Merge two dictionaries in a single expression in Python

Python Programming

Question or problem about Python programming:

I have two Python dictionaries, and I want to write a single expression that returns these two dictionaries, merged (i.e. taking the union). The update() method would be what I need, if it returned its result instead of modifying a dictionary in-place.

>>> x = {'a': 1, 'b': 2}
>>> y = {'b': 10, 'c': 11}
>>> z = x.update(y)
>>> print(z)
>>> x
{'a': 1, 'b': 10, 'c': 11}

How can I get that final merged dictionary in z, not x?

(To be extra-clear, the last-one-wins conflict-handling of dict.update() is what I’m looking for as well.)

How to solve the problem:

Solution 1:

For dictionaries x and y, z becomes a shallowly merged dictionary with values from y replacing those from x.

Say you have two dictionaries and you want to merge them into a new dict without altering the original dictionaries:

x = {'a': 1, 'b': 2}
y = {'b': 3, 'c': 4}

The desired result is to get a new dictionary (z) with the values merged, and the second dictionary’s values overwriting those from the first.

>>> z
{'a': 1, 'b': 3, 'c': 4}

A new syntax for this, proposed in PEP 448 and available as of Python 3.5, is

z = {**x, **y}

And it is indeed a single expression.

Note that we can merge in with literal notation as well:

z = {**x, 'foo': 1, 'bar': 2, **y}

and now:

>>> z
{'a': 1, 'b': 3, 'foo': 1, 'bar': 2, 'c': 4}

It is now showing as implemented in the release schedule for 3.5, PEP 478, and it has now made its way into What’s New in Python 3.5 document.

However, since many organizations are still on Python 2, you may wish to do this in a backwards compatible way. The classically Pythonic way, available in Python 2 and Python 3.0-3.4, is to do this as a two-step process:

z = x.copy()
z.update(y) # which returns None since it mutates z

In both approaches, y will come second and its values will replace x’s values, thus ‘b’ will point to 3 in our final result.

If you are not yet on Python 3.5, or need to write backward-compatible code, and you want this in a single expression, the most performant while correct approach is to put it in a function:

def merge_two_dicts(x, y):
    """Given two dictionaries, merge them into a new dict as a shallow copy."""
    z = x.copy()
    return z

and then you have a single expression:

z = merge_two_dicts(x, y)

You can also make a function to merge an undefined number of dictionaries, from zero to a very large number:

def merge_dicts(*dict_args):
    Given any number of dictionaries, shallow copy and merge into a new dict,
    precedence goes to key value pairs in latter dictionaries.
    result = {}
    for dictionary in dict_args:
    return result

This function will work in Python 2 and 3 for all dictionaries. e.g. given dictionaries a to g:

z = merge_dicts(a, b, c, d, e, f, g) 

and key value pairs in g will take precedence over dictionaries a to f, and so on.

Don’t use what you see in the formerly accepted answer:

z = dict(x.items() + y.items())

In Python 2, you create two lists in memory for each dict, create a third list in memory with length equal to the length of the first two put together, and then discard all three lists to create the dict. In Python 3, this will fail because you’re adding two dict_items objects together, not two lists –

>>> c = dict(a.items() + b.items())
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "", line 1, in 
TypeError: unsupported operand type(s) for +: 'dict_items' and 'dict_items'

and you would have to explicitly create them as lists, e.g. z = dict(list(x.items()) + list(y.items())). This is a waste of resources and computation power.

