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How do I merge two dictionaries in a single expression in Python (taking union of dictionaries)?


Question

I have two Python dictionaries, and I want to write a single expression that returns these two dictionaries, merged (i.e. taking the union). The update() method would be what I need, if it returned its result instead of modifying a dictionary in-place.

>>> x = {'a': 1, 'b': 2}
>>> y = {'b': 10, 'c': 11}
>>> z = x.update(y)
>>> print(z)
None
>>> x
{'a': 1, 'b': 10, 'c': 11}

How can I get that final merged dictionary in z, not x?

(To be extra-clear, the last-one-wins conflict-handling of dict.update() is what I'm looking for as well.)

2020/07/13
1
5015
7/13/2020 9:15:52 PM

Accepted Answer

How can I merge two Python dictionaries in a single expression?

For dictionaries x and y, z becomes a shallowly merged dictionary with values from y replacing those from x.

  • In Python 3.5 or greater:
    z = {**x, **y}
    
  • In Python 2, (or 3.4 or lower) write a function:
    def merge_two_dicts(x, y):
        z = x.copy()   # start with x's keys and values
        z.update(y)    # modifies z with y's keys and values & returns None
        return z
    
    and now:
    z = merge_two_dicts(x, y)
    
  • In Python 3.9.0a4 or greater (final release date approx October 2020): PEP-584, discussed here, was implemented to further simplify this:
    z = x | y          # NOTE: 3.9+ ONLY
    

Explanation

Say you have two dictionaries and you want to merge them into a new dict without altering the original dictionaries:

x = {'a': 1, 'b': 2}
y = {'b': 3, 'c': 4}

The desired result is to get a new dictionary (z) with the values merged, and the second dictionary's values overwriting those from the first.

>>> z
{'a': 1, 'b': 3, 'c': 4}

A new syntax for this, proposed in PEP 448 and available as of Python 3.5, is

z = {**x, **y}

And it is indeed a single expression.

Note that we can merge in with literal notation as well:

z = {**x, 'foo': 1, 'bar': 2, **y}

and now:

>>> z
{'a': 1, 'b': 3, 'foo': 1, 'bar': 2, 'c': 4}

It is now showing as implemented in the release schedule for 3.5, PEP 478, and it has now made its way into What's New in Python 3.5 document.

However, since many organizations are still on Python 2, you may wish to do this in a backwards compatible way. The classically Pythonic way, available in Python 2 and Python 3.0-3.4, is to do this as a two-step process:

z = x.copy()
z.update(y) # which returns None since it mutates z

In both approaches, y will come second and its values will replace x's values, thus 'b' will point to 3 in our final result.

Not yet on Python 3.5, but want a single expression

If you are not yet on Python 3.5, or need to write backward-compatible code, and you want this in a single expression, the most performant while correct approach is to put it in a function:

def merge_two_dicts(x, y):
    """Given two dictionaries, merge them into a new dict as a shallow copy."""
    z = x.copy()
    z.update(y)
    return z

and then you have a single expression:

z = merge_two_dicts(x, y)

You can also make a function to merge an undefined number of dictionaries, from zero to a very large number:

def merge_dicts(*dict_args):
    """
    Given any number of dictionaries, shallow copy and merge into a new dict,
    precedence goes to key value pairs in latter dictionaries.
    """
    result = {}
    for dictionary in dict_args:
        result.update(dictionary)
    return result

This function will work in Python 2 and 3 for all dictionaries. e.g. given dictionaries a to g:

z = merge_dicts(a, b, c, d, e, f, g) 

and key value pairs in g will take precedence over dictionaries a to f, and so on.

Critiques of Other Answers

Don't use what you see in the formerly accepted answer:

z = dict(x.items() + y.items())

In Python 2, you create two lists in memory for each dict, create a third list in memory with length equal to the length of the first two put together, and then discard all three lists to create the dict. In Python 3, this will fail because you're adding two dict_items objects together, not two lists -

>>> c = dict(a.items() + b.items())
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: unsupported operand type(s) for +: 'dict_items' and 'dict_items'

and you would have to explicitly create them as lists, e.g. z = dict(list(x.items()) + list(y.items())). This is a waste of resources and computation power.

