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Learn the Python help() function and pydoc

There is a way to prevent getting distracted with searches for Python help on the Internet.
  1. python3 command - See customizations for when Python is launched from the command line.
  2. python.org - Identify the location for web-based help.
  3. help() function - Use the function within the Python interpreter for interactive help and object help.
  4. pydoc3 - Review 5 different ways to use pydoc3.
  5. Next: keywords - Introduce Python keywords.
Paul Alan Davis, April 2, 2017
Updated: August 12, 2018
You will have to figure out what works best for you.

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Finding help documentation on the Internet and on your local machine

Beginner

Video Tutorial

Learn the Python help() function and pydoc | Python for Beginners (4:52)

Videos can also be accessed from our Full Stack Playlist 3 on YouTube.

Code Examples and Video Script

Welcome. Today's question: How do you find help in Python using help() and pydoc?

I'm Paul, and one of the most frustrating things for budding programmers is how much time is spent finding help.

So here I'll cover several resources, zipping through what can be found at the Linux command line using python3, then python.org, then Python's built-in help() and pydoc3 accessed from the Linux command line, before heading to the next tutorial on keywords.

(Commands in Linux)

  • pydoc3
  • whatis
  • man
  • python3
  • clear

(Functions in Python)

  • help()
  • exit()

Step 1 - Find Help With the python3 Command

Let's jump to the Terminal, and part of my goal with these sub-5-minute summaries, is to keep what we've done fresh. Let's do a quick whatis to summarize Linux commands we'll use here.

paul@fullstack:~$ whatis pydoc3 whatis man python3 clear pydoc3 (1) - the Python documentation tool whatis (1) - display one-line manual page descriptions man (1) - an interface to the on-line reference manual man (7) - macros to format man pages python3 (1) - an interpreted, interactive, object-oriented programming language clear (1) - clear the terminal screen
Find a summary of python3 command options

The -h summary for python3 covers syntax and options for customizing startup for the Python environment.

paul@fullstack:~$ python3 -h usage: python3 [option] ... [-c cmd | -m mod | file | -] [arg] ... Options and arguments (and corresponding environment variables): -b : issue warnings about str(bytes_instance), str(bytearray_instance) and comparing bytes/bytearray with str. (-bb: issue errors) -B : don't write .py[co] files on import; also PYTHONDONTWRITEBYTECODE=x -c cmd : program passed in as string (terminates option list) -d : debug output from parser; also PYTHONDEBUG=x -E : ignore PYTHON* environment variables (such as PYTHONPATH) -h : print this help message and exit (also --help) -i : inspect interactively after running script; forces a prompt even if stdin does not appear to be a terminal; also PYTHONINSPECT=x -I : isolate Python from the user's environment (implies -E and -s) -m mod : run library module as a script (terminates option list) -O : optimize generated bytecode slightly; also PYTHONOPTIMIZE=x -OO : remove doc-strings in addition to the -O optimizations -q : don't print version and copyright messages on interactive startup -s : don't add user site directory to sys.path; also PYTHONNOUSERSITE -S : don't imply 'import site' on initialization -u : unbuffered binary stdout and stderr, stdin always buffered; also PYTHONUNBUFFERED=x see man page for details on internal buffering relating to '-u' -v : verbose (trace import statements); also PYTHONVERBOSE=x can be supplied multiple times to increase verbosity -V : print the Python version number and exit (also --version) -W arg : warning control; arg is action:message:category:module:lineno also PYTHONWARNINGS=arg -x : skip first line of source, allowing use of non-Unix forms of #!cmd -X opt : set implementation-specific option file : program read from script file - : program read from stdin (default; interactive mode if a tty) arg ...: arguments passed to program in sys.argv[1:] Other environment variables: PYTHONSTARTUP: file executed on interactive startup (no default) PYTHONPATH : ':'-separated list of directories prefixed to the default module search path. The result is sys.path. PYTHONHOME : alternate <prefix> directory (or <prefix>:<exec_prefix>). The default module search path uses <prefix>/pythonX.X. PYTHONCASEOK : ignore case in 'import' statements (Windows). PYTHONIOENCODING: Encoding[:errors] used for stdin/stdout/stderr. PYTHONFAULTHANDLER: dump the Python traceback on fatal errors. PYTHONHASHSEED: if this variable is set to 'random', a random value is used to seed the hashes of str, bytes and datetime objects. It can also be set to an integer in the range [0,4294967295] to get hash values with a predictable seed.
Find your Python version number

