Intro to Programming: What Are Dictionaries in Python?

You can actually start with the common definition of "dictionary" to understand dictionaries in Python.
By Ciprian Stratulat • Updated on Oct 17, 2022

Welcome back to the next article in my Intro to Programming series. Today I'll talk about another powerful data type in Python: the dictionary.


Unless you've used other programming languages before, the word “dictionary” might make you think of a few things. One type of dictionary is a book that translates words between languages, like a Spanish to English dictionary. That's not a bad analogy, in this case. You can actually start with the common definition of "dictionary" to understand dictionaries in Python.

Here I have a small dictionary. My dictionary maps the English words “morning,” “afternoon,” and “evening” to their Spanish counterparts. (I translated these using Google; apologies if they're not the most accurate!) A dictionary data structure, like this screenshot example, is useful for storing certain types of data:

Example of a dictionary in Python

Image Source: Edlitera

Word translations is a great example, but you could also have a dictionary that does something like map fruits to their market price per pound:

Example of a dictionary in python

Image Source: Edlitera

Or, you could have a dictionary that maps countries to their capital cities:

Example of a dictionary in Python

Image Source: Edlitera

These screenshot examples are just a few of the functions of dictionaries in Python. 


What's the Difference Between a Dictionary and a Python Dictionary? 

Python dictionaries, more precisely, are a collection of object pairs:Definition of a dictionary in Python

Image Source: Edlitera

The item being translated is called the key and the translation is the value. You can rephrase this to say that a dictionary is a collection of key-value pairs.

Definition of a dictionary in Python

Image Source: Edlitera

You may also hear dictionaries referred to as mappings. That's because dictionaries map, or associate, key objects to value objects.

Dictionary in Python

Image Source: Edlitera


How Do You Make A Python Dictionary? 

In Python, you wrap dictionaries in curly braces ({}). Curly braces indicate to the Python interpreter that you're talking about a dictionary, as opposed to a list, for example. For more information about Python interpreters, you can read about them and how to set up your computer to run Python in my article here: 


For instance, I took the earlier market prices mapping and turned it into a Python dictionary. As you can see, the dictionary looks the same as before, except that now I have curly braces around it. The names of the fruit are between quotes because they are strings.


Dictionaries are also similar to lists. You separate these pairs by commas to ensure the Python interpreter understands where one pair ends and the next pair begins. Note that you put colons between the key and the value inside a pair. These are important. Don't forget the colons!

Example of key-value pairs in a dictionary in Python

Image Source: Edlitera


Next, I'll look Python dictionaries vs. Python lists, as well as when to use each in your scripts.


What Are the Key Differences Between Python Dictionaries and Lists?

Important differences exist between Python dictionaries and lists. Let’s explore them, as well as appropriate use cases for each data type. I'll begin with an easy one: Python dictionaries are not ordered and they cannot be sorted, whereas lists are ordered and sorted.

Image Source: Edlitera


Distinction 1: Order Doesn't Matter to Python Dictionaries

What this means is that, with dictionaries, the order of the pairs doesn’t matter. In fact, if you print a dictionary multiple times, you might get the pairs returned in a different order than you input them.

For example, these two screenshots are of the same dictionary:

Example of dictionaries in Python

Image Source: Edlitera

With dictionaries, the order of the key-value pairs doesn't matter and there's no way to order the pairs. This may be a bit counterintuitive because in a language dictionary, for example, words are ordered alphabetically.

However, in Python, the pairs are not ordered:

Image Source: Edlitera

Compare this to lists. These two lists are not identical. These two lists contain the same objects, but, because the objects are in a different order, Python actually considers them different lists.

Article continues below


Distinction 2: Dictionaries in Python Can't Be Indexed Or Sliced

This is important, so remember this distinction:

Difference between dictionaries and lists in Python

Image Source: Edlitera

The next difference between dictionaries and lists is related to the not ordered nature of dictionaries. Because dictionaries are not ordered collections, you can't use indexing and slicing to inquire about data.

Dictionaries have no concept of a pair at index 0, for example, because it's not guaranteed what that pair might be. At any given moment, the pair could be apples : 2.99, or oranges : 3.99. Because the locations of pairs in dictionaries are fluid, dictionaries don't support indexing and slicing.


Distinction 3: Python Dictionary Data is Retrieved By Keys

So how do you get data out of dictionaries? You retrieve your desired data using the key name.

