Lesson 3. Lists in Python

Learning Objectives

At the end of this activity, you will be able to:

  • Explain how Python uses lists to store multiple data values.
  • Create new Python lists that contain int, float and str values.
  • Use the list index to update, add, and remove items in a Python list.

What are Python Lists?

A Python list is a data structure that stores a collection of values or objects in a specified order (or sequence). Some features of Python lists include:

  • They are mutable, which means that they can be changed or updated.
  • Python lists can store different types of objects and different data types. So, for example a list can contain a mix of int, float and str values. A list can also contain sublists, arrays and other Python data structures.
  • Python lists are created using the square brackets, with objects separated by commas. Like this: [1,2,3]

Items Within a Python List Can Be Subsetted Using an Index

Each value in a list is called an item. Since lists are sequences of items in a specified order, there is a label for the location or order number of each item in the list. This order label is referred to as an index. Indexing allows lists to be iterable, meaning that you can access each item in the list, in the order in which they appear in the list object.

About List Indices in Python

You can use an index value in Python to access objects within lists, to organize data and to manage the order of the items within the data structure. By default, Python indexing will always begin at [0], rather [1]. Thus, the first item in a Python list has an index [0], the second item in a list has an index [1], and so on. You can use the index of an item to access its value. For example, you can use the index [1] to get the value for the 2nd item (0.75) in the following list of values [0.70, 0.75, 1.85].

Data Tip: The Python programming language uses zero-based indexing. This means that the first element in a list or other data structure will be identified by the value [0] rather than [1].

How to Create a List in Python

To create a Python list, you use the following syntax:

list_name = [item_1, item_2, item_3]

Notice that the values (soon to be items in a list) are enclosed within square brackets [] and are separated from each other using commas ,. Below, you create a list of numeric floating point values (type = float).

boulder_precip_in = [0.70, 0.75, 1.85]

[0.7, 0.75, 1.85]
# Get the second value in the list above using indexing

You can also create lists of str values. Just like defining str variables, you need to enclose the individual text strings using quotes "".

months = ["January", "February", "March"]

['January', 'February', 'March']

You can also create a list that contains different types of data (e.g. int, float, str), including other defined variables.

jan = 0.70

boulder_avg_precip = [1, jan, "January"]

[1, 0.7, 'January']

Challenge - Test Your Knowledge

Look at the list above called boulder_avg_precip. Why did the value jan translate to 0.7 when you printed the list in the cell above?

Use the Type() Function in Python to Determine the Object Type

Similar to the previous lesson, you can use the type() function to confirm the type of an object. Below you see that the object that we created above, is indeed a list:



To use list indexing efficiently, it is helpful to know how long the list is. Length in this case refers to how many items are stored in the list. You can use the Python function len() to query this information by including the name of the list as a parameter, or input, to the function as follows:


Using len(), you can see that months contains 3 items, as it only contained str values for January through March.

['January', 'February', 'March']
print("The length of the months list is:", len(months))
The length of the months list is: 3

Challenge - Create Your First List

Make a list called precip_by_location that has a length of 3 and contains a string for New York City at index 2, a float for the average annual precipitation in New York City (46.23 inches), and a string for the units (inches).

Note that this means the float value for precipitation and the string value for units can be in any location, but the string for New York City needs to be at index 2.

Access Objects Stored in a Python List: Indexing

As Python indexing begins at [0], you can use the list index to query the value of the nth item in the list using the syntax month[index], where index is equal to:

number of items - 1 or n-1

For example, if you want to query the second item in the months list, you will need to use the index value that results from 2-1, or 1.


Note that calling an index value that is larger than n-1 will result in an error that the index does not exist. For example, when you run, months[3], Python will return the following error:

IndexError: list index out of range

because there are only three items in the list and the index value of 3 actually represents a 4th item that does not exist.

Update Items in Python Lists

In addition to querying values, you can also use the list index to update items in a list by assigning a new value to that index location. For example, if you want to update the value stored at months[index], you can assign a new value with:

months[index] = value

boulder_precip_in[1] = 0

[0.7, 0, 1.85]
months[1] = "Feb"

['January', 'Feb', 'March']

Insert Items into Lists

You can also use the list index to insert new items into a list by specifying at which index location you want to the new value to be. The index locations for the other values in the list will be automatically updated. For example, if you want to insert a value at the beginning of the list, you can use:

list_name.insert(0, value)

In the example below, the months list is incomplete, and the value for January is inserted at the beginning of the list. This automatically updates the index locations for the existing items, such as February, which began as index 0 and becomes index 1 when January is inserting at the beginning of the list.

# Month list missing the first value for January
months = ["February", "March"]

# Check index value at 0
# Modify list to add January at the beginning
months.insert(0, "January")

['January', 'February', 'March']
# Check index value at 0 in modified list
# February is now at index 1

Delete Items From a Python List

You can delete unwanted items from an existing list using the del statement:

del list_name[index]

Once again, checking the length of a list is helpful before using the list index to modify the list.

del months[2]

['January', 'February']

Append an Item to a Python List

To add an item to the end of a list, you can use the .append() function that is associated with lists (referred to as a method of the list object). You can call this method to add values to a list using the syntax:



['January', 'February', 'March']

[0.7, 0, 1.85, 2.93]

Add Items to List

You can also add items to a list using the addition operation +.

For example, you can add items to the beginning of a list using the following syntax:

listname = [value] + listname

boulder_precip_in = [-9999] + boulder_precip_in

[-9999, 0.7, 0, 1.85, 2.93]

Data Tip: Append Items to an Existing Python List

You can add items to a list using the addition operator +. For example, you can add items to the beginning of a list using the following syntax:

listname = [value] + listname

You can also add items to the end of a list by using the addition assignment operator +=:

listname += [value]

which combines the steps to add and set the list equal to itself plus the new value.

However we suggest that you use .append() to append items to a list rather than the addition operator as a Python best practice.

Challenge - Modify Lists

Use the skills you just learned to modify the list precip_by_location created above. It should look like:

[1, 20.23, 'inches', 'Boulder', 'Colorado']

There are a lot of ways to update the precip_by_location object with the new values. Don’t be afraid to be creative!

[1, 20.23, 'inches', 'Boulder', 'Colorado']

Challenge - Create a List of Lists

The syntax for creating a list composed of sublists is below.


Notice that the hierarchy for the top level of the list of lists is defined by square brackets ([]) and then each sublist is also defined by square brackets, separated by a comma. You can add values to each sublist using the syntax below:

list_of_lists = [[1,2,3], [8,9,10]]

Run the code above, then answer the following questions:

  1. What is returned when you grab the first item (list_of_lists[0]) in the list?
  2. What is the object type() of list_of_lists[0]?

Challenge - Create a List of Lists

The syntax for accessing the second item in the first sublist is as follows:


Access the second item in the second sublist. HINT: the value returned should be 2.


Leave a Comment