Similarly, taking the union of items() in Python 3 (viewitems() in Python 2.7) will also fail when values are unhashable objects (like lists, for example). Even if your values are hashable, since sets are semantically unordered, the behavior is undefined in regards to precedence. So don’t do this:

>>> c = dict(a.items() | b.items())

This example demonstrates what happens when values are unhashable:

>>> x = {'a': []}
>>> y = {'b': []}
>>> dict(x.items() | y.items())
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "", line 1, in 
TypeError: unhashable type: 'list'

Here’s an example where y should have precedence, but instead the value from x is retained due to the arbitrary order of sets:

>>> x = {'a': 2}
>>> y = {'a': 1}
>>> dict(x.items() | y.items())
{'a': 2}

Another hack you should not use:

z = dict(x, **y)

This uses the dict constructor, and is very fast and memory efficient (even slightly more-so than our two-step process) but unless you know precisely what is happening here (that is, the second dict is being passed as keyword arguments to the dict constructor), it’s difficult to read, it’s not the intended usage, and so it is not Pythonic.

Here’s an example of the usage being remediated in django.

Dictionaries are intended to take hashable keys (e.g. frozensets or tuples), but this method fails in Python 3 when keys are not strings.

>>> c = dict(a, **b)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "", line 1, in 
TypeError: keyword arguments must be strings

From the mailing list, Guido van Rossum, the creator of the language, wrote:


It is my understanding (as well as the understanding of the creator of the language) that the intended usage for dict(**y) is for creating dictionaries for readability purposes, e.g.:

dict(a=1, b=10, c=11)

instead of

{'a': 1, 'b': 10, 'c': 11}

Again, it doesn’t work for 3 when keys are non-strings. The implicit calling contract is that namespaces take ordinary dictionaries, while users must only pass keyword arguments that are strings. All other callables enforced it. dict broke this consistency in Python 2:

>>> foo(**{('a', 'b'): None})
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "", line 1, in 
TypeError: foo() keywords must be strings
>>> dict(**{('a', 'b'): None})
{('a', 'b'): None}

This inconsistency was bad given other implementations of Python (Pypy, Jython, IronPython). Thus it was fixed in Python 3, as this usage could be a breaking change.

I submit to you that it is malicious incompetence to intentionally write code that only works in one version of a language or that only works given certain arbitrary constraints.

More comments:

My response: merge_two_dicts(x, y) actually seems much clearer to me, if we’re actually concerned about readability. And it is not forward compatible, as Python 2 is increasingly deprecated.

Yes. I must refer you back to the question, which is asking for a shallow merge of two dictionaries, with the first’s values being overwritten by the second’s – in a single expression.

Assuming two dictionary of dictionaries, one might recursively merge them in a single function, but you should be careful not to modify the dictionaries from either source, and the surest way to avoid that is to make a copy when assigning values. As keys must be hashable and are usually therefore immutable, it is pointless to copy them:

from copy import deepcopy

def dict_of_dicts_merge(x, y):
    z = {}
    overlapping_keys = x.keys() & y.keys()
    for key in overlapping_keys:
        z[key] = dict_of_dicts_merge(x[key], y[key])
    for key in x.keys() - overlapping_keys:
        z[key] = deepcopy(x[key])
    for key in y.keys() - overlapping_keys:
        z[key] = deepcopy(y[key])
    return z


>>> x = {'a':{1:{}}, 'b': {2:{}}}
>>> y = {'b':{10:{}}, 'c': {11:{}}}
>>> dict_of_dicts_merge(x, y)
{'b': {2: {}, 10: {}}, 'a': {1: {}}, 'c': {11: {}}}

Coming up with contingencies for other value types is far beyond the scope of this question, so I will point you at my answer to the canonical question on a “Dictionaries of dictionaries merge”.

These approaches are less performant, but they will provide correct behavior.
They will be much less performant than copy and update or the new unpacking because they iterate through each key-value pair at a higher level of abstraction, but they do respect the order of precedence (latter dictionaries have precedence)

You can also chain the dictionaries manually inside a dict comprehension:

{k: v for d in dicts for k, v in d.items()} # iteritems in Python 2.7

or in python 2.6 (and perhaps as early as 2.4 when generator expressions were introduced):

dict((k, v) for d in dicts for k, v in d.items()) # iteritems in Python 2

itertools.chain will chain the iterators over the key-value pairs in the correct order:

from itertools import chain
z = dict(chain(x.items(), y.items())) # iteritems in Python 2

