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Variables and Assignment


Teaching: 15 min
Exercises: 15 min
  • How can I store data in programs?

  • Write scripts that assign values to variables and perform calculations with those values.

  • Correctly trace value changes in scripts that use assignment.

Use variables to store values

Variables are one of the fundamental building blocks of Python. A variable is like a tiny container where you store values and data, such as filenames, words, numbers, collections of words and numbers, and more.

The variable name will point to a value that you “assign” it. You might think about variable assignment like putting a value “into” the variable, as if the variable is a little box 🎁

(In fact, a variable is not a container as such but more like an adress label that points to a container with a given value. This difference will become relevant once we start talking about lists and mutable data types.)

You assign variables with an equals sign (=). In Python, a single equals sign = is the “assignment operator.” (A double equals sign == is the “real” equals sign.)

age = 42
first_name = 'Ahmed'

Variable names

Variable names can be as long or as short as you want, but there are certain rules you must follow.


Use meaningful variable names

Python doesn’t care what you call variables as long as they obey the rules (alphanumeric characters and the underscore).
As you start to code, you will almost certainly be tempted to use extremely short variables names like f. Your fingers will get tired. Your coffee will wear off. You will see other people using variables like f. You’ll promise yourself that you’ll definitely remember what f means. But you probably won’t.

So, resist the temptation of bad variable names! Clear and precisely-named variables will:

flabadab = 42
ewr_422_yY = 'Ahmed'
print(ewr_422_yY, 'is', flabadab, 'years old')

Use meaningful variable names to help other people understand what the program does.
The most important “other person” is your future self!

Python is case-sensitive

Python thinks that upper- and lower-case letters are different, so Name and name are different variables. There are conventions for using upper-case letters at the start of variable names so we will use lower-case letters for now.

Off-Limits Names

The only variable names that are off-limits are names that are reserved by, or built into, the Python programming language itself — such as print, True, and list. Some of these you can overwrite into variable names (not ideal!), but Jupyter Lab (and many other environments and editors) will catch this by colour coding your variable. If your would-be variable is colour-coded green, rethink your name choice. This is not something to worry too much about. You can get the object back by resetting your kernel.

Use print() to display values

We can check to see what’s “inside” variables by running a cell with the variable’s name. This is one of the handiest features of a Jupyter notebook. Outside the Jupyter environment, you would need to use the print() function to display the variable.


You can run the print() function inside the Jupyter environment, too. This is sometimes useful because Jupyter will only display the last variable in a cell, while print() can display multiple variables. Additionally, Jupyter will display text with \n characters (which means “new line”), while print() will display the text appropriately formatted with new lines.

print(first_name, 'is', age, 'years old')
Ahmed is 42 years old

Variables must be created before they are used

If a variable doesn’t exist yet, or if the name has been misspelled, Python reports an error (unlike some languages, which “guess” a default value).

NameError                                 Traceback (most recent call last)
Cell In[1], line 1
----> 1 print(eye_color)

NameError: name 'eye_color' is not defined

The last line of an error message is usually the most informative. This message lets us know that there is no variable called eye_color in the script.

Variables Persist Between Cells

Variables defined in one cell exist in all other cells once executed, so the relative location of cells in the notebook do not matter (i.e., cells lower down can still affect those above).

  • Notice the number in the square brackets [ ] to the left of the cell.
  • These numbers indicate the order, in which the cells have been executed.
  • Cells with lower numbers will affect cells with higher numbers as Python runs the cells chronologically.
  • As a best practice, we recommend you keep your notebook in chronological order so that it is easier for the human eye to read and make sense of, as well as to avoid any errors if you close and reopen your project, and then rerun what you have done.

Remember: Notebook cells are just a way to organize a program!
As far as Python is concerned, all of the source code is one long set of instructions.

Variables can be used in calculations

age = age + 3
print('Age in three years:', age)
Age in three years: 45

This code works in the following way. We are reassigning the value of the variable age by taking its previous value (42) and adding 3, thus getting our new value of 45.

Use an index to get a single character from a string

element = 'helium'

Use a slice to get a substring

A part of a string is called a substring. A substring can be as short as a single character. A slice is a part of a string (or, more generally, any list-like thing). We take a slice by using [start:stop], where start is replaced with the index of the first element we want and stop is replaced with the index of the element just after the last element we want. Mathematically, you might say that a slice selects [start:stop]. The difference between stop and start is the slice’s length. Taking a slice does not change the contents of the original string. Instead, the slice is a copy of part of the original string.

element = 'sodium'

Use the built-in function len() to find the length of a string

The built-in function len() is used to find the length of a string (and later, of other data types, too).

element = 'helium'

Note that the result is 6 and not 7. This is because it is the length of the value of the variable (i.e. 'helium') that is being counted and not the name of the variable (i.e. element)

Also note that nested functions are evaluated from the inside out, just like in mathematics. Thus, Python first reads the len() function, then the print() function.


Choosing a Name

Which is a better variable name, m, min, or minutes? Why? Hint: think about which code you would rather inherit from someone who is leaving the library:

  1. ts = m * 60 + s
  2. tot_sec = min * 60 + sec
  3. total_seconds = minutes * 60 + seconds


minutes is better because min might mean something like “minimum” (and actually does in Python, but we haven’t seen that yet).

Swapping Values

Draw a table showing the values of the variables in this program after each statement is executed. In simple terms, what do the last three lines of this program do?

x = 1.0
y = 3.0
swap = x
x = y
y = swap


swap = x  #  x->1.0 y->3.0 swap->1.0
x = y     #  x->3.0 y->3.0 swap->1.0
y = swap  #  x->3.0 y->1.0 swap->1.0

These three lines exchange the values in x and y using the swap variable for temporary storage. This is a fairly common programming idiom.

Predicting Values

What is the final value of position in the program below? (Try to predict the value without running the program, then check your prediction.)

initial = "left"
position = initial
initial = "right"


initial = "left"  # Initial is assigned the string "left"
position = initial  # Position is assigned the variable initial, currently "left"
initial = "right"  # Initial is assigned the string "right"

The last assignment to position was “left”

Can you slice integers?

If you assign a = 123, what happens if you try to get the second digit of a?


Numbers are not stored in the written representation, so they can’t be treated like strings.

a = 123
TypeError: 'int' object is not subscriptable


What does the following program print?

library_name = 'social sciences'
print('library_name[1:3] is:', library_name[1:3])
  1. What does thing[low:high] do?
  2. What does thing[low:] (without a value after the colon) do?
  3. What does thing[:high] (without a value before the colon) do?
  4. What does thing[:] (just a colon) do?
  5. What does thing[number:negative-number] do?


library_name[1:3] is: oc
  1. It will slice the string, starting at the low index and ending an element before the high index
  2. It will slice the string, starting at the low index and stopping at the end of the string
  3. It will slice the string, starting at the beginning on the string, and ending an element before the high index
  4. It will print the entire string
  5. It will slice the string, starting the number index, and ending a distance of the absolute value of negative-number elements from the end of the string

Key Points

  • Use variables to store values.

  • Use meaningful variable names.

  • Python is case-sensitive.

  • Use print() to display values.

  • Variables must be created before they are used.

  • Variables persist between cells.

  • Variables can be used in calculations.

  • Use an index to get a single character from a string.

  • Use a slice to get a substring.

  • Use the built-in function len to find the length of a string.