Python: All About Decorators

Decorators can be a bit mind-bending when first encountered and they can also be a bit tricky to debug. But they are a neat way to add functionality to functions and classes. Decorators are also known as a “higher-order function”. What this means is that they can take one or more functions as arguments and return a function as its result. In other words, decorators will take the function they are decorating and extend its behavior while not actually modifying what the function itself does.

There have been two decorators in Python since version 2.2, namely classmethod() and staticmethod(). Then PEP 318 was put together and the decorator syntax was added to make decorating functions and methods possible in Python 2.4. Class decorators were proposed in PEP 3129 to be included in Python 2.6. They appear to work in Python 2.7, but the PEP indicates that they weren’t accepted until Python 3, so I’m not sure what happened there.

Let’s start off by talking about functions in general to get a foundation to work from.


The Humble Function

A function in Python and in many other programming languages is just a collection of reusable code. Some programmers will take an almost bash-like approach and just write all their code out in a file with no functions at all. The code just runs from top to bottom. This can lead to a lot of copy-and-paste spaghetti code. When ever you see two pieces of code that are doing the same thing, they can almost always be put into a function. This will make updating your code easier since you’ll only have one place to update them.

Here’s a basic function:

def doubler(number):
    return number * 2

This function accepts one argument, number. Then it multiplies it be 2 and returns the result. You can call the function like this:

>>> doubler(5)
10

As you can see, the result will be 10.


Function are Objects Too

In Python, a lot of authors will describe a function as a “first-class object”. When they say this, they mean that a function can be passed around and used as arguments to other functions just as you would with a normal data type such as an integer or string. Let’s look at a few examples so we can get used to the idea:

>>> def doubler(number):
       return number * 2
>>> print(doubler)
<function doubler at 0x7f7886b92f50>
>>> print(doubler(10))
20
>>> doubler.__name__
'doubler'
>>> doubler.__doc__
None
>>> def doubler(number):
        """Doubles the number passed to it"""
        return number * 2 
>>> doubler.__doc__
'Doubles the number passed to it'
>>> dir(doubler)
['__call__', '__class__', '__closure__', '__code__', '__defaults__', '__delattr__', '__dict__', '__doc__', '__format__', '__get__', '__getattribute__', '__globals__', '__hash__', '__init__', '__module__', '__name__', '__new__', '__reduce__', '__reduce_ex__', '__repr__', '__setattr__', '__sizeof__', '__str__', '__subclasshook__', 'func_closure', 'func_code', 'func_defaults', 'func_dict', 'func_doc', 'func_globals', 'func_name']

As you can see, you can create a function and then pass it to Python’s print() function or any other function. You will also note that once a function is defined, it automatically has attributes that we can access. For example, in the example above, we accessed func_doc which was empty at first. This attribute holds the contents of the function’s docstring. Since we didn’t have a docstring, it returned None. So we redefined the function to add a docstring and accessed func_doc again to see the docstring. We can also get the function’s name via the func_name attributes. Feel free to check out some of the other attributes that are shown in the last example above..


Our First Decorator

Creating a decorator is actually quite easy. As mentioned earlier, all you need to do to create a decorator is to create a function that accepts another function as its argument. Let’s take a look:

>>> def doubler(number):
        """Doubles the number passed to it"""
        return number * 2
>>> def info(func):
        def wrapper(*args):
            print('Function name: ' + func.__name__)
            print('Function docstring: ' + str(func.__doc__))
            return func(*args)
        return wrapper 
>>> my_decorator = info(doubler)
>>> print(my_decorator(2))
Function name: doubler
Function docstring: Doubles the number passed to it
4

You will note that are decorator function, info(), has a function nested inside of it, called wrapper(). You can call the nested function whatever you like. The wrapper function accepts the arguments (and optionally the keyword arguments) of the function you are wrapping with your decorator. In this example, we print out the wrapped function’s name and docstring, if it exists. Then we return the function, calling it with its arguments. Lastly, we return the wrapper function.

To use the decorator, we create a decorator object:

>>> my_decorator = info(doubler)

Then to call the decorator, we call it just like we would a normal function: my_decorator(2).