I’m only going to do the performance analysis of the usages known to behave correctly. (Self-contained so you can copy and paste yourself.)

from timeit import repeat
from itertools import chain

x = dict.fromkeys('abcdefg')
y = dict.fromkeys('efghijk')

def merge_two_dicts(x, y):
    z = x.copy()
    return z

min(repeat(lambda: {**x, **y}))
min(repeat(lambda: merge_two_dicts(x, y)))
min(repeat(lambda: {k: v for d in (x, y) for k, v in d.items()}))
min(repeat(lambda: dict(chain(x.items(), y.items()))))
min(repeat(lambda: dict(item for d in (x, y) for item in d.items())))

In Python 3.8.1, NixOS:

>>> min(repeat(lambda: {**x, **y}))
>>> min(repeat(lambda: merge_two_dicts(x, y)))
>>> min(repeat(lambda: {k: v for d in (x, y) for k, v in d.items()}))
>>> min(repeat(lambda: dict(chain(x.items(), y.items()))))
>>> min(repeat(lambda: dict(item for d in (x, y) for item in d.items())))
$ uname -a
Linux nixos 4.19.113 #1-NixOS SMP Wed Mar 25 07:06:15 UTC 2020 x86_64 GNU/Linux

Solution 2:

In your case, what you can do is:

z = dict(list(x.items()) + list(y.items()))

This will, as you want it, put the final dict in z, and make the value for key b be properly overridden by the second (y) dict’s value:

>>> x = {'a':1, 'b': 2}
>>> y = {'b':10, 'c': 11}
>>> z = dict(list(x.items()) + list(y.items()))
>>> z
{'a': 1, 'c': 11, 'b': 10}

If you use Python 2, you can even remove the list() calls. To create z:

>>> z = dict(x.items() + y.items())
>>> z
{'a': 1, 'c': 11, 'b': 10}

If you use Python version 3.9.0a4 or greater, then you can directly use:

x = {'a':1, 'b': 2}
y = {'b':10, 'c': 11}
z = x | y
{'a': 1, 'c': 11, 'b': 10}

Solution 3:

An alternative:

z = x.copy()

Solution 4:

Another, more concise, option:

z = dict(x, **y)

Note: this has become a popular answer, but it is important to point out that if y has any non-string keys, the fact that this works at all is an abuse of a CPython implementation detail, and it does not work in Python 3, or in PyPy, IronPython, or Jython. Also, Guido is not a fan. So I can’t recommend this technique for forward-compatible or cross-implementation portable code, which really means it should be avoided entirely.

Solution 5:

This probably won’t be a popular answer, but you almost certainly do not want to do this. If you want a copy that’s a merge, then use copy (or deepcopy, depending on what you want) and then update. The two lines of code are much more readable – more Pythonic – than the single line creation with .items() + .items(). Explicit is better than implicit.

In addition, when you use .items() (pre Python 3.0), you’re creating a new list that contains the items from the dict. If your dictionaries are large, then that is quite a lot of overhead (two large lists that will be thrown away as soon as the merged dict is created). update() can work more efficiently, because it can run through the second dict item-by-item.

In terms of time:

>>> timeit.Timer("dict(x, **y)", "x = dict(zip(range(1000), range(1000)))\ny=dict(zip(range(1000,2000), range(1000,2000)))").timeit(100000)
>>> timeit.Timer("temp = x.copy()\ntemp.update(y)", "x = dict(zip(range(1000), range(1000)))\ny=dict(zip(range(1000,2000), range(1000,2000)))").timeit(100000)
>>> timeit.Timer("dict(x.items() + y.items())", "x = dict(zip(range(1000), range(1000)))\ny=dict(zip(range(1000,2000), range(1000,2000)))").timeit(100000)

IMO the tiny slowdown between the first two is worth it for the readability. In addition, keyword arguments for dictionary creation was only added in Python 2.3, whereas copy() and update() will work in older versions.

Hope this helps!