Understanding Decorators in Python

Many beginners seem to take the concept of decorators as a fairly advanced and complex topic. It’s advanced alright but it probably is much simpler than you think.

Decorators Explained

Let’s say, we have a function which returns a message. But we want to also return the time with the message. So what can we do? We can modify the function’s source code to add the time with the message. But what if we can’t or don’t want to modify the source code but still want to extend/transform the functionality?

In that case, we can wrap it within another function, something like this:

Here, greet was our original function, which only returns a message but no time with it. So we be clever and write a wrapper – time_wrapper. This wrapper function takes a function as it’s argument and returns the new_function instead. This new function, when invoked, can access the original function we passed, get the message out and then add the time to it.

The interesting bit is here – greet = time_wrapper(greet). We’re passing greet to time_wrapper. The time_wrapper function returns the new_function. So greet now points to the new_function. When we call greet, we actually call that function.

By definition, a Decorator is a callables which takes a callable and returns a callable. A callable can be a few things but let’s not worry about that right now. In most cases, a decorator just takes a function, wraps it and returns the wrapped function. The wrapped function can access a reference to our original function and call it as necessary. In our case time_wrapper is the decorator function which takes the greet function and returns the new_function.

The @ decorator syntax

But you might be wondering – “I see a lot of @ symbols while reading on decorators, how can there be a decorator without the @?”. Well, before PEP 0318, we used to write decorators like that. But soon the wise people of the Python community realized that it would be a good idea to have a nicer syntax for decorators. So we got the @. So how does the @ work?

So when we add a callable name prepended with a @ on top of a function, that function is passed to that callable. The return value from that callable becomes the new value of that function.

Writing our own decorators

Let’s say we want to write a decorator which will take a function and print the current time every time the function is executed. Let’s call our function timed. This function will accept a parameter fn which is the function we wrap. Since we need to return a function from the timed function, we need to define that function too.

In this example, the timed function takes the fn function and returns the wrapped function. So by definition it’s a decorator. Within the wrapped function, we’re first printing out the current time. And then we’re invoking the fn() function. After the decorator is applied, this wrapped function becomes the new fn. So when we call fn, we’re actually calling wrapped.

Let’s see example of this decorator:

With the @timed decorator applied to hello, this happens: hello = timed(hello), hello now points to the wrapped function returned by timed. Inside the for loop, every time we call, hello, it’s no longer the original hello function but the wrapped function. The wrapped function calls the copy of the original hello from it’s parent scope.

Two things you might have noticed – it is possible to nest functions and when we nest a function within a function, the inner function can access the parent scope too. You can learn more about the scope by reading on closure.

Decorator Parameters

Decorators can take parameters too. Like this:

When a decorator takes a parameter, it’s executed like:

As we can see, it gets a level deeper. Here sleeper has to take the parameter and return the actual decorator function which will transform our say_hello function.

In this case, sleeper(4) returns the decorator function. We pass say_hello to the decorator. The decorator wraps it inside the wrapped function and returns wrapped. So finally, say_hello is actually the wrapped function which gets fn and secs from the closure.

Chaining Decorators

We can chain multiple decorators. Like this:

The bottom most one gets executed first, then the returned function is passed to the decorator on top of that one. This way the chain of execution goes from bottom to top.

Using Classes as Decorators

In our previous examples, we have only focused on functions, but in Python, any callables can be used as decorator. That means we can uses Classes too. Let’s first see an example:

When we’re using the Sleeper decorator, we are getting the parameter 5 to the constructor. We are storing it in an instance variable. The constructor returns an object instance, when we call it, it gets the function and returns a decorated, wrapped function.

This is just like before, say_hello = Sleeper(5)(say_hello). The first call is the constructor. The second call is made to the __call__ magic method.

Decorating Class and Class Methods

We can decorate any callables, so here’s an example where we’re decorating a Class to forcefully convert the age argument to int.

We can decorate the methods as well. If you know Python’s OOP model well, you probably have already came across the @property decorator. Or the @classmethod and @staticmethod decorators. These decorate methods.

3 Comments Understanding Decorators in Python

  1. Graham Dumpleton

    Using decorators may be easy, but implementing them correctly if you want them to behave properly as far as preserving introspection and descriptor behaviour is far from easy. For lots of information about the problem, read the blog series:


    As far as getting it right, the wrapt package gets closer than any other package available.


    You may like to write another blog post but show your same examples but using wrapt. 🙂

  2. Pingback: A tip for the impatient: Simple caching with Python pickle and decorators | WZB Data Science Blog

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