5 Best Ways to Unpack Using Star Expression in Python

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πŸ’‘ Problem Formulation: In Python, unpacking using star expressions allows for an efficient way to assign values from a list, tuple, or any iterable to variables. You might have a list values = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] and want to separate the first item, middle items, and the last item into separate variables. The expected output would be first = 1, middle = [2, 3, 4], and last = 5.

Method 1: Basic Unpacking with Star Expression

Python’s star expression, *, allows for the capture of multiple elements from an iterable into a single variable. This method is ideal for scenarios where the number of elements to be unpacked is not fixed.

Here’s an example:

values = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]
first, *middle, last = values

The output will be:

first = 1
middle = [2, 3, 4]
last = 5

In this code snippet, the star expression *middle captures all elements between the first and last items from the list values. The variables first and last are assigned the first and last items respectively.

Method 2: Unpacking Nested Iterables

When working with nested iterables, the star expression helps to unpack nested structures. It can be combined with other unpacking techniques to flatten or access nested data.

Here’s an example:

record = ('Dave', 'dave@example.com', ('Programming', 'Author'))
name, email, (*categories,) = record

The output will be:

name = 'Dave'
email = 'dave@example.com'
categories = ['Programming', 'Author']

The code snippet above demonstrates how a tuple within a tuple can be unpacked. The (*categories,) part unpacks the inner tuple into a list, assigning it to the variable categories, while the remaining elements are assigned to name and email.

Method 3: Unpacking for Function Arguments

Star expressions can also unpack arguments for function calls. This is useful when you have a list or tuple of arguments that you wish to pass to a function directly without specifying each argument individually.

Here’s an example:

def greet(name, greeting):
    print(f"{greeting}, {name}!")

args = ['John', 'Hello']

The output will be:

Hello, John!

This method demonstrates how the *args in the function call unpacks the list contents and passes them as separate arguments to the greet function.

Method 4: Unpacking for Looping

Unpacking with star expressions is also a handy tool for iterating over complex structures where parts of each item in the iterable may be irrelevant.

Here’s an example:

people = [('Alice', 'Engineer', 'London'), ('Bob', 'Artist', 'Paris')]
for name, *_ in people:

The output will be:


Here, the loop unpacks each element in the people list. Using *_ tells Python to assign the rest of the elements to a name we don’t care about (by convention, _).

Bonus One-Liner Method 5: Inline Unpacking for List Comprehension

Unpacking can be artfully combined with list comprehensions to perform advanced transformations in a single line of code.

Here’s an example:

matrix = [[1, 2], [3, 4], [5, 6]]
flattened = [value for row in matrix for value in row]

The output will be:

flattened = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

This one-liner iterates through each row in the matrix list, unpacks each row, and then iterates through each item in the row to create a flattened list.


  • Method 1: Basic Unpacking. Strengths: Straightforward and concise for lists with unknown lengths. Weaknesses: Not suitable for unpacking from non-iterables.
  • Method 2: Nested Iterables Unpacking. Strengths: Capable of dealing with complex data structures. Weaknesses: May require additional unpacking when dealing with deeper nesting.
  • Method 3: Function Arguments Unpacking. Strengths: Simplifies passing multiple arguments. Weaknesses: Requires that the arguments are already organized in an iterable in the correct order.
  • Method 4: Looping. Strengths: Useful for ignoring unnecessary elements during iteration. Weaknesses: Can lead to unclear code if not documented well due to the use of _.
  • Method 5: Inline List Comprehension. Strengths: Extremely concise for flattening lists. Weaknesses: Can become difficult to read if abused.