4 Best Ways to Create a List of Permutations in Python

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πŸ’‘ Problem Formulation: Imagine you want to generate all possible arrangements of a sequence of items, such that each item is in a unique position in each arrangement. This is known as finding the permutations of the sequence.

For example, given the sequence [1, 2, 3], the desired output is a list of permutations like [(1, 2, 3), (1, 3, 2), (2, 1, 3), (2, 3, 1), (3, 1, 2), (3, 2, 1)].

This article will explore methods to achieve this in Python.

Method 1: Using itertools.permutations

The itertools module in Python provides a function permutations() which takes a sequence and returns an iterator over the permutations of the sequence. This method is simple and effective for generating permutations.

Here’s an example:

import itertools

items = [1, 2, 3]
permutations_list = list(itertools.permutations(items))
# [(1, 2, 3), (1, 3, 2), (2, 1, 3), (2, 3, 1), (3, 1, 2), (3, 2, 1)]

This code snippet imports the itertools module and uses its permutations function to create an iterator over all possible permutations of the list items. We then convert this iterator to a list to print out the permutations.

Method 2: Using Recursion

A recursive function can be designed to generate the permutations of a sequence. This involves swapping elements at each position with the rest and recursively calling the permutation function for the remaining part of the sequence.

Here’s an example:

def permute(sequence, start, end):
    if start == end:
        for i in range(start, end + 1):
            sequence[start], sequence[i] = sequence[i], sequence[start] # swap
            permute(sequence, start + 1, end)
            sequence[start], sequence[i] = sequence[i], sequence[start] # swap back

items = [1, 2, 3]
permute(items, 0, len(items) - 1)


[1, 2, 3]
[1, 3, 2]
[2, 1, 3]
[2, 3, 1]
[3, 2, 1]
[3, 1, 2]

In this code snippet, we define a function permute that takes the sequence and the starting and ending indices. It uses recursion to swap each element and generate permutations. It prints the permutations for each complete arrangement.

Method 3: Using Heap’s Algorithm

Heap’s Algorithm is a classic method for generating permutations that works by generating the permutations of n-1 elements of the sequence and then adding the nth element into every possible position.

Here’s an example:

def generate_permutations(n, sequence):
    if n == 1:
        for i in range(n-1):
            generate_permutations(n-1, sequence)
            if n % 2 == 0:
                sequence[i], sequence[n-1] = sequence[n-1], sequence[i]
                sequence[0], sequence[n-1] = sequence[n-1], sequence[0]
        generate_permutations(n-1, sequence)

items = [1, 2, 3]
generate_permutations(len(items), items)

The code snippet defines a recursive function generate_permutations that takes the size of the sequence and the sequence itself. It generates permutations by recursively swapping elements using Heap’s Algorithm and prints each permutation.

Method 4: Using the sympy library

The sympy library, typically known for symbolic mathematics, also includes a utilities module which can generate permutations. This is useful if you are already working within a sympy environment.

Here’s an example:

from sympy.utilities.iterables import multiset_permutations

items = [1, 2, 3]
permutations_list = list(multiset_permutations(items))

In this code snippet, we import the multiset_permutations function from the sympy utilities module. We then use this function to generate an iterable of permutations of the list items and convert it into a list.

πŸ‘‰ Symbolic Math with SymPy


  • Using itertools.permutations:
    • Strength: Incredibly simple and straightforward to use.
    • Weakness: Can consume a lot of memory with larger input sequences.
  • Using recursion:
    • Strength: Doesn’t require any additional modules.
    • Weakness: Can be less efficient and harder to understand for those not familiar with recursion.
  • Using Heap’s Algorithm:
    • Strength: More efficient than naive recursion.
    • Weakness: Algorithm could be non-intuitive for some users.
  • Using the sympy library:
    • Strength: Integrates well if already using sympy for other computations.
    • Weakness: Overhead of using a heavy library for a task achievable with standard libraries.

For quick and easy implementation, itertools.permutations is very handy. If learning or teaching recursion and backtracking algorithms, then methods 2 and 3 with recursion and Heap’s algorithm may be preferable.

When working in a scientific computing environment, sympy could be a natural choice.

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