Image Source: Edlitera

I'll show you how. Let's jump into a new Jupyter notebook and write some code to make sense of all this. If you're not sure how to use Jupyter notebooks, here's a refresher: 


First, let's define the dictionary you saw earlier:

I'll call this dictionary market_prices. In it I have prices by the pound for apples, avocados, and oranges. If I output this, I see the dictionary. I can check the data type using the type function and see that Python returns dict, which stands for dictionary.

The print function also works with dictionaries. I can write print(market_prices) and I will get my dictionary. Similarly, the len function also works. If I write len(market_prices), Python returns 3, which is the number of pairs in the dictionary.

# let's define the dictionary
market_prices = { 'apples': 2.99, 'avocados': 4.99, 'oranges': 3.99 }

# let's see what the dictionary contains
# the output should be {'apples': 2.99, 'avocados': 4.99, 'oranges': 3.99}

# let's check our data type
# the output should be dict

# let's check the length of this dictionary using the len function
# the output should be 3

Just like lists, dictionaries can be empty. If you have no key-value pairs inside a dictionary, you only type the curly braces, like so: d = {}. You can easily check that the variable d is, in fact, of type dictionary by using type(d) and seeing that it returns dict, the length of an empty dictionary is 0. you can check that using len(d), which returns 0.

# let's define an empty dictionary
d = {}

# let's make sure that d is a dictionary
# the output should be dict

# let's check the length by using the len fuction
# the output should be 0

Now, let’s access data inside our dictionary. Typically, in a dictionary, you're interested in getting the value from a key-value pair. Think about a language dictionary. You typically know the word you want translated, but you don’t know the translation. It’s the same with a Python dictionary. Most often you'll know the key, but not the value. However, you can use the key to get the value.

To do so you use a similar notation to indexing. To use a key to return a value, you use the same square brackets used in indexing. But, instead of specifying an index between the square brackets, with dictionaries you write the key like this: market_prices['apples']. This input returns 2.99.

Let's try another. If you want the price of oranges, you write market_prices['oranges'] and you get 3.99. You can also get the price of avocados: market_prices['avocados'] gives you 4.99.

# we can find a value in a dictionary by using a key
# let's find the price, or value, of the key 'apples'
# the output should be 2.99

# let's find the price of oranges
# the output should be 3.99

# and now the price of avocados
# the output should be 4.99


How Dictionaries in Python Structure Data

Dictionaries support a variety of data types for keys and values, and not just strings and floating-point numbers. Let's look at an example you saw when you learned about lists. You previously had a list that stored some attributes about a person. More precisely, you had person = ['blue', 5.7, 120.5, ['Amsterdam', 'Barcelona'], '111-00-0000', 'S000001']. In your list example, we said this meant this person’s eye color was blue, height was 5.7 feet, and so on.

# our list describing a person
person = ['blue', 5.7, 120.5, ['Amsterdam', 'Barcelona'], '111-00-0000', 'S000001']

In the previous example, you read data from this list variable using indexes. At the time, that method worked. However, it’s not an ideal method to use because it forces us to remember what each object means.

For example, you had to remember that the string 'blue' meant eye color, and not the person's favorite color. Similarly, you had to remember, somehow, that the two cities listed were favorite travel destinations, as opposed to, say, cities where the person grew up.

So, you see, in a list of this kind, the meaning of the data isn't explicit. It's implied. And that's a problem, because if you revisit this code months later, it's possible by that time you’ve forgotten what each of these objects stood for, without making notes somewhere.

A dictionary is a much better data structure to use for something like this. In a dictionary, the key is the name of the attribute and the value is the value of that attribute. Once again, let me show you in this screenshot: 

Image Source: Edlitera

Let's define a person attributes dictionary and call it person_attrs for short. I know it's a dictionary so I'll use the curly braces.

I'll start with the first attribute: eye color. In my dictionary, I write 'eye_color': 'blue'. Notice that the keys are strings, so I must use quotes. Next is the height: 'height': 5.7. Next, the weight: 'weight': 120.5. Next, the top vacation cities, or ‘vacation_cities':['Amsterdam', 'Barcelona']. And finally, the IDs: ids: ['111-00-0000', 'S000001'].

Notice that both the top vacation cities and the IDs are lists because each of these keys contains more than one value:

# let's define our dictionary
person_attrs = {'eye_color': 'blue', 'height': 5.7, 'weight': 120.5, 'vacation_cities': ['Amsterdam', 'Barcelona'], 'ids': ['111-00-0000', 'S000001']}

Now, if I want to get the eye color for this person, I can write person_attrs['eye_color']. Python returns blue. Compare that to what I did when I used lists: person[0]. If you look back at this code months from now, the dictionary version will be much easier to understand than the list version. The 0 in the list version is called a hard-coded index. Hard-coding is generally not ideal because it makes code harder to change and harder to understand.