However this is not the usual method of calling a decorator. Python has a special syntax just for that!


Using Decorator Syntax

Python allows you to call a decorator by using the following syntax: @info. Let’s update our previous example to use proper decorator syntax:

def info(func):
    def wrapper(*args):
        print('Function name: ' + func.__name__)
        print('Function docstring: ' + str(func.__doc__))
        return func(*args)
    return wrapper
 
@info
def doubler(number):
    """Doubles the number passed to it"""
    return number * 2
 
print(doubler(4))

Now you can call doubler() itself instead of calling the decorator object. The @info above the function definition tells Python to automatically wrap (or decorate) the function and call the decorator when the function is called.


Stacked Decorators

You can also stack or chain decorators. What this means is that you can use more than one decorator on a function at the same time! Let’s take a look at a silly example:

def bold(func):
    def wrapper():
        return "<b>" + func() + "</b>"
    return wrapper
 
def italic(func):
    def wrapper():
        return "<i>" + func() + "</i>"
    return wrapper
 
@bold
@italic
def formatted_text():
    return 'Python rocks!'
 
print(formatted_text())

The bold() decorator will wrap the text with your standard bold HTML tags, while the italic() decorator does the same thing but with italic HTML tags. You should try reversing the order of the decorators to see what kind of effect it has. Give it a try before continuing.

Now that you’ve done that, you will have noticed that you Python appears to run the decorator closest to the function first and go up the chain. So in the version of code above, the text will get wrapped in italics first and then that text will get wrapped in bold tags. If you swap them, then the reverse will occur.


Adding Arguments to Decorators

Adding arguments to decorators is a bit different than you might think it is. You can’t just do something like @my_decorator(3, ‘Python’) as the decorator expects to take the function itself as it’s argument…or can you?

def info(arg1, arg2):
    print('Decorator arg1 = ' + str(arg1))
    print('Decorator arg2 = ' + str(arg2))
 
    def the_real_decorator(function):
 
        def wrapper(*args, **kwargs):
            print('Function {} args: {} kwargs: {}'.format(
                function.__name__, str(args), str(kwargs)))
            return function(*args, **kwargs)
 
        return wrapper
 
    return the_real_decorator
 
@info(3, 'Python')
def doubler(number):
    return number * 2
 
print(doubler(5))

As you can see, we have a function nested in a function nested in a function! How does this work? The function argument doesn’t even seem to be defined anywhere. Let’s remove the decorator and do what we did before when we created the decorator object:

def info(arg1, arg2):
    print('Decorator arg1 = ' + str(arg1))
    print('Decorator arg2 = ' + str(arg2))
 
    def the_real_decorator(function):
 
        def wrapper(*args, **kwargs):
            print('Function {} args: {} kwargs: {}'.format(
                function.__name__, str(args), str(kwargs)))
            return function(*args, **kwargs)
 
        return wrapper
 
    return the_real_decorator
 
def doubler(number):
    return number * 2
 
decorator = info(3, 'Python')(doubler)
print(decorator(5))

This code is the equivalent of the previous code. When you call info(3, ‘Python’), it returns the actual decorator function, which we then call by passing it the function, doubler. This gives us the decorator object itself, which we can then call with the original function’s arguments. We can break this down further though:

def info(arg1, arg2):
    print('Decorator arg1 = ' + str(arg1))
    print('Decorator arg2 = ' + str(arg2))
 
    def the_real_decorator(function):
 
        def wrapper(*args, **kwargs):
            print('Function {} args: {} kwargs: {}'.format(
                function.__name__, str(args), str(kwargs)))
            return function(*args, **kwargs)
 
        return wrapper
 
    return the_real_decorator
 
def doubler(number):
    return number * 2
 
decorator_function = info(3, 'Python')
print(decorator_function)
 
actual_decorator = decorator_function(doubler)
print(actual_decorator)
 
# Call the decorated function
print(actual_decorator(5))

Here we show that we get the decorator function object first. Then we get the decorator object which is the first nested function in info(), namely the_real_decorator(). This is where you want to pass the function that is being decorated. Now we have the decorated function, so the last line is to call the decorated function.

