Parse Command Line Arguments in Python

Most command line programs allow users to pass command line arguments into a program. Consider, for example, the unix ls:

ls -a

Python programs can utilize such techniques by using sys.argv and performing string operations on each element in the argv list. Here is an example script from Programming Python: Powerful Object-Oriented Programming with my own comments added to the script. (Of course, the Python standard library provides much more sophisticated getopt and optparse modules which should be used in production programs)

def getopts(argv):
    # Create a dictionary to store command line options
    opts = {}

    # Iterate through each command line argument
    while argv:
        # Look for the dash symbol
        if argv[0][0] == '-':

            # Create an entry in the opts dictionary
            opts[argv[0]] = argv[1]

            # Slice off the last entry and continue
            argv = argv[2:]

            # Otherwise just slice of the last entry since there
            # was no command line switch
            argv = argv[1:]

    # Return the dictionary of the command line options
    return opts

# Only run this code if this is a standalone script
if __name__ == '__main__':
    # Put the argv option into our namespace
    from sys import argv

    # call our getopts function
    myargs = getopts(argv)

    # Print our output
    if '-i' in myargs:


Detailed Explanation

Our goal in this script is to look for any command line switches that are passed to the script. To start with, we need to import the argv object from the sys module which is a list that provides the command line options passed to the script. On line 30, we call our getopts function and pass the argv object to the function. The program’s execution jumps up to line 3.

Line 3 creates an empty dictionary object that will store all command line switches with their arguments. For example, we may end up with ‘-n’:”Bob Belcher” in this dictionary. Starting on line 6, we enter into a while loop that examines each entry in argv.

Line 8 looks at the first character in the first entry of argv (remember that Python String implement the [] operator). We are just checking if the character in question is a dash (‘-‘) character. If this character is a dash, we are going to create an entry into our opts dictionary on line 11. Then we slice off the next 2 entries in argv from the beginning of the list (one for the switch, the other one for the argument).

Line 15 is the alternative case. If argv[0][0] is something other than a dash, we are going to ignore it. We just slice off the first entry in argv (only one this time since there is no switch). Once argv is empty, we can return the opts dictionary to the caller.

The program execution resumes on line 33. For demonstration purposes, it checks if the myargs dictionary has a ‘-i’ key. If it does, it will print the value associated with ‘-i’. Then line 36 prints out the myarg dictionary.

When run from the console, the script will show output such as this.

Patricks-MacBook-Pro:system stonesoup$ python -h "Bob Belcher" -w "Linda Belcher" -d1 "Tina Belcher" -s "Gene Belcher" -d2 "Louise Belcher" 
{'-h': 'Bob Belcher', '-w': 'Linda Belcher', '-d1': 'Tina Belcher', '-s': 'Gene Belcher', '-d2': 'Louise Belcher'}

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