I was talking to a colleague recently about what would be covered in a basic ‘introduction to python’ tutorial. We got to talking about lists and how you would explain how to add things to lists with the append() method.

We had this code that turned out to be wrong because we’d forgotten that list.append() does not actually return a list, it merely updates the list object in place. (I.e. there is no return value from the function. Other programming languages might call this a void function or a procedure.

What we tried to do was:

l = ['one', 'two', 'three']

And to our (initial) surprise, got:


Instead we should have called the method first (updating the list, l) and then called print(l) to see the updated list.

Inspecting our mistake, we investigated what the type of l.append(item) was:

# NoneType

Yep, definitely None it seems! But why is it None? If it has no return value, why does it have any type at all, why not raise an error?

What about other functions with no return statement, we thought…

def voidfunc(a, b):
  x = a + b

type(voidfunc(1, 2)
# NoneType (?!)

z = voidfunc(1, 2)
# None

This last one is slightly confusing, because you might intuitively expect an error perhaps (how could you assign a value to a variable from a function with no return statement?)

In fact, it turned out from some googling that Python functions have a default return value, which is None if no return expression is given, or return is given on its own.

For example, the source code for the append() method of list is this:

In the CPython source, this is in


static PyObject *
list_append(PyListObject *self, PyObject *object)
    if (app1(self, object) == 0)
    return NULL;

It actually calls another function app1() which does the actual appending, which returns 0 on success. The next line Py_RETURN_NONE gives us a hint to what happens in the append method.

The builtins are a little confusing, so I’ll come back to them another time, but here is the code which determines what happens in functions that we write ourselves:


/* Make sure every block that falls off the end returns None.
   XXX NEXT_BLOCK() isn't quite right, because if the last
   block ends with a jump or return b_next shouldn't set.
if (!c->u->u_curblock->b_return) {
    if (addNone)
        ADDOP_LOAD_CONST(c, Py_None);

Without going in to the details of this code, there is a conditional statement that makes sure to “add None” if there is no return value given. (Py_None is the Python None object, see https://docs.python.org/2/c-api/none.html)