Plus this one for the version number.

paul@fullstack:~$ python3 -V Python 3.4.2
Access the python3 man page

And then, like any command in Linux, the man page goes into more detail.

paul@fullstack:~$ man python3

As I browse, I will say that while help in Linux isn't pretty, it is easy to navigate. It's local so it goes with you, and it's extremely useful once you get the hang of it.

PYTHON(1) General Commands Manual PYTHON(1) NAME python - an interpreted, interactive, object-oriented programming language SYNOPSIS python [ -B ] [ -b ] [ -d ] [ -E ] [ -h ] [ -i ] [ -I ] [ -m module-name ] [ -q ] [ -O ] [ -OO ] [ -s ] [ -S ] [ -u ] [ -v ] [ -V ] [ -W argument ] [ -x ] [ [ -X option ] -? ] [ -c command | script | - ] [ arguments ] DESCRIPTION Python is an interpreted, interactive, object-oriented programming language that combines remarkable power with very clear syntax. For an introduction to program ming in Python you are referred to the Python Tutorial. The Python Library Refer ence documents built-in and standard types, constants, functions and modules. Finally, the Python Reference Manual describes the syntax and semantics of the core language in (perhaps too) much detail. (These documents may be located via the INTERNET RESOURCES below; they may be installed on your system as well.) Python's basic power can be extended with your own modules written in C or C++. On most systems such modules may be dynamically loaded. Python is also adaptable as an extension language for existing applications. See the internal documentation for hints. Documentation for installed Python modules and packages can be viewed by running the pydoc program. Manual page python3 (1) line 1 (press h for help or q to quit)

I am a huge convert. I love the fact that it's there, it's consistently formatted and you won't get inundated with annoying ad banners.

Step 2 - Find Documentation on python.org

I should also point you to https://www.python.org/doc/versions/ here, because every version has its own set of documentation, and a link is provided.

Step 3 - Using the Python help() Function

Now for help that sits in Python, which is referenced right when you launch. Here is a trick, it can be accessed two ways.

Let's type help and notice how it refers to interactive help and object help?

paul@fullstack:~$ python3 Python 3.4.2 (default, Oct 8 2014, 10:45:20) [GCC 4.9.1] on linux Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information. >>> help Type help() for interactive help, or help(object) for help about object. >>>
Using Python interactive help

Let's try interactive help first.

>>> help() Welcome to Python 3.4's help utility! If this is your first time using Python, you should definitely check out the tutorial on the Internet at http://docs.python.org/3.4/tutorial/. Enter the name of any module, keyword, or topic to get help on writing Python programs and using Python modules. To quit this help utility and return to the interpreter, just type "quit". To get a list of available modules, keywords, symbols, or topics, type "modules", "keywords", "symbols", or "topics". Each module also comes with a one-line summary of what it does; to list the modules whose name or summary contain a given string such as "spam", type "modules spam". help> modules

You can read this later. It basically says that in interactive mode, identified when the command prompt changes here (to help>). You can type modules for a list of modules installed.

_random dummy_threading plistlib turtle _sha1 email poplib types _sha256 encodings posix unicodedata _sha512 enum posixpath unittest _sitebuiltins errno pprint urllib _socket faulthandler profile uu _sqlite3 fcntl pstats uuid _sre filecmp pty venv _ssl fileinput pwd warnings _stat fnmatch py_compile wave _string formatter pyclbr weakref _strptime fpectl pydoc webbrowser _struct fractions pydoc_data wsgiref _symtable tfplib pyexpat xdrlib _sysconfigdata funtools queue xml _sysconfigdata_m gc quopri xmlrpc _testbuffer genericpath random xxlimited _testcapi getopt re xxsubtype _testimportmultiple getpass readline zipfile _thread gettext reprlib zipimport _threading_local glob resource zlib _tracemalloc grp rlcompleter _warnings gzip runpy _weakref hashlib sched Enter any module name to get more help. Or, type "module spam" to search for modules whose name or summary contain the string "spam". help> random

Let's pick one, a random one and notice how it looks a lot like a Linux man page. That's comforting.

