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Attribute Handling Special Method Names

When we reference an attribute of an object with something like, Python uses several special methods to get the someAttr attribute of the object. Since we can say things like myObject.anAttr= 5, and print myObject.anAttr, there are actually three different implicit methods related to attribute access.

When the attribute reference occurs on the left side of an assignment statement, we are setting the attribute. When the attribute occurs almost anywhere else were are getting the value of the attribute. The final operation is deleting an attribute with the del statement.

While most attributes are simply instance variables, we have to make a firm distinction between an attribute and an instance variable .

  • An attribute is a name, qualified by an object. It is a syntactic construction. Generally, the attribute name is treated as a key to access the object's internal collection of instance variables, __dict__. However, we can change the behavior of an attribute reference.

  • An instance variable is stored in the __dict__ of an object. Generally, we access instance variables using attribute syntax. The attribute name is simply the key of the instance variable in the object's __dict__.

When we say, the default behavior is effectively someObj.__dict__['name'].

There are several ways that we can tap into Python's internal mechanisms for getting and setting attribute values.

  • The most accessible technique is to use the property function to define get, set and delete methods associated with an attribute name. The property function builds descriptors for you. We'll look at this in the section called “Properties”.

  • A slightly less accessible, but more extensible and reusable technique is to define descriptor classes yourself. This allows you considerable flexibility. You do this by creating a class which defines get, set and delete methods, and you associate this descriptor class with an attribute name. We'll look at this in the section called “Descriptors”.

  • You can tap into Python's low-level special methods for attribute access. There are three methods which plug into the standard algorithm. The fourth method, __getattribute__, allows you to change attribute access in a fundamental way.


Changing attribute access can interfere with how people understand the operation of your classes and objects. The default assumption is that an attribute is an instance variable. While we can fundamentally alter the meaning of a Python attribute, we need to be cautious about violating the default assumptions of people reading our software.

Attribute Access Special Methods. Fundamentally, attribute access works through a few special method names. Python has a default approach: it checks the object for an instance variable that has the attribute's name before using these attribute handling methods. Because Python uses these methods when an attribute isn't an instance variable, you can easily create infinite recursion. This can happen if you try to get an instance variable using a simple self.someAttr in the __getattr__ method, or set the value of an instance variable with a simple self.someAttr in the __setattr__ method. Within __getattr__ and __setattr__, you have to use the internal __dict__ explicitly.

These are the low-level attribute access methods.

__getattr__ ( self , name ) → value

Returns a value for an attibute when the name is not an instance attribute nor is it found in any of the parent classes. name is the attribute name. This method returns the attribute value or raises an AttributeError exception.

__setattr__( self , name , value )

Assigns a value to an attribute. name is the attribute name, value is the value to assign to it. Note that if you naively do value in this method, you will have an infinite recursion of __setattr__ calls. If you want to access the internal dictionary of attributes, __dict__, you have to use the following: self .__dict __[ name ] = value .

__delattr__( self , name )

Delete the named attribute from the object. name is the attribute name.

__getattribute__( self , name ) → value

Low-level access to a named attribute. If you provide this, it replaces the default approach of searching for an attribute and then using __getattr__ if the named attribute isn't an instance variable of the class. To provide the default approach, this method must explicitly evaluate the superclass __getattribute__ method with super( Class ,self).__getattribute__( name ). This only works for classes which are derived from object.

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