# in the dictionary, we can look up the eye color using the key
# the output should be 'blue'

# in the list, we have to remember the index of the eye color value
# the output should still be 'blue' 

That is not to say that dictionaries are always better than lists. They both have different use cases in which one is better than the other. The more you write code, the easier it'll be for you to pick the right data type in each situation. This last example is one where you could use either a list or a dictionary, but a dictionary makes the code easier to read and understand.


What Are Nested Dictionaries and How Are They Used in Python?

In this section, I'll explore the concept of a dictionary inside another dictionary. In Python, this is called a nested dictionary.

Let’s return again to your person attributes dictionary. You can make one more improvement to it. If you're following along in a Jupyter notebook, can you can figure it out?

Let's print out the dictionary again, so you can see it better:

# let's see how we can improve our dictionary
# hint: look at the IDs list

# output should be {'eye_color': 'blue', 'height': 5.7, 'ids': ['111-00-0000', 'S000001'], 'vacation_cities': ['Amsterdam', 'Barcelona'], 'weight': 120.5}

Look at the IDs section. The ID numbers make up a list. By their formats, the first number appears to be a US Social Security number and the second to be a driver's license.

Say you want to get the driver's license part of this dictionary. How would you do that? To begin, let's first get all of the IDs. You can do that by running person_attrs['ids']. The result is a list. You remember from lists that you can use indexing to get an item from a list at a certain index position. In this case, the driver's license number is the second item in the list, at index position 1 (because in programming you start counting at 0). So, to only return the driver's license number, you need to run person_attrs['ids'][1].

# let's use the key to access our list of ids
# the output should be ['111-00-0000', 'S000001']

# now, let's use an index to access the driver's license number from the list of ids
# the output should be 'S000001'

This method works, but you'll have the same issue again. Namely, you have to remember that the driver's license is at index position 1. In this instance, the index number 1 might as well be a magic number—it doesn't really mean anything to us. So, what do you do?

You can turn the IDs list into a dictionary.

To do so, I'll copy the whole person_attrs dictionary. Then, I’ll change the IDs key. Instead of mapping it to a list, let's map it to a dictionary. Remember, you use curly braces for dictionaries. You'll also need key names. I'll call the first key 'ssn' and map it to the Social Security number. I'll call the second one 'license_number'. Let’s check the type of the value mapped to the IDs key. If I run type(person_attrs['ids']), I see that it's a dictionary now.

# let's change the IDs list to a dictionary
# we can use the keys 'ssn' and 'license_number' 
person_attrs = { 'eye_color': 'blue', 'height': 5.7, 'weight': 120.5, 'vacation_cities': ['Amsterdam', 'Barcelona'], 'ids': {'ssn': '111-00-0000', 'license_number': 'S000001'}}

# let's check the type of value mapped to the IDs key
# the output should be dict

Making the IDs into a dictionary makes accessing the data more intuitive.

Now, if you run person_attrs['ids'], you get the dictionary of ids, and if you append ['license_number'] by writing person_attrs['ids']['license_number'], you'll get the license number. If you want the Social Security number, you run person_attrs['ids']['ssn'].

# we can now get the IDs dictionary
# the output should be {'license_number': 'S000001', 'ssn': '111-00-0000'}

# or the specific license number
# the output should be 'S000001'

# or the Social Security number
# the output should be '111-00-0000'

This notation may be a bit confusing at first, but don’t be discouraged by it. Try to break it down and read it from left to right. Using the direction left to right is important. If you read code right to left, it won't make much sense.

Let's try another example that's a bit more complex.


How to Write a More Complex Python Dictionary 

Let's create a dictionary called d and set it equal to { 'prices': [{'apple': 2.99, 'oranges': 3.99}] }.

This dictionary has one key, called prices, which is mapped to a list. The list is made up of a single item, which is also a dictionary. This dictionary has two keys: one called 'apple', which is mapped to 2.99, and one called 'oranges', which is mapped to 3.99.

Knowing the structure of our new dictionary d, how do you get the price for oranges?

# let's create a new dictionary for prices
d = { 'prices': [{'apple': 2.99, 'oranges': 3.99}] } 

# let's get the value for the key 'prices'
# output should be [{'apple': 2.99, 'oranges': 3.99}]

First, you know that all prices are in the list mapped to the key named prices. Running d['prices'] will return that list.