Help on module random: NAME random - Random variable generators. MODULE REFERENCE http://docs.python.org/3.4/library/random The following documentation is automatically generated from the Python source files. It may be incomplete, incorrect or include features that are considered implementation detail and may vary between Python implementations. When in doubt, consult the module reference at the location listed above. DESCRIPTION integers -------- uniform within range sequences --------- pick random element pick random sample generate random permutation distribution on the real line: ----------------------------- uniform :

Also, if you don't like lifting your hands off the keys, j scrolls down and k scrolls up like in other programs (ie. less and man).

Hit q to return to the help prompt.

Interactive help also said we could type "keywords", "symbols" or "topics".

help> keywords Here is a list of the Python keywords. Enter any keyword to get more help. False def if raise None del import return True elif in try and else is while as except lambda with assert finally nonlocal yield break for not class from or continue global pass

Pretty handy huh?

Type quit to quit, and help because we should cover object mode.

help> quit You are now leaving help and returning to the Python interpreter. If you want to ask for help on a particular object directly from the interpreter, you can type "help(object)". Executing "help('string')" has the same effect as typing a particular string at the help> prompt. >>>

Now we're at the Python interpreter. Notice the signature three greater than signs?

Using Python object help

Here we can access the same documentation we just accessed using help('keywords') inside single quotes.

>>> help('keywords') Here is a list of the Python keywords. Enter any keyword to get more help. False def if raise None del import return True elif in try and else is while as except lambda with assert finally nonlocal yield break for not class from or continue global pass

Or just input an object, like the function we used in the last tutorial, round.

>>> help(round) Help on built-in function round in module builtins: round(...) round(number[, ndigits]) -> number Round a number to a given precision in decimal digits (default 0 digits) This returns an int when called with one argument, otherwise the same type as the number. ndigits may be negative. (END)

Hit q and exit().

>>> exit() paul@fullstack:~$

Is this confusing? Yes, certainly. We started at the Linux command line, then inside a Python interpreter, and within that, interactive help and now we're back to Linux.

I suggest playing with it, get lost like we just did and find a path that works for you.

Step 4 - Find Python Help With pydoc

Let's move on to pydoc3, accessing it from Linux, but first with the -h option, giving a summary.

Using the pydoc -h summary
paul@fullstack:~$ pydoc3 -h pydoc - the Python documentation tool pydoc3 <name> ... Show text documentation on something. <name> may be the name of a Python keyword, topic, function, module, or package, or a dotted reference to a class or function within a module or module in a package. If <name> contains a '/', it is used as the path to a Python source file to document. If name is 'keywords', 'topics', or 'modules', a listing of these things is displayed. pydoc3 -k <keyword> Search for a keyword in the synopsis lines of all available modules. pydoc3 -p <port> Start an HTTP server on the given port on the local machine. Port number 0 can be used to get an arbitrary unused port. pydoc3 -b Start an HTTP server on an arbitrary unused port and open a Web browser to interactively browse documentation. The -p option can be used with the -b option to explicitly specify the server port. pydoc3 -w <name> ... Write out the HTML documentation for a module to a file in the current directory. If <name> contains a '/', it is treated as a filename; if it names a directory, documentation is written for all the contents. paul@fullstack:~$
Using man pydoc3

Also, the man page for more detail.

