Python Programming for Beginners

If you want to outsmart the Spanish Inquisition, learn Python. This article is a practical introduction to writing non-trivial applications in Python.

Despite what assembly code and C coders might tell us, high-level languages do have their place in every programmer's toolbox, and some of them are much more than a computer-science curiosity. Out of the many high-level languages we can choose from today, Python seems to be the most interesting for those who want to learn something new and do real work at the same time. Its no-nonsense implementation of object-oriented programming and its clean and easy-to-understand syntax make it a language that is fun to learn and use, which is not something we can say about most other languages.

In this tutorial, you will learn how to write applications that use command-line options, read and write to pipes, access environment variables, handle interrupts, read from and write to files, create temporary files and write to system logs. In other words, you will find recipes for writing real applications instead of the old boring Hello, World! stuff.

Getting Started

To begin, if you have not installed the Python interpreter on your system, now is the time. To make that step easier, install the latest Python distribution using packages compatible with your Linux distribution. rpm, deb and tgz are also available on your Linux CD-ROM or on-line. If you follow standard installation procedures, you should not have any problems.

Next, read the excellent Python Tutorial written by Guido van Rossum, creator of the Python programming language. This tutorial is part of the official Python documentation, and you can find it in either the /usr/doc/python-docs-1.5.2 or /usr/local/doc/python-docs-1.5.2 catalog. It may be delivered in the raw LaTeX format, which must be processed first; if you don't know how to do this, go to to download it in an alternative format.

I also recommend that you have the Python Library Reference handy; you might want it when the explanations given here do not meet your needs. You can find it in the same places as the Python Tutorial.

Creating scripts can be done using your favorite text editor as long as it saves text in plain ASCII format and does not automatically insert line breaks when the line is longer than the width of the editor's window.

Always begin your scripts with either

#! /usr/local/bin/python


#! /usr/bin/python
If the access path to the python binary on your system is different, change that line, leaving the first two characters (#!) intact. Be sure this line is truly the first line in your script, not just the first non-blank line—it will save you a lot of frustration.

Use chmod to set the file permissions on your script to make it executable. If the script is for you alone, type chmod 0700; if you want to share it with others in your group but not let them edit it, use 0750 as the chmod value; if you want to give access to everyone else, use the value 0755. For help with the chmod command, type man chmod.

Reading Command-Line Options and Arguments

Command-line options and arguments come in handy when we want to tell our scripts how to behave or pass some arguments (file names, directory names, user names, etc.) to them. All programs can read these options and arguments if they want, and your Python scripts are no different.

Implementing appropriate handlers boils down to reading the argv list and checking for the options and arguments you want your script to recognize. There are a few ways to do this. Listing 1 is a simple option handler that recognizes common -h, -help and --help options, and when they are found, it exits immediately after displaying the help message.

Listing 1

Copy and save this script as, make it executable with the chmod 0755 command, and run it several times, specifying different options, both recognized by the handler and not; e.g. with one of the options, you will see this message: ./ -h or ./ -o. If the option handler does recognize one of the options, you will see this message:—does nothing useful (yet)
options: -h, -help, or --help—display this help
Copyright (c) Jacek Artymiak, 2000

If you invoke with an option it does not recognize, or without any options at all, it will display the “I don't recognize this option” message.

Note that we need to import the sys module before we can check the contents of the argv list and before we can call the exit function. The sys.exit statement is a safety feature which prevents further program execution when one of the help options is found inside the argv list. This ensures that users don't do something dangerous before reading the help messages (for which they wouldn't have a need otherwise).

The simple help option handler described above works quite well and you can duplicate and change it to recognize additional options, but that is not the most efficient way to recognize multiple options with or without arguments. The “proper” way to do it is to use the getopt module, which converts options and arguments into a nice list of tuples. Listing 2 shows how it works.

Listing 2

Copy this script, save it as and make it executable. As you can see, it uses two modules: sys and getopt which are imported right at the beginning. Then we define a simple function that displays the help message whenever something goes wrong.

The actual processing of command-line arguments begins with the try statement, where we are testing the list of command-line options and arguments (sys.argv) for errors defined as unknown options or missing arguments; if they are detected, the script will display an error message and exit immediately (see the except statement group). When no errors have been detected, our script splits the list of options and their arguments into tuples in the options list and begins parsing them by executing a series of loops, each searching for one option and its expected arguments.

The getopt.getopt function generates two lists in our sample script: options which contains options and their arguments; and xarguments which contains arguments not related to any of the options. We can safely ignore them in most cases.

