Python Data Types: Native Data Types and Mutability

In this chapter, we take a close look at all the Python data types. Python provides us several native data types to store and process data. We make a distinction between basic types and the more advanced data structures.

Basic and advanced data types

The basic data types in Python store a single value, like a number or a piece of text. The basic data types in Python are:

Next, we have the more advanced Python data types. They can store many items, like lists or key-value pairs:

Mutability in Python

Data types can be categorized into two classes: mutable and immutable. An object is mutable if we can change the data it holds, and it’s immutable if we can’t change it. Examples of immutable data types in Python are:

  • All numbers (integers, floats, complex numbers)
  • Booleans
  • Strings
  • Tuples

Python data types that are mutable are:

  • Lists
  • Dictionaries
  • Sets

Why are these data types mutable? We didn’t dive into all these types yet, but let’s take a list as an example. Without knowing the exact details, I can tell you that you can add more items to a list, remove items, and replace them. These are not surprising features for a list, right? So a list can be changed, hence it is mutable.

However, an integer is simply a number, like 2, 3, and 4 are numbers. You can’t change a number; it is what it is. I can almost hear you thinking now. “But I can change a variable, even if it’s an integer!” You’re right, but that’s something different though.

Let’s look at an example were we assign the integer 2 to a variable called myint, and then change it:

>>> myint = 2
>>> myint = 3

What we are doing, is reassigning a new value to a variable. We’re not changing the data, the number 2, itself.

There’s another way to explain this. Maybe you are familiar with pointers? A variable points to a spot in your computer’s memory. That is what we call a pointer. In the first instance, myint points to a spot in memory where we stored the number 2. After changing myint to 3, it points to another spot in memory where we store the number 3.

This is different from a list, for example. If the variable mylist points to a list structure in memory, and we change that list, it still points to the same list structure. Python doesn’t replace the list but modifies it instead.

How to check the Python data type?

There’s a built-in function called type which you can use to check data types in Python. Let’s look at some examples of type at work:

>>> type(3)
<class 'int'>
>>> type('hello')
<class 'str'>
>>> type([1,2,3])
<class 'list'>

If you are experimenting in the REPL, type is a valuable function that can give you more insight into what’s happening under the hood!

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About the author

Erik is the owner of Python Land and the author of many of the articles and tutorials on this website. He's been working as a professional software developer for 25 years, and he holds a Master of Science degree in computer science. His favorite language of choice: Python!