Create A Dictionary In Python: Quick 5 Minute Beginners Guide

How do you create a dictionary in Python?

Dictionaries in Python are mutable data types that contain key: value pairs. A dictionary can be a great way to organise information, especially if checks need to be performed prior for uniqueness and/or the value of that key needs to be changed, skipped or inserted.

Creating A Dictionary

Dictionaries can be created using either the dict() constructor method, using the dict literal annotation {} or using a dict comprehension.

Here are examples of how to create a dictionary using each approach and an explanation of when might be the most appropriate time to use this approach.

Create Dictionary Using dict() Method

The dict() constructor method in Python is one means of creating a dictionary in Python. The dict() constructor can take multiple parameters of key: value pairs by assigning parameter names to values, like so:

>>> dict(a=1, b=2)
{'a': 1, 'b': 2}
>>> dict(a='1', b='2')
{'a': '1', 'b': '2'}

Notice this assigns parameter names as the keys and the parameter values as the values in the newly created dictionary.

Create Empty Dictionary Using dict()

You can also create an empty dictionary using the dict() constructor method. Simply leave the parameter of the dict() method empty, like so:

>>> a_dict = dict()
>>> print(a_dict)
>>> type(a_dict)
<class 'dict'>

An empty dictionary is the most basic type of dictionary.

Creating Dictionaries From Other Data Types

The dict() constructor method can also be used to create dict data types from different compatible data types such as two-dimensional lists and tuples.

Here is a demonstration displaying how other data types, can be used to create a dictionary in one-line of code using the dict() constructor:

>>> a_list = [['a', 1], ['b', 2]]
>>> dict(a_list)
{'a': 1, 'b': 2}
>>> a_tuple = (('a', 1), ('b', 2))
>>> dict(a_tuple)
{'a': 1, 'b': 2}

Besides creating a dict data type using other data types, the dict() constructor can also be used to create a shallow copy of another dict.

Create Dictionary By Copying Another

There are times when you want to create a new dictionary by copying the contents of another. However, just by assigning a new variable to an existing dictionary variable will not copy it.

What happens when you create a new dictionary variable by assigning it to an existing one?

>>> a_dict = dict(a=1, b=2)
>>> b_dict = a_dict
>>> a_dict['c'] = 3
>>> print(b_dict)
{'a': 1, 'b': 2, 'c': 3}

As you can see from the above output b_dict contains the same result as a_dict even though a_dict was changed after it was assigned to b_dict .

How can you create a new dictionary from an existing one without having it change after assignment?

One way of creating a new dictionary from an existing one is to use the dict() constructor method.

Here’s an example demonstrating how a dictionary can be copied using the built-in dict() constructor:

>>> a_dict = dict(a=1, b=2)
>>> b_dict = dict(a_dict)
>>> a_dict['c'] = 3
>>> print(b_dict)
{'a': 1, 'b': 2}

This result is very different from the previous result above. The b_dict variable did not change when the original a_dict changed after assignment.

While there still are some caveats when using this approach, if the values for your keys inside your dictionary are immutable, then this could be an easy method to create a new copy from an existing dict variable.

Problems With Using dict() Constructor

You may encounter issues when using the dict() constructor method. Some common errors occur when constructing a dictionary from a string or number.

Here are some common ValueError and TypeError issues you may experience when trying to construct a dictionary using the dict() constructor method:

>>> dict("{'a': 1}")
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
ValueError: dictionary update sequence element #0 has length 1; 2 is required

>>> dict(1)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: 'int' object is not iterable

>>> dict(1.1)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: 'float' object is not iterable

>>> dict({1, 2, 3})
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: cannot convert dictionary update sequence element #0 to a sequence

The errors displayed inform the user of the problems you will have when trying to use strings, numbers, and even sets and converting them to dictionary data types with the dict() constructor method.

Create Dictionary Using Dict Literal {}

Another way to create a dictionary is to use the literal annotation {} . The same can be used when creating a dictionary by just using the literal notation {} , as shown here:

>>> b_dict = {'a': 2}
>>> print(b_dict)
{'a': 2}
>>> type(b_dict)
<class 'dict'>

This is no different to creating a dictionary using the dict() constructor method and is a shorthand approach of doing so.

Create An Empty Dictionary

If you need to initialise a variable as a dictionary data type, you can use the dict literal approach by assigning that variable to an empty dict literal.

An example of what this looks like is shown below:

>>> a_dict = {}
>>> type(a_dict)
<class 'dict'>

As you can see from the above Python REPL the empty dict literal created a new dict object.

It can be an easy way to create a new dictionary in Python as it only requires two characters instead of the six to type dict() , however, if it makes the code difficult to reason with then it may be better for the more explicit dict() constructor.

