify the immutable objects in Python. For instance, consider the below code & associated error message with it, while trying to change the value of a Tuple at index 0. 

#Creating a Tuple with variable name ‘foo’

foo = (1, 2)

#Changing the index[0] value from 1 to 3

foo[0] = 3
	
TypeError: 'tuple' object does not support item assignment 

Let me go ahead and list out the immutable objects in Python for you as we did for the mutable objects:

  • Numbers (Integer, Rational, Float, Decimal, Complex & Booleans)
  • Strings
  • Tuples
  • Frozen Sets
  • User-Defined Classes (It purely depends upon the user to define the characteristics)

Once again, a simple code would be the best way to depict what immutable stands for. Hence, let us discuss the below code step-by-step:

#Creating a Tuple which contains English name of weekdays

weekdays = ‘Sunday’, ‘Monday’, ‘Tuesday’, ‘Wednesday’, ‘Thursday’, ‘Friday’, ‘Saturday’

# Printing the elements of tuple weekdays

print(weekdays)

Output [1]:  (‘Sunday’, ‘Monday’, ‘Tuesday’, ‘Wednesday’, ‘Thursday’, ‘Friday’, ‘Saturday’)

#Printing the location of the object created in the memory address in hexadecimal format

print(hex(id(weekdays)))

Output [2]: 0x1691cc35090

#tuples are immutable, so you cannot add new elements, hence, using merge of tuples with the # + operator to add a new imaginary day in the tuple ‘weekdays’

weekdays  +=  ‘Pythonday’,

#Printing the elements of tuple weekdays

print(weekdays)

Output [3]: (‘Sunday’, ‘Monday’, ‘Tuesday’, ‘Wednesday’, ‘Thursday’, ‘Friday’, ‘Saturday’, ‘Pythonday’)

#Printing the location of the object created in the memory address in hexadecimal format

print(hex(id(weekdays)))

Output [4]: 0x1691cc8ad68

This above example shows that we were able to use the same variable name that is referencing an object which is a type of tuple with seven elements in it. However, the ID or the memory location of the old & new tuple is not the same. We were not able to change the internal state of the object ‘weekdays’. The Python program manager created a new object in the memory address and the variable name ‘weekdays’ started referencing the new object with eight elements in it.  Hence, we can say that the object which is a type of tuple with reference variable name ‘weekdays’ is an IMMUTABLE OBJECT.

Also Read: Understanding the Exploratory Data Analysis (EDA) in Python

Where can you use mutable and immutable objects:

Mutable objects can be used where you want to allow for any updates. For example, you have a list of employee names in your organizations, and that needs to be updated every time a new member is hired. You can create a mutable list, and it can be updated easily.

Immutability offers a lot of useful applications to different sensitive tasks we do in a network centred environment where we allow for parallel processing. By creating immutable objects, you seal the values and ensure that no threads can invoke overwrite/update to your data. This is also useful in situations where you would like to write a piece of code that cannot be modified. For example, a debug code that attempts to find the value of an immutable object.

Watch outs:  Non transitive nature of Immutability:

OK! Now we do understand what mutable & immutable objects in Python are. Let’s go ahead and discuss the combination of these two and explore the possibilities. Let’s discuss, as to how will it behave if you have an immutable object which contains the mutable object(s)? Or vice versa? Let us again use a code to understand this behaviour–

#creating a tuple (immutable object) which contains 2 lists(mutable) as it’s elements

#The elements (lists) contains the name, age & gender 

person = (['Ayaan', 5, 'Male'], ['Aaradhya', 8, 'Female'])

#printing the tuple

print(person)

Output [1]: (['Ayaan', 5, 'Male'], ['Aaradhya', 8, 'Female'])

#printing the location of the object created in the memory address in hexadecimal format

print(hex(id(person)))

Output [2]: 0x1691ef47f88

#Changing the age for the 1st element. Selecting 1st element of tuple by using indexing [0] then 2nd element of the list by using indexing [1] and assigning a new value for age as 4

person[0][1] = 4

#printing the updated tuple

print(person)

Output [3]: (['Ayaan', 4, 'Male'], ['Aaradhya', 8, 'Female'])

#printing the location of the object created in the memory address in hexadecimal format

print(hex(id(person)))

Output [4]: 0x1691ef47f88

In the above code, you can see that the object ‘person’ is immutable since it is a type of tuple. However, it has two lists as it’s elements, and we can change the state of lists (lists being mutable). So, here we did not change the object reference inside the Tuple, but the referenced object was mutated.

Also Read: Real-Time Object Detection Using TensorFlow

Same way, let’s explore how it will behave if you have a mutable object which contains an immutable object? Let us again use a code to understand the behaviour–

#creating a list (mutable object) which contains tuples(immutable) as it’s elements

list1 = [(1, 2, 3), (4, 5, 6)]

#printing the list

print(list1)

Output [1]: [(1, 2, 3), (4, 5, 6)]

#printing the location of the object created in the memory address in hexadecimal format

print(hex(id(list1)))

Output [2]: 0x1691d5b13c8	

#changing object reference at index 0

list1[0] = (7, 8, 9)

#printing the list

Output [3]: [(7, 8, 9), (4, 5, 6)]

#printing the location of the object created in the memory address in hexadecimal format

print(hex(id(list1)))

Output [4]: 0x1691d5b13c8

As an individual, it completely depends upon you and your requirements as to what kind of data structure you would like to create with a combination of mutable & immutable objects. I hope that this information will help you while deciding the type of object you would like to select going forward.

Before I end our discussion on IMMUTABILITY, allow me to use the word ‘CAVITE’ when we discuss the String and Integers. There is an exception, and you may see some surprising results while checking the truthiness for immutability. For instance:
#creating an object of integer type with value 10 and reference variable name ‘x’ 

x = 10

#printing the value of ‘x’

print(x)

Output [1]: 10

#Printing the location of the object created in the memory address in hexadecimal format

print(hex(id(x)))

Output [2]: 0x538fb560

#creating an object of integer type with value 10 and reference variable name ‘y’

y = 10

#printing the value of ‘y’

print(y)

Output [3]: 10

#Printing the location of the object created in the memory address in hexadecimal format

print(hex(id(y)))

Output [4]: 0x538fb560

As per our discussion and understanding, so far, the memory address for x & y should have been different, since, 10 is an instance of Integer class which is immutable. However, as shown in the above code, it has the same memory address. This is not something that we expected. It seems that what we have understood and discussed, has an exception as well.

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