paul@fullstack:~$ man pydoc3
PYDOC3.4(1) General Commands Manual PYDOC3.4(1) NAME pydoc3.4 - the Python documentation tool SYNOPSIS pydoc3.4 name pydoc3.4 -k keyword pydoc3.4 -p port pydoc3.4 -g pydoc3.4 -w module [...] DESCRIPTION pydoc3.4 name Show text documentation on something. name may be the name of a Python keyword, topic, function, module, or package, or a dotted reference to a class or function within a module or module in a package. If name contains a '/', it is used as the path to a Python source file to document. If name is 'keywords', 'topics', or 'modules', a listing of these things is displayed. pydoc3.4 -k keyword Search for a keyword in the synopsis lines of all available mod ules. pydoc3.4 -p port Start an HTTP server on the given port on the local machine. pydoc3.4 -g Pop up a graphical interface for finding and serving documentation. pydoc3.4 -w name [...] Write out the HTML documentation for a module to a file in the current directory. If name contains a '/', it is treated as a filename; if it names a directory, documentation is written for all the contents. AUTHOR Moshe Zadka, based on "pydoc --help" PYDOC3.4(1) Manual page for pydoc3(1) line 1 (press h for help or q to quit)
Using pydoc3 without options or arguments

And pydoc3 is the same as pydoc3 -h.

paul@fullstack:~$ pydoc3 pydoc - the Python documentation tool pydoc3 <name> ... Show text documentation on something. <name> may be the name of a Python keyword, topic, function, module, or package, or a dotted reference to a class or function within a module or module in a package. If <name> contains a '/', it is used as the path to a Python source file to document. If name is 'keywords', 'topics', or 'modules', a listing of these things is displayed. pydoc3 -k <keyword> Search for a keyword in the synopsis lines of all available modules. pydoc3 -p <port> Start an HTTP server on the given port on the local machine. Port number 0 can be used to get an arbitrary unused port. pydoc3 -b Start an HTTP server on an arbitrary unused port and open a Web browser to interactively browse documentation. The -p option can be used with the -b option to explicitly specify the server port. pydoc3 -w <name> ... Write out the HTML documentation for a module to a file in the current directory. If <name> contains a '/', it is treated as a filename; if it names a directory, documentation is written for all the contents. paul@fullstack:~$

We will walk through all five here.

Using pydoc3 <name>

The first one, we could type pydoc3 and keywords, like earlier.

paul@fullstack:~$ pydoc3 keywords Here is a list of the Python keywords. Enter any keyword to get more help. False def if raise None del import return True elif in try and else is while as except lambda with assert finally nonlocal yield break for not class from or continue global pass
Using pydoc3 -k <keyword>

The second option -k is like -k in man pages, used to search names and description fields, so try pydoc3 -k html.

paul@fullstack:~$ pydoc3 -k html _markupbase - Shared support for scanning document type declarations in HTML and XHTML. html - General functions for HTML manipulation. html.entities - HTML character entity references. html.parser - A parser for HTML and XHTML. pydoc - Generate Python documentation in HTML or text for interactive use.
Using pydoc3 -p <port> and pydoc3 -b

The -p and -b options show web pages on your local GUI-based Linux, Mac or Windows computer. Recall I'm using the SSH protocol to view the server in this window, so I can't show you these.

Using pydoc3 -w <name>

The fifth option -w, is a bit out of our scope here in Python for Beginners, so we'll return to it later.

With it you can create documentation from what's called a (Python) docstring, which is like a comment.

The difference between pydoc and pydoc3

Oh and for the curious, pydoc without the 3 leads to (Python) version 2 docs.

paul@fullstack:~$ whatis pydoc pydoc3 pydoc (1) - the Python documentation tool pydoc3 (1) - the Python documentation tool

Step 5 - Next: Keywords in Python

I must say, I find it odd that other videos and books don't show beginners how to help themselves, but we have lofty goals here, and you won't make it unless you can find help quickly.

  • Client : HTML, CSS, JavaScript
  • Software : Python Scientific Stack
  • Data : PostgreSQL, MySQL
  • OS : Linux (command line), Debian

I hope this helped, and if it did, please subscribe and hang in there for the next tutorial on keywords.

Have a nice day.


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