This lesson is being piloted (Beta version)

Objects in Python


Teaching: 20 min
Exercises: 15 min
  • What are objects in Python?

  • What is a class or type?

  • Can objects belong to more than one class?

  • How can objects be created from a class?

  • Be able to distinguish between class and object

  • Be able to construct objects via a class’s constructor

  • Be able to distinguish between equality and identity of objects

You may recall that we calculated the mean of a Numpy array by using numpy.mean, as

import numpy
numbers = numpy.arange(10)

However, we can also calculate the mean of a Numpy array as:


Let’s see if we can do this with a normal list:

more_numbers = [1, 2, 3, 4]

In this case Python will complain with an error. How does Python know it can do this for numbers but not more_numbers?

What type is it?

Let’s investigate this further by using type to identify what the data type of numbers is:

<class 'numpy.ndarray'>

What about the type of the variable more_numbers?

<class 'list'>

We can see here that numbers is an object of the type numpy.ndarray. In Python, anything which can be stored in a variable or passed to a function is called an object. Objects are classified by their type, or their class.

Class or Type?

Note that in literature, you’ll find a subtle distinction between class and type. However, since in Python 3 we can’t have one without the other, we will use both terms interchangably.

Let’s find some types

Can you find anything that you can store in a variable which does not have a class? What is the type of the number 1, or the string "hello"?

Does the class change if they are passed directly to type, or if they are stored in a variable?


<class 'int'>
<class 'string'>

Does everything have a class?

Try to find words that Python recognises that do not have classes. What about numpy.mean or numpy? What about if or for? Can you think of others?


<class 'function'>
<class 'module'>

The objects numpy.mean and numpy are things that we typically wouldn’t store in variables or passed around. However, they could in principle be stored in variables, and therefore are objects with a class.

 File "<stdin>", line 1
SyntaxError: invalid syntax
 File "<stdin>", line 1
SyntaxError: invalid syntax

The words if and for are part of the Python language itself, they can’t be stored in variables. Only things which can be stored in variables can have a class.

Changing things

In Python, there are two ways in which objects can behave. The most intuitive case is when object are created with a value, and they keep the value forever. Many objects we’re familiar with, such as integers or strings, are objects which hold a value.

Let’s store a string in a variable:

message = "Hello"

The variable message now refers to an object, which has the value "Hello". We can point another variable at the same object with:

second_message = message

But, we can never change the value of the string object itself. The string “hello” will always be the string “hello”. We can set the variable second_message to a new object, with

second_message = message + ", world"

But the original object is still there, unchanged. We can still get to it by typing


This may not seem surprising, but not all objects in Python behave this way. Consider the following list of strings:

messages = ["Hello", "world!"]

Let’s point new variable duplicate_messages at the list named messages

duplicate_messages = messages

Think of this as pointing duplicate_messages at the same underlying object contained in messages: Now let’s change a part of duplicate_messages:

duplicate_messages[1] = "there!"

What is the value of messages now?

['Hello', 'there!']

Note how we changed messages through the variable duplicate_messages. We can do this because both messages and duplicate_messages refer to the same underlying object, and that underlying object can be changed.

We say that objects which can’t be changed, like numbers and string, are immutable. Numbers are an intuitive example of immutable objects, the number 1000 will always be the number 1000. We say that these objects that can be changed are mutable, they can be “mutated” after they’ve created.

Immutable lists

Python has a class similar to a list called a tuple. Is a tuple mutable or immutable?

Check if you can change a tuple by setting:

messages = ("Hello", "world!")

and trying to modify the second element with:

messages[1] = "there!'


messages = ("Hello", "world!")
messages[1] = "there!"

You should see an error containing the text:

TypeError: 'tuple' object does not support item assignment

This is telling you that you can’t modify the tuple object, this is true because the tuple object is immutable.

What kind of objects?

List some objects that you think are mutable and immutable. Verify this by trying to find ways to change the objects.

Note: Be careful that you’re not “cheating” by using = to point to a new object.

Instances and Methods

We say that an object of a particular class is an instance of that class. To use a real world example, we could have the type or class Chair which describes to all the chairs in the world. The chair that you are sitting on right now is a specific instance of the chair class.

We can check if an object is an instance of a particular class with the isinstance function.

isinstance(numbers, numpy.ndarray)

Every object is created with a single class, and which can’t be changed. The class of an object can also provide behaviour that the object might have, by providing functions to objects in its class. These functions can be called by using a dot after the variable name, for example:


The functions which are associated with an object are provided by the class of the object. When a class provides a function to an object we call that function a method of the class.