Create A Dictionary Using Dict Comprehension

One other method to create a dict data type is through a dict comprehension.

A dict comprehension loops through an iterable object assigning keys and values according to the construction of the comprehension.

For example, if you have a single dimension list and want to transpose this into a dict object you cannot use the dict() constructor:

>>> a_list = ['Jan', 'Feb', 'Mar']
>>> a_dict = dict(a_list)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
ValueError: dictionary update sequence element #0 has length 3; 2 is required

This problem cannot be solved even with the dict literal syntax, so how can this be done?

Enter the dict comprehension .

With a dict comprehension you can loop through your iterable and assign the keys and corresponding values according to how you want to create your new dictionary.

The dict comprehension has the following basic syntax:

{key: value for x in iterable_object}

Using the list in the previous example, this would look a little something like this:

>>> a_list = ['Jan', 'Feb', 'Mar']
>>> a_dict = {x: idx for idx, x in enumerate(a_list)}
>>> print(a_dict)
{'Jan': 0, 'Feb': 1, 'Mar': 2}

Using a for loop with an index idx helps to assign the abbreviated months of the year to index numbers.

A dict comprehension can help create a dict data type when handling more complex iterable objects.

Key Constraints

Each entry in the dictionary is a single element composed of both the key (the item before the colon) and its value (the item after the colon). The value can be any data type, such as an integer, string, or even another dictionary, but the key has a couple of conditions.

The conditions when adding a key: value pair into a dictionary are:

  1. The key must be unique; and
  2. The key must be immutable.

Keys Need To Be Unique

What happens when you instantiate a dict using the dict() or dict literal syntax to create a new dictionary?

Have a look at the following results:

>>> a_dict = dict(a=1, a=2)
 File "<stdin>", line 1
SyntaxError: keyword argument repeated: a

When using the dict() constructor method a SyntaxError is produced when assigning two items with the same key.

What happens when you create a dictionary using the dict literal syntax?

>>> dict({'a': 1, 'a': 2})
{'a': 2}

As observed from the Python REPL if a dictionary is constructed using the dict literal approach and their contains within the dict literal the same key more than once, like {'a': 1, 'a': 2} , the last value in the dictionary is preserved.

Notice that no SyntaxError is produced as it did with the dict() constructor method.

To be clear, you can use the same key multiple times throughout a dictionary – however, it must be unique on its own branch. The following example demonstrates that multiple nested dictionaries having the same key are okay:

>>> dict({'a': {'a': {'a': 1}}})
{'a': {'a': {'a': 1}}}

Keys Need To Be Hashable (Immutable)

The value of the key must also be immutable , which means that the key is hashable . You may have come across other data types in Python which are immutable, and these are things like: numbers, strings, tuples (etc).

A key can be of an immutable data type, but cannot be of a mutable data type.

Common examples of a mutable data type include lists and dictionaries.

What happens when you try to create a key that is mutable:

>>> dict({[1]: 1})
Traceback (most recent call last):
File "", line 1, in
TypeError: unhashable type: 'list'

As you can see, the error from the Python REPL is that the list used as the key is of an unhashable type . As the error states, a list object cannot be hashed as it can be changed throughout its life (a list can get larger or smaller), whereas a tuple object is static and its contents are fixed – therefore it is hashable :

>>> a_list = [1, 2, 3]
>>> hash(a_list)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: unhashable type: 'list'

>>> a_tuple = (1, 2, 3)
>>> hash(a_tuple)

Using the hash() function above can help to determine whether an item can be used as a key in your dictionary.

Here are some examples of using an immutable data type, like a tuple , as a key in a dictionary:

>>> a_dict = {(1, 2, 3): 100}
>>> type(a_dict)
<class 'dict'>
>>> a_dict[(1, 2, 3)]


How do you create a dictionary in Python? Creating a dictionary in Python can be done in one of three ways: using the dict() constructor method, the dict literal syntax or the dict comprehension syntax.

Using the dict() constructor approach can be helpful when converting existing data types that can readily be converted into dictionaries, or if working with fixed key parameters and dynamic values.

The dict literal approach is easy and can be useful if duplicate keys are likely and no errors want to be thrown.

Finally, dict comprehensions are helpful when working with iterables that cannot readily be converted into dictionaries using the dict() constructor approach.

Photo of author
Ryan Sheehy
Ryan has been dabbling in code since the late '90s when he cut his teeth exploring VBA in Excel. Having his eyes opened with the potential of automating repetitive tasks, he expanded to Python and then moved over to scripting languages such as HTML, CSS, Javascript and PHP.