Functions: Tiny Reusable Programs


In the last post, we used functions to do things for us. We used the print function to write things to the terminal, the int function to turn decimal numbers into integers (ie 5.6 was turned in to 5), and the abs function to remove the negative parts of a number (ie -3 was turned into 3).

So, what is a function?

A function is just a small program which can be reused many times. For example, some other programmer wrote code to print to the terminal. This other programmer was kind enough to give make it available for us to use in our code. Now we can write to terminal simply by utilizing the built in print function.

How to Use a Function

In Python, the way to run a function (also known as calling a function) is to write the name of the function, followed by parentheses.

Sometimes the function may need additional information in order to run. This data is provided to the function between the opening and closing parenthesis. The data can be any information (like a number or text). For instance, the abs function requires a number on which to perform the calculation. So, we call abs by writing abs(3.3) or abs(-5). The value is then used internally to the function, and (if appropriate) the result is sent back to us.

The information that is sent back to us is called the return value. For instance, we say that abs(-17) returns the value 17. We can use this return value inline or capture and store it in a variable, which we will discuss in the next lesson.

Built in Functions

Some functions in Python are built-in. These are available to us no matter what. Other functions are part of other libraries or modules; we need to add them into our programs before we can use them.

Later, you will learn how to make functions out of your own code. For now, we’ll take a quick look at some of the built-in functions in Python.

Function Example Return Explaination
min(arg1, arg2, ...) min(4, 5, 1, 34, 45) 1 The min function takes multiple numbers as arguments (as many numbers as you want) and returns the smallest (or minimum) number.
max(arg1, arg2, ...) max(5, 3, 23, 100, 12) 100 The max function takes multiple numbers as arguments and returns the largest (or maximum) number.
round(arg1) round(3.4)
The round function takes a decimal number and rounds up or down using the standard rules of rounding. If the decimal is at least one half then it rounds up; otherwise it rounds down.
open(arg1) open("my_grocery_list.txt") A file variable The open function takes a string of text which represents a file name (like “my_grocery_list.txt”) and tries to open the file so we can use it in Python. We’ll learn more about files in a later blog post.
print(arg1) print("Hello, world!") None The print function takes almost any kind of data as a parameter, and attempts to turn it into a string of text, which it then prints to the terminal.

You can find more built-in functions and their explanations in the Python 3 documentation.

Built-in Functions – Python 3 Documentation


You should be more familiar with what a function is and why it is useful. It allows a piece of code to be called and reused multiple times without the need to re-write or copy/paste. We also learned how to pass data to a function as arguments and how to get results back as return values.

Next time, we’ll learn about storing data in variables while your program is running.