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Overview of Python Generators Part 1

A Basic Guide
Created: 21 January 2017


Most Python developers know about generators, but don’t really use them very often. They are aware of the yield statement, but if you read their code, it tends not to feature.

Let’s do away with this hesitation and take a close look at how to use these powerful Python tools.

To begin, let’s clarify some terminology. A generator is a particular type of function which returns an object called a generator iterator. For those with experience in other languages, it may be helpful to equate a generator with a coroutine, although Python does not use that term. It might also help to highlight that generators are aa form of lazy evaluation. You will also hear generator iterators referred to as simply iterables or iterators. Confusingly, generator iterators are usually just shortened to generators. A generator function is a particular type of generator which makes use of the yield statement (even if it also has a return statement it is still classed as a generator function).

What is yield?

A function which uses the yield statement does not return a value in the standard sense. In a normal function, execution goes until either a return, Exception of some kind, or it reaches the end of the function and returns an inplicit None. However with yield you temporarily pass the execution back outside the function, whilst maintaining a memory of the work you have done within the function - usually iterating over something. This creates a powerful ability to “pause” your work mid-flow, rather than the usual all or nothing options. It is helpful to think of yield as a fancy return statement.

OK, time for some code. Here’s a basic generator function:

def basic_generator_function():
    yield 'foo'
    yield 'bar'

As clarified above, this function returns a generator iterator. In order to use the function, we can either loop over it, or use the built-in function for iterators: next()

for word in basic_generator_function():
# foo
# bar

# Alternatively:

example_generator = basic_generator_function()


# foo


# bar

Once you have looped over all the values using next(), you will receive a StopIteration Error. This means you can only consume the values of a generator once.

The above example does not really convey the power of a generator function. So let’s increase the complexity slightly. Let’s say you are trying to calculate the fibannaci numbers (one of the many interesting answers here on stackoverflow):

def fib():
    yield first
    yield second

    while 1:
        yield next_fib


# note that .next() is alternative sytnax to next(fibgen1)

We can see that the generator function retains the value of “next_fib”, and by maintaining the value of the state in this way we can start the calulations deep in the sequence.

We also use the while loop to prevent the generator from exhausting itself, this is a common idiom when dealing with potentially infinite sequences. If we wanted to we could adjust the function to start/stop returning values of a certain size range, we can also pass values (such as any limits we wish to impose) into the generator function.

In the next section we will look at generator comprehensions.