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All Things Pythonic
Five-minute Multimethods in Python
by Guido van van Rossum
March 29, 2005
Summary
I used to believe that multimethods were so advanced I would never need them. Well, maybe I still believe that, but here's a quick and dirty implementation of multimethods so you can see for yourself. Some assembly required; advanced functionality left as an exercise for the reader.

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So what are multimethods? I'll give you my own definition, as I've come to understand them: a function that has multiple versions, distinguished by the type of the arguments. (Some people go beyond this and also allow versions distinguished by the value of the arguments; I'm not addressing this here.)

As a very simple example, let's suppose we have a function that we want to define for two ints, two floats, or two strings. Of course, we could define it as follows:

def foo(a, b):
    if isinstance(a, int) and isinstance(b, int):
        ...code for two ints...
    elif isinstance(a, float) and isinstance(b, float):
        ...code for two floats...
    elif isinstance(a, str) and isinstance(b, str):
        ...code for two strings...
    else:
        raise TypeError("unsupported argument types (%s, %s)" % (type(a), type(b)))

But this pattern gets tedious. (It also isn't very OO, but then, neither are multimethods, despite the name, IMO.) So what could this look like using multimethod dispatch? Decorators are a good match:

from mm import multimethod

@multimethod(int, int)
def foo(a, b):
    ...code for two ints...

@multimethod(float, float):
def foo(a, b):
    ...code for two floats...

@multimethod(str, str):
def foo(a, b):
    ...code for two strings...

The rest of this article will show how we can define the multimethod decorator. It's really pretty simple: there's a global registry indexed by function name ('foo' in this case), pointing to a registry indexed by tuples of type objects corresponding to the arguments passed to the decorator. Like this:

# This is in the 'mm' module

registry = {}

class MultiMethod(object):
    def __init__(self, name):
        self.name = name
        self.typemap = {}
    def __call__(self, *args):
        types = tuple(arg.__class__ for arg in args) # a generator expression!
        function = self.typemap.get(types)
        if function is None:
            raise TypeError("no match")
        return function(*args)
    def register(self, types, function):
        if types in self.typemap:
            raise TypeError("duplicate registration")
        self.typemap[types] = function

I hope that wasn't too much code at once; it's really very simple so far (please indulge me in using the words 'class' and 'type' interchangeably here):

I hope it's clear from this that the @multimethod decorator should return a MultiMethod object and somehow call its register() method. Let's see how to do that:

def multimethod(*types):
    def register(function):
        name = function.__name__
        mm = registry.get(name)
        if mm is None:
            mm = registry[name] = MultiMethod(name)
        mm.register(types, function)
        return mm
    return register

That's it! Sparse but it works. Note that only positional parameters are supported; it gets pretty murky if you want to support keyword parameters as well. Default parameter values are somewhat against the nature of multimethods: instead of

@multimethod(int, int)
def foo(a, b=10):
    ...
you'd have to write
@multimethod(int, int)
def foo(a, b):
    ...
@multimethod(int)
def foo(a):
    return foo(a, 10) # This calls the previous foo()!

I've got one improvement to make: I imagine that somtimes you'd want to write a single implementation that applies to multiple types. It would be convenient if the @multimethod decorators could be stacked, like this:

@multimethod(int, int)
@multimethod(int)
def foo(a, b=10):
    ...

This can be done by changing the decorator slightly (this is not thread-safe, but I don't think that matters much, since all this is typically happening at import time):

def multimethod(*types):
    def register(function):
        function = getattr(function, "__lastreg__", function)
        name = function.__name__
        mm = registry.get(name)
        if mm is None:
            mm = registry[name] = MultiMethod(name)
        mm.register(types, function)
        mm.__lastreg__ = function
        return mm
    return register

Note the three-argument getattr() call, which you may not be familiar with: getattr(x, "y", z) returns x.y if it exists, and z otherwise. So that line is equivalent to

if hasattr(function, "__lastreg__"):
    function = function.__lastreg__

You could try to put the assignment to mm.__lastreg__ inside the register() method, but that would just add more distance between the code that sets it and the code that uses it, so I like it better this way. In a more static language, of course, there would have to be a declaration of the __lastreg__ attribute; Python doesn't need this. It's important that this isn't a "normal" attribute name, so that other uses of function attributes aren't preempted. (Hm... There are almost no "normal" uses of function attributes; they are mostly used for various "secret" purposes so name conflicts in the __xxx__ namespace are not inconceivable. Oh well, maybe we should use something really long like multimethod_last_registered or even put the whole thing inside the MultiMethod class so we can use a private variable name like __lastreg.)

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About the Blogger

Guido van Rossum is the creator of Python, one of the major programming languages on and off the web. The Python community refers to him as the BDFL (Benevolent Dictator For Life), a title straight from a Monty Python skit. He moved from the Netherlands to the USA in 1995, where he met his wife. Until July 2003 they lived in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC with their son Orlijn, who was born in 2001. They then moved to Silicon Valley where Guido now works for Google (spending 50% of his time on Python!).

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2005 Guido van van Rossum. All rights reserved.

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