To recognize short (one-letter such as -h) and long (those prefixed with --) options, getopt.getopt uses two separate arguments. The list of short options contains all of them listed in a single string, e.g., getopt.getopt(sys.argv, 'ahoinmdwq'). It is possible to specify, in that string, options that absolutely require an argument to follow them immediately (e.g., -vfilename) or after a space (e.g., -v filename). This is done by inserting a colon (:) after the option, like this: getopt.getopt(sys.argv, 'ahoiv:emwn'). However, this creates a silly problem that may cause some confusion and unnecessarily waste your time; if the user forgets to specify the argument for the option that requires it, the option that follows it becomes its argument. Consider this example: -v -h

If you put v: in the short option string argument of the getopt.getopt function, option -h will be treated as the argument of option -v. This is a nuisance and makes parsing of the list of tuples option, argument much more difficult. The solution to this problem is simple: don't use the colon, but check the second item of the tuple that contains the option (first item of the analyzed tuple) which requires an argument. If it's empty, report an error, like the -a option handler.

Long options prefixed with -- must be listed as a separate argument to the getopt.getopt, e.g., getopt.getopt(sys.argv, 'ah', ['view', 'file=']). They can be serviced by the same handler as short options.

What you do after locating options given by the user is up to you. Listing 2 can be used as a template for your scripts.



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I have been getting into

Anonymous's picture

I have been getting into Python coding lately. Thank you for this great tutorial.

Easy to understand

Raja Jee's picture

This one is very easy to understand guide for the beginners if you have some programming exposure in any other language.

I wanted to thank you for

Anonymous's picture

I wanted to thank you for this great read!together as one new years eve 2011 tickets! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post

Your post really cool. I glad

Marcus Everding's picture

Your post really cool. I glad to be here. I enjoyed reading your articles and if allowed I want to bookmark your posts.......

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I am a Newbee here.I would

4gl program language's picture

I am a Newbee here.I would like to know who was the creator of this language
4gl program language

Interesting article i admit.

cheap buffalo bills tickets's picture

Interesting article i admit. i am a rusty reader to your site *^* i will before long replace my home page with your web site.

Great Samples

RadarRabbit's picture

Thanks, teaching a workshop next week and I am glad that I found your post on Python!

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Environmental variables lost when exiting Listing 17

SZ's picture

I tried using os.environ[] as in Listing 17. It worked while I stayed withing the python script. Once I left the python script all my environment variables returned to their original values. How do I use python to change environment variables? Do I have to use a different language?


jitendra shah's picture

very nice tutorial


Karen's picture

Nice read! I have a question though, I can't seem to get your RSS feed to work right in google chrome, is it on my end?

investment in leeds

parlingtom's picture

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Don't overlook functional programming

cmnorton's picture

This was a helpful article.

One important educational thing I have found with Python is there is a need to jump further into it than one might when undertaking learning a new language. I feel this way, because you can learn Python as a C/C++/Java developer, and Python is so powerful, it will oblige. However, you might be writing inefficient code.

Mark Pilgrim's Dive Into Python and Dive Into Python 3 are the only books that take a full shovelful of Python and present it all to you, so you start using generators and iterators early on. My early attempts have thankfully been corrected in forums, so that I am not writing C code in Python, but start to write procedural and functional code in python.

Linux needs a new CLI/GUI scripting/programming language

Anonymous's picture

Python always looks like a great way to start programming but when you toss in the lack of easy to use GUI elements - it becomes cumbersome or native fileSystem support (so you have to tweak with it in order to do something that a one line DOS batch script can do).

Linux really needs an all-purpose, easy to use scripting/programming language akin to some of those found on Windows systems.

Rebol might be the answer - we'll see how version 3.0 comes along. It's also suppose to be cross-platform (some high costs if you want to compile, access DBs).

Would love to see something like AutoHotkey, Autoit, RapidBatch or even a better type of HTA (just to name a few) for Linux.

No offense intended (I know this is an old post too), but people today want to be effective right away. There are multiple solutions for other platforms (Windows for sure, don't know about Mac). Why does Linux keep reinventing the same wheel that really doesn't go anywhere?

There is not even a

Anonymous's picture

There is not even a comparison between Windows and Linux when it comes to programming. Linux is much better. Everyone who has much knowledge on the subject knows this.

nothing new needed

Anonymous's picture

Python has excellent toolkits (Gtk, wx, Qt), visual GUI designers and IDEs, and huge libraries. It's so good that many Windows applications are written in it, and many people choose Linux because scripting is so poor on Windows. If you want something more scripting oriented, you have Tcl/Tk, Expect, Bash, and Perl. Instead of HTA, you get Firefox and xulrunner (depending on what level of control you want). All of those are copiously documented. AutoHotkey, Autoit, and RapidBatch don't even come close, and Windows is comparatively poor when it comes to scripting.


ciqoff's picture

\"Linux really needs an all-purpose, easy to use scripting/programming language akin to some of those found on Windows systems.\"

Well, I don't about you, but perl, python and bash(if you may) seems to be the all-purpose, easy to use scripting/programming language for most linux users (not windows).
Not to be rude, but why compare Windows with Linux? Okay, it may be a little too apparent that your a Windows person and a Linux critic. I can tell with you using the words "easy" and "GUI" with at most prevalence.

