Understanding slice notation

Asked : Nov 17

Viewed : 61 times

I need a good explanation (references are a plus) on Python's slice notation.

To me, this notation needs a bit of picking up.

It looks extremely powerful, but I haven't quite got my head around it.

python list slice iterable 

Nov 17

4 Answers

It's pretty simple really:

a[start:stop]  # items start through stop-1
a[start:]      # items start through the rest of the array
a[:stop]       # items from the beginning through stop-1
a[:]           # a copy of the whole array

There is also the step value, which can be used with any of the above:

a[start:stop:step] # start through not past stop, by step

The key point to remember is that the :stop the value represents the first value that is not in the selected slice. So, the difference between stop and start is the number of elements selected (if step is 1, the default).

The other feature is that start or stop maybe a negative number, which means it counts from the end of the array instead of the beginning. So:

a[-1]    # last item in the array
a[-2:]   # last two items in the array
a[:-2]   # everything except the last two items

Similarly, step maybe a negative number:

a[::-1]    # all items in the array, reversed
a[1::-1]   # the first two items, reversed
a[:-3:-1]  # the last two items, reversed
a[-3::-1]  # everything except the last two items, reversed

Python is kind to the programmer if there are fewer items than you ask for. For example, if you ask for a[:-2] and a only contains one element, you get an empty list instead of an error. Sometimes you would prefer the error, so you have to be aware that this may happen.

Relation to slice() object

The slicing operator [] is actually being used in the above code with a slice() object using the : notation (which is only valid within []), i.e.:


is equivalent to:

a[slice(start, stop, step)]

Slice objects also behave slightly differently depending on the number of arguments, similarly to range(), i.e. both slice(stop) and slice(start, stop[, step]) are supported. To skip specifying a given argument, one might use None, so that e.g. a[start:] is equivalent to a[slice(start, None)] or a[::-1] is equivalent to a[slice(None, None, -1)].

While the :-based notation is very helpful for simple slicing, the explicit use of slice() objects simplify the programmatic generation of slicing.

answered Jan 20

Python slice notation

  • Understanding Python's slice notation (this blog post)
  • Understanding Python's slice assignment

Basic syntax

Python's slice notation is used to return a list or a portion of a list. The basic syntax is as follows:


Where start_at is the index of the first item to be returned (included), stop_before is the index of the element before which to stop (not included) and step is the stride between any two items.

All three of the arguments are optional, meaning you can omit any of them. For example:

nums = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

nums[1:4]     # [2, 3, 4]   (start at 0, stop before 4)
nums[2:]      # [3, 4, 5]   (start at 0, stop at end of list)
nums[:3]      # [1, 2, 3]   (start at 0, stop before 3)
nums[1:4:2]   # [2, 4]      (start at 1, stop before 4, every 2nd element)
nums[2::2]    # [3, 5]      (start at 2, stop at end of list, every 2nd element)
nums[:3:2]    # [1, 3]      (start at 0, stop before 3, every 2nd element)
nums[::2]     # [1, 3, 5]   (start at 0, stop at end of list, every 2nd element)
nums[::]      # [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] (start at 0, stop at end of list)

As you can probably tell from the examples above, the default values are start_at = 0, stop_before = len(nums), step = 1.

An idiomatic way to shallow clone a list would be using [:] (e.g. nums_clone = nums[:]).

Negative values

All three of the arguments also accept negative values. For start_at and stop_before, a negative value means counting from the end of the list instead of counting from the start. For example -1 would represent the last element, -2 the second last element etc. For example:

nums = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

nums[1:-2]    # [2, 3]      (start at 1, stop before 2nd to last)
nums[-3:-1]   # [3, 4]      (start at 3rd to last, stop before last)

A negative step means that the list is sliced in reverse (from end to start). This also means that start_at should be greater than stop_before and that stop_before in the context of a reverse stride is more like stop_after if you are looking at the list non-reversed. For example:

nums = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

nums[::-1]    # [5, 4, 3, 2, 1]   (reversed)
nums[4:1:-1]  # [5, 4, 3]   (reversed, start at 4, stop after 1)
nums[-1:1:-2] # [5, 3]      (reversed, start at last, stop after 1, every 2nd)

Empty slices

Bear in mind that slice notation is very forgiving, so you'll get an empty list if the arguments' values are out of the list's range. For example:

nums = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

nums[6:8]     # []
nums[:-10]    # []

answered Jan 20

And a couple of things that weren't immediately obvious to me when I first saw the slicing syntax:

>>> x = [1,2,3,4,5,6]
>>> x[::-1]

Easy way to reverse sequences!

And if you wanted, for some reason, every second item in the reversed sequence:

>>> x = [1,2,3,4,5,6]
>>> x[::-2]

answered Jan 20

I use the "an index points between elements" method of thinking about it myself, but one way of describing it which sometimes helps others get it is this:


X is the index of the first element you want.
Y is the index of the first element you don't want.

answered Jan 20

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