Similarly, taking the union of items() in Python 3 (viewitems() in Python 2.7) will also fail when values are unhashable objects (like lists, for example). Even if your values are hashable, since sets are semantically unordered, the behavior is undefined in regards to precedence. So don't do this:

>>> c = dict(a.items() | b.items())

This example demonstrates what happens when values are unhashable:

>>> x = {'a': []}
>>> y = {'b': []}
>>> dict(x.items() | y.items())
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: unhashable type: 'list'

Here's an example where y should have precedence, but instead the value from x is retained due to the arbitrary order of sets:

>>> x = {'a': 2}
>>> y = {'a': 1}
>>> dict(x.items() | y.items())
{'a': 2}

Another hack you should not use:

z = dict(x, **y)

This uses the dict constructor, and is very fast and memory efficient (even slightly more-so than our two-step process) but unless you know precisely what is happening here (that is, the second dict is being passed as keyword arguments to the dict constructor), it's difficult to read, it's not the intended usage, and so it is not Pythonic.

Here's an example of the usage being remediated in django.

Dictionaries are intended to take hashable keys (e.g. frozensets or tuples), but this method fails in Python 3 when keys are not strings.

>>> c = dict(a, **b)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: keyword arguments must be strings

From the mailing list, Guido van Rossum, the creator of the language, wrote:

I am fine with declaring dict({}, **{1:3}) illegal, since after all it is abuse of the ** mechanism.

and

Apparently dict(x, **y) is going around as "cool hack" for "call x.update(y) and return x". Personally I find it more despicable than cool.

It is my understanding (as well as the understanding of the creator of the language) that the intended usage for dict(**y) is for creating dictionaries for readability purposes, e.g.:

dict(a=1, b=10, c=11)

instead of

{'a': 1, 'b': 10, 'c': 11}

Response to comments

Despite what Guido says, dict(x, **y) is in line with the dict specification, which btw. works for both Python 2 and 3. The fact that this only works for string keys is a direct consequence of how keyword parameters work and not a short-comming of dict. Nor is using the ** operator in this place an abuse of the mechanism, in fact ** was designed precisely to pass dictionaries as keywords.

Again, it doesn't work for 3 when keys are non-strings. The implicit calling contract is that namespaces take ordinary dictionaries, while users must only pass keyword arguments that are strings. All other callables enforced it. dict broke this consistency in Python 2:

>>> foo(**{('a', 'b'): None})
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: foo() keywords must be strings
>>> dict(**{('a', 'b'): None})
{('a', 'b'): None}

This inconsistency was bad given other implementations of Python (Pypy, Jython, IronPython). Thus it was fixed in Python 3, as this usage could be a breaking change.

I submit to you that it is malicious incompetence to intentionally write code that only works in one version of a language or that only works given certain arbitrary constraints.

More comments:

dict(x.items() + y.items()) is still the most readable solution for Python 2. Readability counts.

My response: merge_two_dicts(x, y) actually seems much clearer to me, if we're actually concerned about readability. And it is not forward compatible, as Python 2 is increasingly deprecated.

{**x, **y} does not seem to handle nested dictionaries. the contents of nested keys are simply overwritten, not merged [...] I ended up being burnt by these answers that do not merge recursively and I was surprised no one mentioned it. In my interpretation of the word "merging" these answers describe "updating one dict with another", and not merging.

Yes. I must refer you back to the question, which is asking for a shallow merge of two dictionaries, with the first's values being overwritten by the second's - in a single expression.

Assuming two dictionary of dictionaries, one might recursively merge them in a single function, but you should be careful not to modify the dictionaries from either source, and the surest way to avoid that is to make a copy when assigning values. As keys must be hashable and are usually therefore immutable, it is pointless to copy them:

from copy import deepcopy

def dict_of_dicts_merge(x, y):
    z = {}
    overlapping_keys = x.keys() & y.keys()
    for key in overlapping_keys:
        z[key] = dict_of_dicts_merge(x[key], y[key])
    for key in x.keys() - overlapping_keys:
        z[key] = deepcopy(x[key])
    for key in y.keys() - overlapping_keys:
        z[key] = deepcopy(y[key])
    return z

Usage:

>>> x = {'a':{1:{}}, 'b': {2:{}}}
>>> y = {'b':{10:{}}, 'c': {11:{}}}
>>> dict_of_dicts_merge(x, y)
{'b': {2: {}, 10: {}}, 'a': {1: {}}, 'c': {11: {}}}

Coming up with contingencies for other value types is far beyond the scope of this question, so I will point you at my answer to the canonical question on a "Dictionaries of dictionaries merge".