You may notice that in order to get to the price for oranges, you'll first need to access the dictionary inside this list. How do you do that?

You use list indexes: d['prices'][0]. This works because the list has a single item, which is the dictionary you're interested in, at index location 0. This should start looking familiar. Further, if you use the 'oranges' key, you'll get what you need: d['prices'][0]['oranges'] returns 3.99.

# let's get the item at index 0 from the list associated with the key 'prices'
# the output should be {'apple': 2.99, 'oranges': 3.99}

# then we can use the key 'oranges' to find the value associated with this key
# the output should be 3.99

These chained indexes can be as long as you need them to be. Keep appending square brackets, going deeper inside your data, until you get what you need. In my experience, programming beginners can struggle with this quite a bit, so spend some time and create your own dictionaries. Practice accessing various parts of them.

Here's another cool thing about Python: the result of running the statement d['prices'][0]['oranges'] is just a number. More precisely, it's the number 3.99. You know that you can multiply a number, among other operations. So, if I want the cost for 2 pounds of oranges, I can calculate that in one line using d['prices'][0]['oranges'] * 2. The result yields 7.98.

# we can easily compute the value for two pounds of oranges
# the output should be 7.98
d['prices'][0]['oranges'] * 2

When working with statements like these, keep in mind that the Python interpreter does the calculation and then regards the statement as the result of the calculation.

In other words, Python replaces the original statement with actual values. With more programming experience, you’ll start looking at these statements in the same way. Instead of notations, you’ll begin to see lists, numbers, and strings—as well as whatever their values may be.


How to Add and Remove Pairs From Dictionaries

Next, let’s look at adding and removing pairs from a dictionary.

You saw that with lists you can use append to add new items. With dictionaries, the process is even simpler.

Let's create a new, simple dictionary. You'll have this dictionary map letters of the alphabet to a number that specifies their position in the alphabet. And—as you know by now—you're a programmer, so you're going to start at 0.


How to Add Pairs to Dictionaries in Python

Let’s write letters = { 'a': 0, 'b': 1, 'c': 2 }. I’ll also add a mapping for ‘d’ and set it to the integer number 3. To do that, you use the same square bracket notation you saw earlier by writing letters['d']. You'll also use variable assignment and write letters['d'] = 3.

If I output the dictionary now, you'll see that a pair was added with the string 'd' as the key and the integer number 3 as the value.

# let's define our letter dictionary
letters = { 'a': 0, 'b': 1, 'c': 2 }

# now, let's add the letter d
letters['d'] = 3

# we have successfully added a new letter to our dictionary
# the output should be {'a': 0, 'b': 1, 'c': 2, 'd': 3}

This is how you add items to a dictionary. Having a similar notation for accessing a dictionary value as well as for creating a new pair can be nice. If you know the key exists, you can use the square brackets to get the value associated with it. If it doesn't exist, you can use the same square brackets notation and the equal sign (=), which you saw when you learned about variable assignment to create a new pair.

Let's add another one by writing letters['e'] = 4. You can again output the letters dictionary and see that ‘e’ was added.

By the way, you can also create pairs that map a key to a list value. For example, letters['f'] = [4,5,6] will also work. If you run this and output the dictionary, you'll see that the string 'f' was mapped to a list that is made of three integer numbers: 4, 5, and 6.

# let's add on another letter, e
letters['e'] = 4

# the output should be {'a': 0, 'b': 1, 'c': 2, 'd': 3, 'e': 4}

# we can also add a list to our dictionary as a key-value pair
letters['f'] = [4,5,6]

# the output should be {'a': 0, 'b': 1, 'c': 2, 'd': 3, 'e': 4, 'f': [4, 5, 6]}

Another cool thing about this is that if you want to change an existing value, you do so using the exact same notation.

Let's say you actually want to map the string 'f' to the integer number 5. In Python, you write letters['f'] = 5. When you output the letters dictionary again, you'll see that the last key-value pair was updated. Now the string 'f' is mapped to the integer 5, instead of the list you had previously. Because the keys in a dictionary are unique, Python is able to determine whether to create a new pair or update an existing one by using a simple rule. If a pair exists that has the given key (in our case the string 'f'), Python updates the value of that pair.

If a pair does not exist that has the given key, then Python creates a brand new pair.

# we can easily change the value associated with a key
letters['f'] = 5

# the output should be {'a': 0, 'b': 1, 'c': 2, 'd': 3, 'e': 4, 'f': 5}

Practice makes perfect, so I encourage you to create your own dictionary or use the examples here. Practice adding your own pairs or updating existing ones.


