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The Inspection Club

As you know, Python leverages polymorphism at its maximum by dealing only with generic references to objects. This makes OOP not an addition to the language but part of its structure from the ground up. Moreover, Python pushes the EAFP appoach, which tries to avoid direct inspection of objects as much as possible.

It is however very interesting to read what Guido van Rossum says in PEP 3119: Invocation means interacting with an object by invoking its methods. Usually this is combined with polymorphism, so that invoking a given method may run different code depending on the type of an object. Inspection means the ability for external code (outside of the object's methods) to examine the type or properties of that object, and make decisions on how to treat that object based on that information. [...] In classical OOP theory, invocation is the preferred usage pattern, and inspection is actively discouraged, being considered a relic of an earlier, procedural programming style. However, in practice this view is simply too dogmatic and inflexible, and leads to a kind of design rigidity that is very much at odds with the dynamic nature of a language like Python.

The author of Python recognizes that forcing the use of a pure polymorphic approach leads sometimes to solutions that are too complex or even incorrect. In this section I want to show some of the problems that can arise from a pure polymorphic approach and introduce Abstract Base Classes, which aim to solve them. I strongly suggest to read PEP 3119 (as for any other PEP) since it contains a deeper and better explanation of the whole matter. Indeed I think that this PEP is so well written that any further explanation is hardly needed. I am however used to write explanations to check how much I understood about the topic, so I am going to try it this time too.

E.A.F.P the Extra Test Trial

The EAFP coding style requires you to trust the incoming objects to provide the attributes and methods you need, and to manage the possible exceptions, if you know how to do it. Sometimes, however, you need to test if the incoming object matches a complex behaviour. For example, you could be interested in testing if the object acts like a list, but you quickly realize that the amount of methods a list provides is very big and this could lead to odd EAFP code like

except AttributeError:

where the methods of the list type are accessed (not called) just to force the object to raise the AttributeError exception if they are not present. This code, however, is not only ugly but also wrong. If you recall the "Enter the Composition" section of the third post of this series, you know that in Python you can always customize the __getattr__() method, which is called whenever the requested attribute is not found in the object. So I could write a class that passes the test but actually does not act like a list

class FakeList:
    def fakemethod(self):

    def __getattr__(self, name):
        if name in ['append', 'count', 'extend', 'index', 'insert', ...]:
            return self.fakemethod

This is obviously just an example, and no one will ever write such a class, but this demonstrates that just accessing methods does not guarantee that a class acts like the one we are expecting.

There are many examples that could be done leveraging the highly dynamic nature of Python and its rich object model. I would summarize them by saying that sometimes you'd better to check the type of the incoming object.

In Python you can obtain the type of an object using the type() built-in function, but to check it you'd better use isinstance(), which returns a boolean value. Let us see an example before moving on

>>> isinstance([], list)
>>> isinstance(1, int)
>>> class Door:
...  pass
>>> d = Door()
>>> isinstance(d, Door)
>>> class EnhancedDoor(Door):
...  pass
>>> ed = EnhancedDoor()
>>> isinstance(ed, EnhancedDoor)
>>> isinstance(ed, Door)

As you can see the function can also walk the class hierarchy, so the check is not so trivial like the one you would obtain by directly using type().

The isinstance() function, however, does not completely solve the problem. If we write a class that actually acts like a list but does not inherit from it, isinstance() does not recognize the fact that the two may be considered the same thing. The following code returns False regardless the content of the MyList class

>>> class MyList:
...  pass
>>> ml = MyList()
>>> isinstance(ml, list)

since isinstance() does not check the content of the class or its behaviour, it just considers the class and its ancestors.

The problem, thus, may be summed up with the following question: what is the best way to test that an object exposes a given interface? Here, the word interface is used for its natural meaning, without any reference to other programming solutions, which however address the same problem.

A good way to address the problem could be to write inside an attribute of the object the list of interfaces it promises to implement, and to agree that any time we want to test the behaviour of an object we simply have to check the content of this attribute. This is exactly the path followed by Python, and it is very important to understand that the whole system is just about a promised behaviour.

The solution proposed through PEP 3119 is, in my opinion, very simple and elegant, and it perfectly fits the nature of Python, where things are usually agreed rather than being enforced. Not only, the solution follows the spirit of polymorphism, where information is provided by the object itself and not extracted by the calling code.