We say that the numpy.ndarray class provides the mean method. Since numbers belongs to the class numpy.ndarray, we can use the mean method on the object referred to by numbers, by calling numbers.mean(). This allows objects of a numpy.ndarray to provide functionality specific to objects of class numpy.ndarray.

It’s worth noting that both mutable and immutable objects can have methods. Methods of immutable objects, however, can’t change the underlying object. If needed, they will return a brand new object, and set the expected value in the new object. To keep this change, you will need to store it in a variable, for example:

hello = "hello, world"
capital_hello = hello.capitalize()

Methods of mutable objects can, and often do, change the class.

grades = [84, 78, 91]
[84, 78, 91, 66]

In this case, we don’t need the extra = to assign the value to a new object.

Finding out what things are

use type() to find the type of students, defined as

students = ['Petra', 'Aalia', 'Faizan', 'Shona']

and check this with isinstance.


<class 'list'>
isinstance(students, list)

Other common classes

What other classes have you encountered previously when using Python? What methods did they provide?

Making an object

A class can be called as a function, in which case it constructs new instances of itself. While this is not the only way to make objects, it is one that all classes offer. For example, a new list can be created as:

students = list()
<class 'list'>

Making a Numpy array

While all classes can be constructed by calling their name, some classes don’t recommend this route. For example, numpy.ndarray is used internally by Numpy to initialise its arrays, but Numpy recommends using one of the higher-level functions like numpy.zeros, numpy.ones, numpy.empty, or numpy.asarray to construct an array (of zeroes, of ones, without initialising the data, and initialising from an existing data structure like a list, respectively).

Make a dict

Given the following list of students and their grades, how would you construct a dict with students as keys, and grades as values?

students = ['Petra', 'Aalia', 'Faizan', 'Shona']
grades = [84, 78, 91, 66]

You can check the type of the object you’ve created with isinstance

Hint: zip() can be used to turn two lists into tuples of corresponding pairs of elements.


student_grades = dict(zip(students, grades))
isinstance(student_grades, dict)

Equality and identity

Python has two ways of testing whether two objects are the “same”. The first is equality, or whether the associated values or contents of the object are the same.

The second is identity, or whether the objects are in fact the same instance, with names referring to the same underlying object.

Equality is tested with ==, which you have probably used before. We can test for identity with the is keyword:

old_students = students
new_students = ['Petra', 'Aalia', 'Faizan', 'Shona']

if old_students == students:
    print("old_students is equal to the students list")
if new_students == students:
    print("new_students is equal to the students list")
if old_students is students:
    print("old_students is identical to the students list")
if new_students is students:
    print("new_students is identical to the students list")

Constructing a new list that has the same elements as an existing list gives a list that is equal, but not identical, to the existing one. This is true for any class: constructing a new object that is the same as an existing one will give a result that is equal, but not identical, to the existing one.


Object-oriented programming allows relationships to be defined between classes or types. One class may be considered to be a specialisation or subclass of another. For a real world example, a car could be considered a specialisation or subclass of the class of all vehicles.

This is very frequently seen in the way Python handles exceptions. For example, if we check what type a ValueError is, we see that it is of class 'ValueError':

an_error = ValueError("A value must be provided")
if isinstance(an_error, ValueError):
    print("an_error is a ValueError")
<class 'ValueError'>
an_error is a ValueError

However, we can also check if it is an Exception:

if isinstance(an_error, Exception):
    print("an_error is an Exception")
an_error is an Exception

This is because ValueError is a subclass of Exception: value errors are a specific type of exception that can occur, and so should have all the same logic that is common to all exceptions.

Tree of Python exception classes

One place this can be used is to structure exception handling; for example:

numerator = 5
denominator = 0

    print(numerator, "divided by", denominator, "is", numerator / denominator)
except ZeroDivisionError:
    print("You can't divide by zero!")
except Exception:
    print("Something else went wrong.")

ZeroDivisionError is another subclass of Exception. On encountering an exception, Python checks each except in turn to see whether the exception matches the class being tested for. The more specific ZeroDivisionError catches the specific case of dividing by zero, but the block is skipped for all other issues, which are then handled by the more general Exception.

Key Points

  • Anything that we can store in a variable in Python is an object

  • Every object in Python has a class (or type)

  • list and numpy.ndarray are commonly-used classes; lists and arrays are corresponding objects

  • Calling the class as a function constructs new objects of that class

  • Classes can inherit from other classes; objects of the subclass are automatically also of the parent class