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'}

Python Command Line Arguments

The sys module provides developers with an access point to command line arguments. Here is an example program that prints command line arguments to the console.

import sys

# The sys object has an argv field that is a
# list of the command line arguments passed to the program
# The first entry is the name of the script

Here is the program’s output when run from the command line.

Patricks-MacBook-Pro:system stonesoup$ python

The sys.argv object is a list of all command line arguments supplied to the script when run as a python program. Generally speaking, the first entry in the list is the name of the script. For more information on Python, see Programming Python: Powerful Object-Oriented Programming

Python Page Through A File

Many operating systems have command line tools that allow a user to page through a file in chunks. As a demonstration of how to read text files in Python, I used an example from Programming Python: Powerful Object-Oriented Programming.


def more(text, numlines=15):
    # This splits the text into a list object based on line
    # endings
    lines = text.splitlines()

    # Now continue to loop until we are out of lines
    while lines:
        # Slice off numLines into chunk
        chunk = lines[:numlines]
        # Remove numLines from the beginning of lines
        lines = lines[numlines:]

        # Now loop through each line in chunk
        for line in chunk:
            # and then print a line
        # Now ask the user if we want to keep going
        if lines and input('More?') not in ['y', 'Y']:

if __name__ == '__main__':
    # Import sys so that we can read command line arguments
    import sys
    # Next, we are grabbing the first argument from the
    # command line, and passing it the open function
    # which returns a file object. Calling read on this
    # object will dump the contents of the file into a String
    # which gets passed to our more function above
    more(open(sys.argv[1]).read(), 10)

Detailed Explanation

The comments in the code above are mine and explain what is going on in the program. The program starts by testing if this script is getting called as a standalone program or if we are importing this code as a module.

Assuming this is a standalone program, we import the sys module so that we can examine the command line arguments. The second command line argument needs to be a text file or this program will crash. We pass the name of the file to the open function, which returns a file object. Calling read() on the file object dumps the entire contents of the file into a String.

At this point, we pass the string into our more() function. It starts out by splitting the string by lines, which returns a list object. We start to loop through this list object, which continues until the list is empty.

Inside of the while loop, we slice off numLines from lines and store then in chunk. Then we remove those lines from the lines list. The next step is to print out each line in chunk. Once that is complete, we test if we still have more lines to print and if we do, we ask the user if they want to keep going or exit.

Here is the program output when run on my screen.

Patricks-MacBook-Pro:System stonesoup$ python
def more(text, numlines=15):
    lines = text.splitlines()

    while lines:
        chunk = lines[:numlines]
        lines = lines[numlines:]

        for line in chunk:
        if lines and input('More?') not in ['y', 'Y']:

if __name__ == '__main__':
    import sys
    more(open(sys.argv[1]).read(), 10)