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Chained Comparison Operators in Python

Published on 27th Apr 2021

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Python supports chaining of comparison operators, which means if we wanted to find out if b lies between a and c we can do a < b < c, making code super-intuitive. Python evaluates such expressions like how we do in mathematics. which means a < b < c is evaluated as (a < b) and (b < c). C language on the other hand, evaluates a < b < c as ((a < b) < c).

Depending on how we evaluate such expressions, the final evaluated changes. So, in python, if we evaluate -3 < -2 < -1, we get True and if evaluate 3 > 2 == 1 we get False.

>>> -3 < -2 < -1
>>> 3 > 2 == 1

But on the other hand, if we evaluate this very expression in C language the output is False.

#include <stdio.h>

int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {
    printf("%d\n", -3 < -2 < -1);
    printf("%d\n", 3 > 2 == 1);
    return 0;

$ gcc test.cpp
$ ./a.out

It does so because (-3 < -2) = True = 1 and 1 < -1 is False. Also, to get a better understanding of how such expressions evaluate, try playing around with different values and see if your predicted value matches the actual output.

This essay is going to be extra special; in this one, we find out

  • how Python evaluates chained comparison operators?
  • how Python implements short-circuiting?
  • how could you make Python-like evaluation a C-like evaluation? implying at the end of this essay we alter the CPython source code such that the expression -3 < -2 < -1 will evaluate to False.

I know this sounds tempting, so let's jump right into it.

Chaining comparison operators

Python has a plethora of comparison operators like <, >, <=, >=, ==, !=, in, and is. The output of the comparison operator is a boolean value - True or False. Python allows chaining of comparison operators which means, to check if b lies between a and c, we can simply do

>>> a < b < c

This is possible because internally Python evaluates this chained expression a < b < c as (a < b) and (b < c). To make this efficient, the sub-expression b is evaluated only once and the evaluation also follows short-circuit evaluation; which means, if (a < b) is evaluated as False then Python would not evaluate further sub-expressions - c and (b < c). Now that we have set the context, let's find out what happens under the hood.

Chaining under the hood

Disassembling the expression would give out the set of Python instructions that will be executed on the runtime's execution stack. If we disassemble a < b < c, we get the following set of instructions. By the way, this is a great way to jump into the internals of anything in Python.

>>> import dis
>>> dis.dis('a < b < c')

  1           0 LOAD_NAME                0 (a)
              2 LOAD_NAME                1 (b)
              4 DUP_TOP
              6 ROT_THREE
              8 COMPARE_OP               0 (<)
             10 JUMP_IF_FALSE_OR_POP    18
             12 LOAD_NAME                2 (c)
             14 COMPARE_OP               0 (<)
             16 RETURN_VALUE
        >>   18 ROT_TWO
             20 POP_TOP
             22 RETURN_VALUE

Here is the summary of what each of the above instructions does; having this understanding will help us understand the entire execution process.

  • LOAD_NAME: Loads the variable on the top of the stack
  • DUP_TOP: Duplicates the top of the stack
  • ROT_THREE: Rotates the top 3 elements of the stack by 1, such that the second element becomes the top, the third becomes the second while the top becomes the third.
  • COMPARE_OP: Pops the top two elements from the stack, compare them (depending on the operator), compute the output, and puts it on the top of the stack.
  • JUMP_IF_FALSE_OR_POP: Checks if the top of the stack is False if it is false then jumps to provided offset, and if it is True it pops the value.
  • RETURN_VALUE: Pops the top of the stack and returns it
  • ROT_TWO: Rotates the top two elements of the stack such that the top elements become the second, while the second becomes the top.
  • POP_TOP: Pops the top element from the stack, kind of discarding it.

You can find details about these opcodes in the file ceval.c. Now, let's do an instruction by instruction walkthrough for the expression 1 < 2 < 3 to see how it evaluates to True.

Evaluating 1 < 2 < 3

When we run disassembler on 1 < 2 < 3 we get a similar disassembled code. It starts with the loading of two constant values 1 and 2 on the stack. Then it duplicates the top which makes our stack 2, 2, 1. Now upon ROT_THREE the 2 on the top of the stack goes at the third spot while the other moves up one place. at this instruction, our stack looks like 2, 1, 2.

Now, the COMPARE_OP operation pops out two elements from the stack and performs the comparison. The first popped value becomes the right operand while the second popped becomes the left operand. Post comparison the evaluated value is put on top of the stack again. Since 1 < 2, the expression is evaluated as True and this True is put on to of the stack. So, after the COMPARE_OP instruction, the stack would look like True, 2.

Then comes the instruction JUMP_IF_FALSE_OR_POP which checks the top of the stack. Since the top of the stack is True (not False), it pops the value, making our stack 2. Now 3 is loaded onto the stack making our stack 3, 2.