I also found a neat trick you can do with Python’s functools module that will make creating decorators with arguments a bit shorter:

from functools import partial
 
 
def info(func, arg1, arg2):
    print('Decorator arg1 = ' + str(arg1))
    print('Decorator arg2 = ' + str(arg2))
 
    def wrapper(*args, **kwargs):
        print('Function {} args: {} kwargs: {}'.format(
            function.__name__, str(args), str(kwargs)))
        return function(*args, **kwargs)
 
    return wrapper
 
decorator_with_arguments = partial(info, arg1=3, arg2='Py')
 
@decorator_with_arguments
def doubler(number):
    return number * 2
 
print(doubler(5))

In this case, you can create a partial function that takes the arguments you are going to pass to your decorator for you. This allows you to pass the function to be decorated AND the arguments to the decorator to the same function. This is actually quite similar to how you can use functools.partial for passing extra arguments to event handlers in wxPython or Tkinter.


Class Decorators

When you look up the term “class decorator”, you will find a mix of articles. Some talk about creating decorators using a class. Others talk about decorating a class with a function. Let’s start with creating a class that we can use as a decorator:

class decorator_with_arguments:
 
    def __init__(self, arg1, arg2):
        print('in __init__')
        self.arg1 = arg1
        self.arg2 = arg2
        print('Decorator args: {}, {}'.format(arg1, arg2))
 
    def __call__(self, f):
        print('in __call__')
        def wrapped(*args, **kwargs):
            print('in wrapped()')
            return f(*args, **kwargs)
        return wrapped
 
@decorator_with_arguments(3, 'Python')
def doubler(number):
    return number * 2
 
print(doubler(5))

Here we have a simple class that accepts two arguments. We override the __call__() method which allows us to pass the function we are decorating to the class. Then in our __call__() method, we just print out that where we’re at in the code and return the function. This works in much the same way as the examples in the previous section. I personally like this method because we don’t have functions nested 2 levels inside another function, although some could argue that the partial example also fixed that issue.

Anyway the other use case that you will commonly find for a class decorator is a type of meta-programming. So let’s say we have the following class:

class MyActualClass:
    def __init__(self):
        print('in MyActualClass __init__()')
 
    def quad(self, value):
        return value * 4
 
obj = MyActualClass()
print(obj.quad(4))

That’s pretty simple, right? Now let’s say we want to add special functionality to our class without modifying what it already does. For example, this might be code that we can’t change for backwards compatibility reasons or some other business requirement. Instead, we can decorate it to extend it’s functionality. Here’s how we can add a new method, for example:

def decorator(cls):
    class Wrapper(cls):
        def doubler(self, value):
            return value * 2
    return Wrapper
 
@decorator
class MyActualClass:
    def __init__(self):
        print('in MyActualClass __init__()')
 
    def quad(self, value):
        return value * 4
 
obj = MyActualClass()
print(obj.quad(4))
print(obj.doubler(5)

Here we created a decorator function that has a class inside of it. This class will use the class that is passed to it as it’s parent. In other words, we are creating a subclass. This allows us to add new methods. In this case, we add our doubler() method. Now when you create an instance of the decorated MyActualClass() class, you will actually end up with the Wrapper() subclass version. You can actually see this if you print the obj variable.


Wrapping Up

Python has a lot of decorator functionality built-in to the language itself. There are @property, @classproperty, and @staticmethod that you can use directly. Then there is the functools and contextlib modules which provide a lot of handy decorators. For example, you can fix decorator obfuscation using functools.wraps or make any function a context manager via contextlib.contextmanager.

A lot of developers use decorators to enhance their code by creating logging decorators, catching exceptions, adding security and so much more. They are worth the time to learn as they can make your code more extensible and even more readable. Decorators also promote code reuse. Give them a try sometime soon!


Related Reading

Also include class decorators, functools.wrap, @contextlib, decorators with arguments

Python 201: Decorating the main function

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  • Thanks for the awesome work you’ve done here. This post is really helping to understand the decorators in great detail.