William J. Turkel and Adam Crymble

Computer programs can become long, unwieldy and confusing without special mechanisms for managing complexity. This lesson will show you how to reuse parts of your code by writing functions and break your programs into modules, in order to keep everything concise and easier to debug.

edited by

  • Miriam Posner

reviewed by

  • Jim Clifford

published

2012-07-17

modified

2012-07-17

difficulty

Medium

This lesson was written using Python v. 2.x. Code may not be compatible with newer versions of Python. “Python Introduction and Installation” provides instructions for how you can install Python 2.x alongside newer versions.

This lesson is part of a series. You might want to check out the previous lesson.

Contents

Lesson Goals

Computer programs can become long, unwieldy and confusing without special mechanisms for managing complexity. This lesson will show you how to reuse parts of your code by writing Functions and break your programs into Modules, in order to keep everything concise and easier to debug. Being able to remove a single dysfunctional module can save time and effort.

Functions

You will often find that you want to re-use a particular set of statements, usually because you have a task that you need to do over and over. Programs are mostly composed of routines that are powerful and general-purpose enough to be reused. These are known as functions, and Python has mechanisms that allow you to define new functions. Let’s work through a very simple example of a function. Suppose you want to create a general purpose function for greeting people. Copy the following function definition into Komodo Edit and save it as greet.py.

# greet.py

def greetEntity (x):
    print("hello " + x)

greetEntity("Everybody")
greetEntity("Programming Historian")

The line beginning with def is the function declaration. We are going to define (“def”) a function, which in this case we have named “greetEntity”. The (x) is the function’s parameter. You should understand how that works in a moment. The second line contains the code of the function. This could be as many lines as we need, but in this case it is only a single line.

Note that indentation is very important in Python. The blank space before the print statement tells the interpreter that it is part of the function that is being defined. You will learn more about this as we go along; for now, make sure to keep indentation the way we show it. Run the program, and you should see something like this:

hello Everybody
hello Programming Historian

This example contains one function: greetEntity. This function is then “called” (sometimes referred to as “invoked”) two times. Calling or invoking a function just means we have told the program to execute the code in that function. Like giving the dog his chicken-flavoured treat (*woof* *woof*). In this case each time we have called the function we have given it a different parameter. Try editing greet.py so that it calls the greetEntity function a third time using your own name as a parameter. Run the program again. You should now be able to figure out what (x) does in the function declaration.

Before moving on to the next step, edit greet.py to delete the function calls, leaving only the function declaration. You’re going to learn how to call the function from another program. When you are finished, your greet.py file should look like this:

# greet.py

def greetEntity (x):
    print("hello " + x)

Modularity

When programs are small like the above example, they are typically stored in a single file. When you want to run one of your programs, you can simply send the file to the interpreter. As programs become larger, it makes sense to split them into separate files known as modules. This modularity makes it easier for you to work on sections of your larger programs. By perfecting each section of the program before putting all of the sections together, you not only make it easier to reuse individual modules in other programs, you make it easier to fix problems by being able to pinpoint the source of the error. When you break a program into modules, you are also able to hide the details for how something is done within the module that does it. Other modules don’t need to know how something is accomplished if they are not responsible for doing it. This need-to-know principle is called “encapsulation“.

Suppose you were building a car. You could start adding pieces willy nilly, but it would make more sense to start by building and testing one module — perhaps the engine — before moving on to others. The engine, in turn, could be imagined to consist of a number of other, smaller modules like the carburettor and ignition system, and those are comprised of still smaller and more basic modules. The same is true when coding. You try to break a problem into smaller pieces, and solve those first.

You already created a module when you wrote the greet.py program. Now you are going to write a second program, using-greet.py which will import code from your module and make use of it. Python has a special import statement that allows one program to gain access to the contents of another program file. This is what you will be using.

Copy this code to Komodo Edit and save it as using-greet.py. This file is your program; greet.py is your module.

# using-greet.py

import greet
greet.greetEntity("everybody")
greet.greetEntity("programming historian")

We have done a few things here. First, we have told Python to import (load) the greet.py module, which we previously created.

You will also notice that whereas before we were able to run the function by calling only its name: greetEntity(“everybody”), we now need to include the module’s name followed by a dot (.) in front of the function name. In plain English this means: run the greetEntity function, which you should find in the greet.py module.

You can run your using-greet.py program with the “Run Python” command that you created in Komodo Edit. Note that you do not have to run your module…just the program that calls it. If all went well, you should see the following in the Komodo Edit output pane:

hello everybody
hello programming historian

Make sure that you understand the difference between loading a data file (e.g., helloworld.txt) and importing a program file (e.g. greet.py) before moving on.

Suggested Readings

Great! Now you're ready to move on to the next lesson .
About the authors

William J. Turkel is Professor of History at the University of Western Ontario.   Adam Crymble is a lecturer of digital history at the University of Hertfordshire.