Less Performant But Correct Ad-hocs

These approaches are less performant, but they will provide correct behavior. They will be much less performant than copy and update or the new unpacking because they iterate through each key-value pair at a higher level of abstraction, but they do respect the order of precedence (latter dictionaries have precedence)

You can also chain the dictionaries manually inside a dict comprehension:

{k: v for d in dicts for k, v in d.items()} # iteritems in Python 2.7

or in python 2.6 (and perhaps as early as 2.4 when generator expressions were introduced):

dict((k, v) for d in dicts for k, v in d.items()) # iteritems in Python 2

itertools.chain will chain the iterators over the key-value pairs in the correct order:

from itertools import chain
z = dict(chain(x.items(), y.items())) # iteritems in Python 2

Performance Analysis

I'm only going to do the performance analysis of the usages known to behave correctly. (Self-contained so you can copy and paste yourself.)

from timeit import repeat
from itertools import chain

x = dict.fromkeys('abcdefg')
y = dict.fromkeys('efghijk')

def merge_two_dicts(x, y):
    z = x.copy()
    z.update(y)
    return z

min(repeat(lambda: {**x, **y}))
min(repeat(lambda: merge_two_dicts(x, y)))
min(repeat(lambda: {k: v for d in (x, y) for k, v in d.items()}))
min(repeat(lambda: dict(chain(x.items(), y.items()))))
min(repeat(lambda: dict(item for d in (x, y) for item in d.items())))

In Python 3.8.1, NixOS:

>>> min(repeat(lambda: {**x, **y}))
1.0804965235292912
>>> min(repeat(lambda: merge_two_dicts(x, y)))
1.636518670246005
>>> min(repeat(lambda: {k: v for d in (x, y) for k, v in d.items()}))
3.1779992282390594
>>> min(repeat(lambda: dict(chain(x.items(), y.items()))))
2.740647904574871
>>> min(repeat(lambda: dict(item for d in (x, y) for item in d.items())))
4.266070580109954
$ uname -a
Linux nixos 4.19.113 #1-NixOS SMP Wed Mar 25 07:06:15 UTC 2020 x86_64 GNU/Linux

Resources on Dictionaries

2020/08/29
6084
8/29/2020 12:08:26 AM

In your case, what you can do is:

z = dict(list(x.items()) + list(y.items()))

This will, as you want it, put the final dict in z, and make the value for key b be properly overridden by the second (y) dict's value:

>>> x = {'a':1, 'b': 2}
>>> y = {'b':10, 'c': 11}
>>> z = dict(list(x.items()) + list(y.items()))
>>> z
{'a': 1, 'c': 11, 'b': 10}

If you use Python 2, you can even remove the list() calls. To create z:

>>> z = dict(x.items() + y.items())
>>> z
{'a': 1, 'c': 11, 'b': 10}

If you use Python version 3.9.0a4 or greater, then you can directly use:

x = {'a':1, 'b': 2}
y = {'b':10, 'c': 11}
z = x | y
print(z)
{'a': 1, 'c': 11, 'b': 10}

An alternative:

z = x.copy()
z.update(y)
2008/09/02

Another, more concise, option:

z = dict(x, **y)

Note: this has become a popular answer, but it is important to point out that if y has any non-string keys, the fact that this works at all is an abuse of a CPython implementation detail, and it does not work in Python 3, or in PyPy, IronPython, or Jython. Also, Guido is not a fan. So I can't recommend this technique for forward-compatible or cross-implementation portable code, which really means it should be avoided entirely.

2016/01/21

This probably won't be a popular answer, but you almost certainly do not want to do this. If you want a copy that's a merge, then use copy (or deepcopy, depending on what you want) and then update. The two lines of code are much more readable - more Pythonic - than the single line creation with .items() + .items(). Explicit is better than implicit.

In addition, when you use .items() (pre Python 3.0), you're creating a new list that contains the items from the dict. If your dictionaries are large, then that is quite a lot of overhead (two large lists that will be thrown away as soon as the merged dict is created). update() can work more efficiently, because it can run through the second dict item-by-item.