Perhaps, Linux isn't reinventing the same wheel as you may have perceived it, but rather modifies or creates a new version of the existing wheel. So, instead of having a poorly crafted wheel made out of rock as it was stereotypically first invented, the wheel is crafted to specific needs through current technology and resources at hand. Hopefully, you understand the analogy.


GUI solutions for Python

Anonymous's picture

Answering my own comment above...

I've been looking at a number of programming and scripting languages of late. Came across 'Titanium' which is a cross-platform solution for Windows, Linux, OSX as well as iPhone and Android. It's able to work with JS, Python, PHP and a host of other softTech.

More info here:

The License is Apache Public License v2. Looks interesting but I haven't worked with it yet - downloading the pieces now.

somebody need to write Ruby

AprilCoolsDay's picture

somebody need to write Ruby version of this article.

how to make the smooth signal (average the signal) in python?

mut's picture

hi.. i've a problem with my real time signal .. its no smooth ... anyone can help me how to do an averaging in python.. tqvm

some corrections

AprilCoolsDay's picture

some corrections for Listing 2:

At lines 15-17, the string should be triple quoted.
Line 18, indentation level is not the same as the previous print line.

Also none of the following works:

$ ./ -ahello

$ ./ -a hello

Binary to Decimal

Anonymous's picture

Can anyone help me write a code to convert a binary number into a decimal number

Binary to decimal convertor

Abidos's picture


decimal_number = 0
st_binary_number = "1000111"

n = len(st_binary_number)
pwr = pow(2,n-1)
for i in range(n):
if (st_binary_number[i]=='1'):
decimal_number += pwr
pwr = pwr >> 1

print decimal_number

converts the binary "1000111" into decimal 71 ;)

Simpler code :-)

Anonymous's picture

binary_number = "1000111"
decimal_number = int(binary_number, 2)

print decimal_number # Prints 71

typo in line

Nick Jarboe's picture

print a, ' = ', os.environ.[a]
should be
print a, ' = ', os.environ[a]

Console I/O

Abhijeet Oundhakar's picture

Hi, could you tell me what's the Python function for reading from the console similar to scanf or cin? Thanks

Console I/O answer

Fyorl's picture

I believe it is:
var = raw_input('Enter a value: ')

Input for python

sugam sharma's picture

This ll take input and return in the form of string.
To get the inputin int form input is enough.
Though you can convert int from string just by writing
where String is that String which is to be converted into int.


bob's picture

I find the best way to learn a language is by looking at examples.

There are lots of tutoria and plenty of "first" examples (ie hello world) but is there a location where I can find several more stepped examples in python, of increasing difficulty and scope? Or at least be pointed at some sites who's applications make good examples?

I can google "python download" or go to sourceforge; but those are mostly not written to be teaching tools and make too big a jump from "hello world" to "how to compute the answer to life, the universe and everything".

re: Samples

crowmag's picture

There is a lot of simple example code here ...

slightly more complex code examples, and not so useless as the title suggests here...

then there's the cookbook...

and the Vaults of Parnassus...

that should keep ypu busy for a while.

Code Correction

Teguh Iskanto S.'s picture

I've spotted an error on one of your code list inside this article :

#! /usr/local/bin/python
import os
for a in os.environ.keys():
print a, ' = ', os.environ.[a] ----> !!!

Since 'os.environment' is a 'dictionary' or like 'associative array' in PERL then It should have been written like this :

#! /usr/local/bin/python
import os
for a in os.environ.keys():
print a, ' = ', os.environ[a] -----> !!!!

Hope this helps

Just what I was looking for

Anonymous's picture

Just what I was looking for as a beginner to python, but not to UNIX or programming in general.

A couple of typos that may help people
In listing 1
at the top try (for better portability)
#! /usr/bin/env python
near the bottom
don't should be don\'t

how to handle a non-standard interrupt?

caminoix's picture

how can i define my own keyboard interrupts and then handle them?
i'd like to write a program that would change, say, ctrl-:-o to "o umlaut" (like in german). is it at all possible with python?


Shawna's picture

My friend and I are stuck in python and we're wondering if anyone is online to help us out! AIM Shawnaloo or MSN Thank you!

command line hanling, how to check if there is an error

Anonymous's picture

i wanna read 3 ints from the command line,
check to see if there are 3 inputs

Re: command line hanling, how to check if there is an error

Anonymous's picture

try looking at the module sys, especially sys.arv. it really is handy when it comes to command line arguments.

Re: command line hanling, how to check if there is an error

Anonymous's picture

make that sys.argv. sorry.


ian's picture

Example of using command arguments:
user@host$ arg1 arg2

import sys
var = sys.argv [2]
print var
#will print arg2