Now COMPARE_OP pops out two elements, compares them, and since 2 < 3 it evaluates to True and this True is stacked on top. After this operation, the stack has just one element True.

The next instruction is RETURN_VALUE, which pops out the top of the stack i.e. True, and returns it; and this is how the expression 1 < 2 < 3 is evaluated to True.

Short-circuit Evaluation

A very interesting instruction is sitting right in the middle - JUMP_IF_FALSE_OR_POP. This instruction is the one that is doing short-circuiting. Once the runtime encounters this instruction it checks the top of the stack,

  • if top == False the flow jumps to the last few instructions, bypassing the loading and comparing other sub-expressions.
  • if top == True it does not jump, but rather continues its evaluation of the next instructions.

To get a better understanding, try doing an instruction by instruction walkthrough for the expression 6 > 7 > 8 and you will find out how it bypasses the evaluating next sub-expressions.

Now we know, why the official documentation says,

Comparisons can be chained arbitrarily, e.g., x < y <= z is equivalent to x < y and y <= z, except that y is evaluated only once (but in both cases z is not evaluated at all when x < y is found to be false).

How does it "and" sub-expressions?

We have established and also seen in action how Python evaluates chained comparison operators. We also understand that it evaluates 1 < 2 < 3 as (1 < 2) and (2 < 3) but exactly where is this very logic implemented? The magic happens with two instructions DUP_TOP and ROT_THREE.

So, if we keenly observe, to evaluate 1 < 2 < 3 as (1 < 2) and (2 < 3) we would need to repeat the middle operand and keep it ready as the first operand of the second comparison. Now, to "repeat" the middle operand, we call DUP_TOP.

Once the two operands are loaded on the stack we see that the right operand sits on the top and by invoking DUP_TOP we are copying the middle operand and putting it on the top of the stack. This copied top (middle operand) needs to be preserved to be used as the first operand in the next comparison, and to do this we call ROT_THREE that puts the stack top to the third from the top.

After the first comparison is evaluated the stack contains - the copied middle operand and on top of it the evaluated value. The evaluated value is discarded or returned depending on if it is True or False, keeping the copied middle operand on the stack, making it the first operand of the next comparison.

Make chain evaluation C-like

Now that we have understood how Chained Operators are evaluated and what how the evaluation is made "mathematics" like, let's manipulate the code to make the evaluation C-like; which means we have to evaluate operands left to right and use the evaluated value as the first operand for next comparison. To be honest, if you have understood the importance of DUP_TOP and ROT_THREE making evaluation C-like is fairly straightforward.

The code that generates instructions for comparison expressions is in file Python/compile.c. The snippet that interests us is the function compiler_compare which can be seen below

static int
compiler_compare(struct compiler *c, expr_ty e)
        for (i = 0; i < n; i++) {
            VISIT(c, expr,
                (expr_ty)asdl_seq_GET(e->v.Compare.comparators, i));
            ADDOP(c, DUP_TOP);
            ADDOP(c, ROT_THREE);
            ADDOP_COMPARE(c, asdl_seq_GET(e->v.Compare.ops, i));
            ADDOP_JUMP(c, JUMP_IF_FALSE_OR_POP, cleanup);
        ADDOP(c, ROT_TWO);
        ADDOP(c, POP_TOP);
    return 1;

To make the evaluation C-like we

  • should not copy the middle operand
  • ensure that the evaluated value (output from the first compare) remains on top - so that it becomes the first operand of the next expression

To achieve this, all we have to do is comment out 3 lines that do exactly that. Post changes the snippet would look something like this.

static int
compiler_compare(struct compiler *c, expr_ty e)
        for (i = 0; i < n; i++) {
            VISIT(c, expr,
                (expr_ty)asdl_seq_GET(e->v.Compare.comparators, i));

            // ADDOP(c, DUP_TOP);
            // ADDOP(c, ROT_THREE);

            ADDOP_COMPARE(c, asdl_seq_GET(e->v.Compare.ops, i));

            // ADDOP_JUMP(c, JUMP_IF_FALSE_OR_POP, cleanup);

        ADDOP(c, ROT_TWO);
        ADDOP(c, POP_TOP);
    return 1;

Recall that the expression -3 < -2 < -1 on a usual Python interpreter evaluates to True because -2 is between -3 and -1. But post these changes, if we build the binary and start the interpreter we would see the output of expression -3 < -2 < -1 as False, just like C; as it evaluated the expression from left to right and kept reusing the output of the previous comparison as the first operand of the next one.

Here is the disassembled code and an instruction by instruction execution post our changes.

The engine first evaluated -3 < -2, and put the result True on top of the stack and then loaded -1 to perform the comparison True < -1. Since True == 1 the expression True < -1 is evaluated as False and hence the output of the entire statement is False, just like in C. This also means that the expression 3 > 2 == 1 should evaluate to True and it actually does.


Here's the video explanation to this essay

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