In the next sections I am going to try and describe this solution in its main building blocks. The matter is complex so my explanation will lack some details: please refer to the forementioned PEP 3119 for a complete description.

Who Framed the Metaclasses

As already described, Python provides two built-ins to inspect objects and classes, which are isinstance() and issubclass() and a solution to the inspection problem should allow the programmer to go on with using those two functions.

This means that we need to find a way to inject the "behaviour promise" into both classes and instances. This is the reason why metaclasses come in play. Recall what we said about them in the fifth issue of this series: metaclasses are the classes used to build classes, which means that they are the preferred way to change the structure of a class, and, in consequence, of its instances.

Another way to do the same job would be to leverage the inheritance mechanism, injecting the behaviour through a dedicated parent class. This solution has many downsides, which I'm am not going to detail. It is enough to say that affecting the class hierarchy may lead to complex situations or subtle bugs. Metaclasses may provide here a different entry point for the introduction of a "virtual base class" (as PEP 3119 specifies, this is not the same concept as in C++).

Overriding Places

As said, isinstance() and issubclass() are built-in functions, not object methods, so we cannot simply override them providing a different implementation in a given class. So the first part of the solution is to change the behaviour of those two functions to first check if the class or the instance contain a special method, which is __instancecheck__() for isinstance() and __subclasscheck__() for issubclass(). So both built-ins try to run the respective special method, reverting to the standard algorithm if it is not present.

A note about naming. Methods must accept the object they belong to as the first argument, so the two special methods shall have the form

def __instancecheck__(cls, inst):

def __subclasscheck__(cls, sub):

where cls is the class where they are injected, that is the one representing the promised behaviour. The two built-ins, however, have a reversed argument order, where the behaviour comes after the tested object: when you write isinstance([], list) you want to check if the [] instance has the list behaviour. This is the reason behind the name choice: just calling the methods __isinstance__() and __issubclass__() and passing arguments in a reversed order would have been confusing.

This is ABC

The proposed solution is thus called Abstract Base Classes, as it provides a way to attach to a concrete class a virtual class with the only purpose of signaling a promised behaviour to anyone inspecting it with isinstance() or issubclass().

To help programmers implement Abstract Base Classes, the standard library has been given an abc module, thet contains the ABCMeta class (and other facilities). This class is the one that implements __instancecheck__() and __subclasscheck__() and shall be used as a metaclass to augment a standard class. The latter will then be able to register other classes as implementation of its behaviour.

Sounds complex? An example may clarify the whole matter. The one from the official documentation is rather simple:

from abc import ABCMeta

class MyABC(metaclass=ABCMeta):


assert issubclass(tuple, MyABC)
assert isinstance((), MyABC)

Here, the MyABC class is provided the ABCMeta metaclass. This puts the two __instancecheck__() and __subclasscheck__() methods inside MyABC so that, when issuing isinstance(), what Python actually ececutes is

>>> d = {'a': 1}
>>> isinstance(d, MyABC)
>>> MyABC.__class__.__instancecheck__(MyABC, d)
>>> isinstance((), MyABC)
>>> MyABC.__class__.__instancecheck__(MyABC, ())

After the definition of MyABC we need a way to signal that a given class is an instance of the Abstract Base Class and this happens through the register() method, provided by the ABCMeta metaclass. Calling MyABC.register(tuple) we record inside MyABC the fact that the tuple class shall be identified as a subclass of MyABC itself. This is analogous to saying that tuple inherits from MyABC but not quite the same. As already said registering a class in an Abstract Base Class with register() does not affect the class hierarchy. Indeed, the whole tuple class is unchanged.

The current implementation of ABCs stores the registered types inside the _abc_registry attribute. Actually it stores there weak references to the registered types (this part is outside the scope of this article, so I'm not detailing it)

{<weakref at 0xb682966c; to 'type' at 0x83dcca0 (tuple)>}

Movie Trivia

Section titles come from the following movies: The Breakfast Club (1985), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Trading Places (1983), This is Spinal Tap (1984).


You will find a lot of documentation in this Reddit post. Most of the information contained in this series come from those sources.


The GitHub issues page is the best place to submit corrections.