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What is a Python Dictionary? Explanation and Code Examples

Here’s everything you need to know about the Dictionary data type in Python, what it can store, and how to use it.

Python has several built-in data types for storing data (more than other languages like JavaScript) – from basic types like integers, floating-point numbers, and strings to more complex types like lists, tuples, and dictionaries.

What is a Type?

A variable’s type defines what kind of value it can store and what can be done with it.

What is a Dictionary?

dictionary is a variable type that is available in Python. In other languages, they may be referred to as associative arrays.

dictionary contains a collection of objects – but unlike a list or array, rather than their values being recorded at a specific index (or ordered position in the sequence of stored values), they are stored in a key – a string identifier which both tells you what a value is for, and which can also be used to retrieve it.

Put succinctly; a dictionary is a variable that contains a collection of key:value pairs.

If you’re coming from PHP, you will have seen this implemented as associative arrays. If you’re coming from a JavaScript background, simple javascript objects are similar in that they also store data in key:value pairs.

Dictionaries are Ordered and Changeable

In older versions of Python prior to version 3.7, dictionaries were unordered – there was no defined order, and items were subject to change position.

This is no longer the case! Dictionaries are now ordered – the contents of the dictionary will remain in the order they are defined or added.

Unlike Tuplesdictionaries are changeable – you can add, remove and alter the items within.

Keys Must Be Unique!

As each key is used to access a specific value, there cannot be duplicates (otherwise, how is Python to know which key you mean to access?).

Creating a Dictionary / Dictionary Syntax

Creating a dictionary in Python is as simple as declaring a variable conforming to the dictionary type’s syntax:

myDictionary = {
    "name": "Fred",
    "animal": "cat",
    "colour": "red",
    "age": 3

A dictionary is defined by creating a collection of key:value pairs wrapped in curly braces ({}). *As you can see, this dictionary describes someone’s pet cat. *

In the above example, a series of keys (nameanimalcolorage) are assigned different values (Fredcatred3).

The values can be anything – strings, integers, objects, other dictionaries.

The keys must be strings – they are used to describe and access the values. It’s easy to see what data is stored in the dictionary simply by looking at the keys – we know the value red describes the color of the cat.

Accessing Dictionary Values

The entirety of a dictionary variable can be accessed by the variable name; for example – the below line of Python will print the dictionary, and the values contained:


The values stored inside the dictionary can be accessed by their key – append the key, surrounded by [] (square brackets) to access the value stored at that key:

print(myDictionary["colour"]) # will print "red"

If the key you are trying to read from is not defined, you will receive a KeyError.

Updating The Dictionary

Updating values for a given key is simply a matter of overwriting them:

myDictionary\["colour"\] = "blue"

Removing Items from a Dictionary

The delete statement is used to remove a key:value pair from a dictionary:

del myDictionary\["colour"\]

Adding Items to a Dictionary

There are a couple of ways to add items to a Dictionary, which we have covered in the article here.

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I'm Brad, and I'm nearing 20 years of experience with Linux. I've worked in just about every IT role there is before taking the leap into software development. Currently, I'm building desktop and web-based solutions with NodeJS and PHP hosted on Linux infrastructure. Visit my blog or find me on Twitter to see what I'm up to.

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