George V. Reilly

Sorting Python Dictionaries by Value

[Pre­vi­ous­ly published at the now defunct MetaBrite Dev Blog.]

I needed to sort a Python dictionary by value today, rather than by key. I found it confusing, so I’ll share what I learned.

Assume the following dictionary, where each value is a tuple of (ID, score). How do we sort by score; i.e., the second item in the value tuple? (For the purposes of this discussion, ignore the meaning of the dic­tio­nary’s key.)

>>> some_dict = dict(a=(123, 0.7), b=(372, 0.2), e=(456, 0.85), d=(148, 0.23), c=(502, 0.1))
>>> some_dict
{'a': (123, 0.7), 'c': (502, 0.1), 'b': (372, 0.2), 'e': (456, 0.85), 'd': (148, 0.23)}

Python dic­tio­nar­ies are inherently unsorted, unless you use Or­dered­Dict, which remembers the insertion order.

From Python 3.6 onwards, dictionary order is guaranteed to be insertion order. Even with Or­dered­Dict or Python 3.6+, the dictionary will be sorted only if the insertion order was sorted.

If you want to sort a dictionary by value, you must create an ordered sequence. You have two options:

The latter should be a little faster.

Let’s use Python’s built-in sorted function. If you supply a key parameter to sorted(), you’re providing a function that (somehow) extracts a sort-key from the item passed to it. The key parameter is not related to dictionary keys.

To produce the sorted list of keys for some_dict, in descending order of score:

sorted(some_dict, key=lambda k: some_dict[k][1], reverse=True)

This can be used to build a sorted list of key-value pairs:

>>> [(k, some_dict[k]) for k in sorted(some_dict, key=lambda k: some_dict[k][1], reverse=True)]
[('e', (456, 0.85)), ('a', (123, 0.7)), ('d', (148, 0.23)), ('b', (372, 0.2)), ('c', (502, 0.1))]

Note that for k in some_dict yields the same sequence as for k in some_dict.keys(). Here, sorted() walks through some_dict once, obtaining a dictionary key, k, at each step. This k is passed to the key function. Our lambda fetches the associated value—an ID-score tuple—from some_dict and extracts the score. This score becomes the sort-key for k. In O(n) time, sorted() extracts (sort-key, dictionary-key) pairs, which are then sorted in O(n log n) time on the sort-key, yielding a sorted sequence of dictionary-keys.

operator.itemgetter and operator.attrgetter can also be used for the key parameter to sorted().

If we express this sort-key behavior using the Decorate-Sort-Undecorate pattern, it may be clearer, albeit slower and more verbose:

# Decorate: Build a list of (sort-key, dict-key) pairs
>>> decorated = [(id_score[1], k) for k,id_score in some_dict.items()]
>>> decorated
[(0.7, 'a'), (0.1, 'c'), (0.2, 'b'), (0.85, 'e'), (0.23, 'd')]

# Sort in descending order of sort-keys (scores)
>>> decorated.sort(reverse=True)

>>> decorated
[(0.85, 'e'), (0.7, 'a'), (0.23, 'd'), (0.2, 'b'), (0.1, 'c')]

# Undecorate: Extract the sorted dictionary keys
>>> keys = [k for score,k in decorated]
>>> keys
['e', 'a', 'd', 'b', 'c']

Sorting directly by value

If we have a simpler dictionary that we want to sort directly by value, we can use dict.get as the key function:

>>> other_dict = dict(a=7, b=3, c=14, d=2, e=9)
>>> other_dict
{'a': 7, 'c': 14, 'b': 3, 'e': 9, 'd': 2}

>>> sorted(other_dict, key=other_dict.get)
['d', 'b', 'a', 'e', 'c']

>>> [(k, other_dict[k]) for k in sorted(other_dict, key=other_dict.get)]
[('d', 2), ('b', 3), ('a', 7), ('e', 9), ('c', 14)]

other_dict.get is a partial function bound to the other_dict instance. When it is used as the key parameter to sorted() and invoked with a dictionary key from other_dict, it yields the associated value; e.g., key('c')other_dict.get('c') → 14.

Sorting by key

To sort the dic­tio­nary’s keys:

>>> sorted(other_dict.keys())
['a', 'b', 'c', 'd', 'e']

>>> [(k, other_dict[k]) for k in sorted(other_dict.keys())]
[('a', 7), ('b', 3), ('c', 14), ('d', 2), ('e', 9)]
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