How to Remove Pairs From Dictionaries in Python

But what if you want to remove a pair from the dictionary?

For that, you'll use the del function, which is short for delete. To completely remove the pair with the key 'f', we write del(letters['f']). When you output the dictionary, you can see that the pair was removed.

# deleting values is as easy as adding them

# the output should be {'a': 0, 'b': 1, 'c': 2, 'd': 3, 'e': 4}

By the way, you can also use del with lists.

Let's create a list, call it numbers, and set it to the numbers [10,11,12,13,14,15]. If you output it, you should see all the numbers there. If you run del(numbers[3]), Python will delete the item in the list that is located at index position 3. You know that 10 is at index 0, 11 is at index 1, 12 is at index 2, and 13 is at index 3. You might expect Python will remove number 13 from your list, but let's verify that. If you output the list after you run the delete function, you'll see that 13 was removed.

# we can also delete values in lists based on their index position
# remember, the index starts with 0, which is 10 in this list
numbers = [10,11,12,13,14,15]

# the output should be [10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15]

# let's delete the list item at position 3
# in the numbers list, this item is the integer 13

# the output should be [10, 11, 12, 14, 15]


What Are Some Useful Dictionary Methods?

In our final section, let’s go over a few useful dictionary methods.

The first is the keys() method, which allows us to obtain a dictionary’s keys. Let's try it out with the letters dictionary we defined above.

If you run letters.keys(), you'll get only the keys returned. In the case of this particular dictionary, Python returns a collection of single character strings, including 'a', 'b', 'c', 'd', and 'e'. Note that the keys method takes no parameters.

# we can easily obtain the dictionary's keys
# the output should be dict_keys(['a', 'b', 'c', 'd', 'e'])

In a similar fashion, you can obtain a dictionary’s values. To do that you use the values method, like so: letters.values(). Python returns 0,1,2,3,4, which, if you look at the letters dictionary, are the values.

# we can also obtain the values
# the output should be dict_values([0, 1, 2, 3, 4])

Finally, you can also get all of the pairs in a dictionary by calling the items method.

Inputting letters.items() returns the key-value pairs. You should see them surrounded by round parentheses, which is the notation for the tuple data type. You'll learn about tuples in a future lesson.

# we can also output the dictionary's key-value pairs as tuples
# the output should be dict_items([('a', 0), ('b', 1), ('c', 2), ('d', 3), ('e', 4)])


What You Should Look Out for When Making Dictionaries in Python

I want to draw your attention to one final characteristic of dictionaries.

In Python, your dictionary keys don’t necessarily have to be strings, although they usually are. Other data types (though not all) are supported. For example, you can have a dictionary that maps integer numbers to letters, which is the opposite of what you did earlier.

Let's create a new dictionary and call it data. I'll make data = {1: 'a', 2: 'b'}. To access the value that corresponds to the key that is the integer number 1, I'll write data[1]. Without context, data[1] looks like I'm indexing into a list.

But I'm not! The integer number 1 here is not an index location, but is the key that the string 'a' is mapped to. These can be potentially confusing situations. You may run into such cases—though probably not very often—so keep an eye out for them.

# let's create one more dictionary
data = {1: 'a', 2: 'b'}

# to access the value for key 1, we'd write 
# the output should be 'a'

As a general rule, keep the data type of each variable in mind when you're reading or writing code. This will not only allow you to follow along more easily with what's happening in the program, but it'll also prevent possible logical errors or bugs.

That's it for dictionary methods!

Like lists, dictionaries are a powerful data type. You'll encounter them often, so take some time to get familiar with them. In the beginning, the most difficult thing about programming is getting used to the syntax. That’s why it's important to practice using many simple examples, like the ones we went through together in this article.

Don't try to memorize all of this information. Instead, I encourage you to come up with your own examples of more complex dictionaries. Once you’ve mastered the basics, then add pairs, delete pairs, update values in pairs, and practice other dictionary methods. Do this enough and the successful use of dictionaries in Python will start to come naturally to you.

Thanks for following along and I'll see you in the next article!


Ciprian Stratulat

CTO | Software Engineer

Ciprian Stratulat

Ciprian is a software engineer and the CTO of Edlitera. As an instructor, Ciprian is a big believer in first building an intuition about a new topic, and then mastering it through guided deliberate practice.

Before Edlitera, Ciprian worked as a Software Engineer in finance, biotech, genomics and e-book publishing. Ciprian holds a degree in Computer Science from Harvard University.