In terms of time:

>>> timeit.Timer("dict(x, **y)", "x = dict(zip(range(1000), range(1000)))\ny=dict(zip(range(1000,2000), range(1000,2000)))").timeit(100000)
15.52571702003479
>>> timeit.Timer("temp = x.copy()\ntemp.update(y)", "x = dict(zip(range(1000), range(1000)))\ny=dict(zip(range(1000,2000), range(1000,2000)))").timeit(100000)
15.694622993469238
>>> timeit.Timer("dict(x.items() + y.items())", "x = dict(zip(range(1000), range(1000)))\ny=dict(zip(range(1000,2000), range(1000,2000)))").timeit(100000)
41.484580039978027

IMO the tiny slowdown between the first two is worth it for the readability. In addition, keyword arguments for dictionary creation was only added in Python 2.3, whereas copy() and update() will work in older versions.

2014/08/05

In a follow-up answer, you asked about the relative performance of these two alternatives:

z1 = dict(x.items() + y.items())
z2 = dict(x, **y)

On my machine, at least (a fairly ordinary x86_64 running Python 2.5.2), alternative z2 is not only shorter and simpler but also significantly faster. You can verify this for yourself using the timeit module that comes with Python.

Example 1: identical dictionaries mapping 20 consecutive integers to themselves:

% python -m timeit -s 'x=y=dict((i,i) for i in range(20))' 'z1=dict(x.items() + y.items())'
100000 loops, best of 3: 5.67 usec per loop
% python -m timeit -s 'x=y=dict((i,i) for i in range(20))' 'z2=dict(x, **y)' 
100000 loops, best of 3: 1.53 usec per loop

z2 wins by a factor of 3.5 or so. Different dictionaries seem to yield quite different results, but z2 always seems to come out ahead. (If you get inconsistent results for the same test, try passing in -r with a number larger than the default 3.)

Example 2: non-overlapping dictionaries mapping 252 short strings to integers and vice versa:

% python -m timeit -s 'from htmlentitydefs import codepoint2name as x, name2codepoint as y' 'z1=dict(x.items() + y.items())'
1000 loops, best of 3: 260 usec per loop
% python -m timeit -s 'from htmlentitydefs import codepoint2name as x, name2codepoint as y' 'z2=dict(x, **y)'               
10000 loops, best of 3: 26.9 usec per loop

z2 wins by about a factor of 10. That's a pretty big win in my book!

After comparing those two, I wondered if z1's poor performance could be attributed to the overhead of constructing the two item lists, which in turn led me to wonder if this variation might work better:

from itertools import chain
z3 = dict(chain(x.iteritems(), y.iteritems()))

A few quick tests, e.g.

% python -m timeit -s 'from itertools import chain; from htmlentitydefs import codepoint2name as x, name2codepoint as y' 'z3=dict(chain(x.iteritems(), y.iteritems()))'
10000 loops, best of 3: 66 usec per loop

lead me to conclude that z3 is somewhat faster than z1, but not nearly as fast as z2. Definitely not worth all the extra typing.

This discussion is still missing something important, which is a performance comparison of these alternatives with the "obvious" way of merging two lists: using the update method. To try to keep things on an equal footing with the expressions, none of which modify x or y, I'm going to make a copy of x instead of modifying it in-place, as follows:

z0 = dict(x)
z0.update(y)

A typical result:

% python -m timeit -s 'from htmlentitydefs import codepoint2name as x, name2codepoint as y' 'z0=dict(x); z0.update(y)'
10000 loops, best of 3: 26.9 usec per loop

In other words, z0 and z2 seem to have essentially identical performance. Do you think this might be a coincidence? I don't....

In fact, I'd go so far as to claim that it's impossible for pure Python code to do any better than this. And if you can do significantly better in a C extension module, I imagine the Python folks might well be interested in incorporating your code (or a variation on your approach) into the Python core. Python uses dict in lots of places; optimizing its operations is a big deal.

You could also write this as

z0 = x.copy()
z0.update(y)

as Tony does, but (not surprisingly) the difference in notation turns out not to have any measurable effect on performance. Use whichever looks right to you. Of course, he's absolutely correct to point out that the two-statement version is much easier to understand.

2015/01/10

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