Python Decorators: Syntactic Artificial Sweetener

Python has a feature called function decorators. With a little bit of syntax, the behavior of a function or class can be modified in useful ways. Python comes with a few decorators, but most of the useful ones are found in third-party libraries.

PEP 318 suggests a very simple, but practical decorator called synchronized, though it doesn’t provide a concrete example. Consider this function that increments a global counter:

counter = 0

def increment():
    global counter
    counter = counter + 1

If this function is called from multiple threads, there’s a race condition — though, at least for CPython, it’s not a data race thanks to the Global Interpreter Lock (GIL). Incrementing the counter is not an atomic operation, as illustrated by its byte code:

 0 LOAD_GLOBAL              0 (counter)
 3 LOAD_CONST               1 (1)
 6 BINARY_ADD
 7 STORE_GLOBAL             0 (counter)
10 LOAD_CONST               0 (None)
13 RETURN_VALUE

The variable is loaded, operated upon, and stored. Another thread could be scheduled between any of these instructions and cause an undesired result. It’s easy to see that in practice:

from threading import Thread

def worker():
    for i in range(200000):
        increment()

threads = [Thread(target=worker) for _ in range(8)];
for thread in threads:
    thread.start()
for thread in threads:
    thread.join()

print(counter)

The increment function is called exactly 1.6 million times, but on my system I get different results on each run:

$ python3 example.py 
1306205
$ python3 example.py 
1162418
$ python3 example.py 
1076801

I could change the definition of increment() to use synchronization, but wouldn’t it be nice if I could just tell Python to synchronize this function? This is where a function decorator shines:

from threading import Lock

def synchronized(f):
    lock = Lock()
    def wrapper():
        with lock:
            return f()
    return wrapper

The synchronized function is a higher order function that accepts a function and returns a function — or, more specifically, a callable. The purpose is to wrap and decorate the function it’s given. In this case the function is wrapped in a mutual exclusion lock. Note: This implementation is very simple and only works for functions that accept no arguments.

To use it, I just add a single line to increment:

@synchronized
def increment():
    global counter
    counter = counter + 1

With this change my program now always prints 1600000.

Syntactic “sugar”

Everyone is quick to point out that this is just syntactic sugar, and that you can accomplish this without the @ syntax. For example, the last definition of increment is equivalent to:

def increment():
    ...

increment = synchronized(increment)

Decorators can also be parameterized. For example, Python’s functools module has an lru_cache decorator for memoizing a function:

@lru_cache(maxsize=32)
def expensive(n):
    ...

Which is equivalent to this very direct source transformation:

def expensive(n):
    ...

expensive = lru_cache(maxsize=32)(expensive)

So what comes after the @ isn’t just a name. In fact, it looks like it can be any kind of expression that evaluates to a function decorator. Or is it?

Syntactic artificial sweetener

Reality is often disappointing. Let’s try using an “identity” decorator defined using lambda. This decorator will accomplish nothing, but it will test if we can decorate a function using a lambda expression.

@lambda f: f
def foo():
    pass

But Python complains:

    @lambda f: f
          ^
SyntaxError: invalid syntax

Maybe Python is absolutely literal about the syntax sugar thing, and it’s more like a kind of macro replacement. Let’s try wrapping it in parentheses:

@(lambda f: f)
def foo(n):
    pass

Nope, same error, but now pointing at the opening parenthesis. Getting desperate now:

@[synchronized][0]
def foo():
    pass

Again, syntax error. What’s going on?

Pattern matching

The problem is that the Python language reference doesn’t parse an expression after @. It matches a very specific pattern that just so happens to look like a Python expression. It’s not syntactic sugar, it’s syntactic artificial sweetener!

ator ::= "@" dotted_name ["(" [argument_list [","]] ")"] NEWLINE

In a way, this puts Python in the ranks of PHP 5 and Matlab: two languages with completely screwed up grammars that can only parse specific constructions that the developers had anticipated. For example, in PHP 5 (fixed in PHP 7):

function foo() {
    return function() {
        return 0;
    };
}

foo()();

That is a syntax error:

PHP Parse error:  syntax error, unexpected '(', expecting ',' or ';'

Or in any version of Matlab:

    magic(4)(:)

That is a syntax error:

Unbalanced or unexpected parenthesis or bracket

In Python’s defense, this strange, limited syntax is only in a single place rather than everywhere, but I still wonder why it was defined that way.

Update: Clément Pit-Claudel pointed out the explanation in the PEP, which references a 2004 email by Guido van Rossum:

I have a gut feeling about this one. I’m not sure where it comes from, but I have it. It may be that I want the compiler to be able to recognize certain decorators.

So while it would be quite easy to change the syntax to @test in the future, I’d like to stick with the more restricted form unless a real use case is presented where allowing @test would increase readability. (@foo().bar() doesn’t count because I don’t expect you’ll ever need that).

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Chris Wellons