Python tricks: dictionary, setdefault, and addict

This post was written by guest blogger Kevin "@bfist" Thompson who is too lazy to start his own blog and just camps out on others like a homeless bass player crashing on friend’s couches. Second in an occasional series.

One of the cooler things I get to tell people is that I’m one of the people behind the VERIS Framework and the VERIS Community Database. [Ed.: NERD!] VERIS is a schema for describing information security incidents that affect an organization and incidents are represented as JSON objects. This means that I spent a lot of time in Python manipulating dictionaries. I’ve picked up a couple of methods that are pretty helpful.


This was my favorite method in all of Python for quite a while. This is what you use when you need to lookup a key from a dictionary but you’re not positive that the key is actually there. So if you find yourself checking to see if a key is present and then using the key, you can replace a lot of that by using dict.get().

myDict = {'fname':'Kevin'}
if 'lname' in myDict:
  print("My last name is {}".format(myDict['lname']))
  print("My last name is undefined")

Can be replaced with this code:

myDict = {'fname':'Kevin'}
print("My last name is {}".format(myDict.get('lname','undefined')))


We use dict.get() to gracefully access keys that don’t exist. Another use case that comes up a lot is adding a key if it isn’t present. dict.setdefault() can really reduce the amount of code that you have to write if you need to add keys on the fly. The method will return a default value the same way that dict.get() does but also adds the default value to the dictionary if it was missing.

myDict = {'fname':'Kevin'}
print("My first name is {}".format(myDict.setdefault('fname','Kevin')))
print("My last name is {}".format(myDict.setdefault('lname','Thompson')))
print(myDict) # {'lname': 'Thompson', 'fname': 'Kevin'}

What about defaultdict?

The collections library in python gives us defaultdict which does something pretty similar to what we have done above. With defaultdict we create a dictionary and define a default container that will apply to every missing key. So if you want to create a dictionary that will hold other dictionaries, you can do something like this:

from collections import defaultdict
myDict = defaultdict(dict())
myDict['home']['state'] = "MN"
  # {'home': {'state': 'MN'}}

This can make your code more concise if you’re only going to be adding the same kind of container as subkeys in a dictionary. dict.setdefault() shines when you need to create deeply-nested dictionaries or dictionaries that might not all have the same type. You see, you can’t create a defaultdict of defaultdicts.

>>> myDict = defaultdict(defaultdict(dict))
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: first argument must be callable

With dict.setdefault(), I can do something like this to put a value deep into a dictionary even if I haven’t created all the keys yet.

incident = {}
incident.setdefault('action', {}).setdefault('hacking', {}).setdefault('variety', []).append("Brute force")
  # {'action': {'hacking': {'variety': ['Brute force']}}}

This really changed my old way of doing it:

incident = {}
if 'action' not in incident:
  incident['action'] = {}
if 'hacking' not in incident['action']:
  incident['action']['hacking'] = {}
if 'variety' not in incident['action']['hacking']:
  incident['action']['hacking']['variety'] = []
incident['action']['hacking']['variety'].append("Brute force")


If you get irritated from typing those brackets all the time and you really wish you had a defaultdict of defaultdicts of yet more defaultdicts (defaultdicts all the way down), then you should try out addict.

addict lets you access keys in a dictionary by using the dot notation used in Javascript which is a whole lot faster to type.

When you define a Dict object (notice the capitalization) you get an object that is defaultdict all the way down. So I can really tighten up the code for deeply nested objects by combining addict with setdefault.

from addict import Dict
incident = Dict()
incident.action.hacking.setdefault('variety', []).append("Brute force")


So to sum up: use dict.get() when you want to safely reference a key that might not exist and you don’t want to change the dictionary. Use dict.setdefault() when you want to safely reference a key and you DO want to change the dictionary, and use addict when you want to make a defaultdict of defaultdicts all the way down. Working with dictionaries can be a trying experience, especially for people that are new to programming. Study these tricks and you can make your code more readable and maybe even learn to love dictionaries.