Do union types actually exist in python?


Since python is dynamically typed, of course we can do something like this:

def f(x):
    return 2 if x else "s"

But is this the way python was actually intended to be used? Or in other words, do union types exist in the sense they do in Racket for example? Or do we only use them like this:

def f(x):
    if x:
        return "s"

where the only “union” we need is with None?

Asked By: Lana



Union typing is only needed when you have a statically typed language, as you need to declare that an object can return one of multiple types (in your case an int or str, or in the other example str or NoneType).

Python deals in objects only, so there is never a need to even consider ‘union types’. Python functions return what they return, if the programmer wants to return different types for different results then that’s their choice. The choice is then an architecture choice, and makes no difference to the Python interpreter (so there is nothing to ‘benchmark’ here).

Python 3.5 does introduce a standard for creating optional type hints, and that standard includes Union[...] and Optional[...] annotations. Type hinting adds optional static type checking outside of the runtime, the same way types in TypeScript are not part of the JavaScript runtime.

Answered By: Martijn Pieters

Adding to @MartijnPieters answer:

But is the way python was actually intended to be used?

Returning different type depending on the param is never a good practice in any language. This makes testing, maintaining and extending the code really difficult and IMHO is an anti-pattern (but of course sometimes necessary evil). The results should at least be related via having common interface.

The only reason union was introduced to C was due to performance gain. But in Python you don’t have this performance gain due to dynamic nature of the language (as Martijn noticed). Actually introducing union would lower performance since the size of union is always the size of the biggest member. Thus Python will never have C-like union.

Answered By: freakish

the type itself does not exist because Python is just a dynamically typed language, however, in newer Python versions, Union Type is an option for Type Hinting,

from typing import Union,TypeVar

T = TypeVar('T')
def f(x: T) -> Union[str, None]:
    if x:
        return "x"

you can use that to annotate your code, thus enabling IDE/Editor level syntax checking.

Answered By: Sajuuk

Here are a couple of options to deal with use-cases where you need a tagged union/sum type in Python:

  • Enum + Tuples

    from enum import Enum
    Token = Enum('Token', ['Number', 'Operator', 'Identifier', 'Space', 'Expression'])
    (Token.Number, 42)                            # int
    (Token.Operator, '+')                         # str
    (Token.Identifier, 'foo')                     # str
    (Token.Space, )                               # void
    (Token.Expression, ('lambda', 'x', 'x+x'))    # tuple[str]

    A slight variation on this uses a dedicated SumType class instead of a tuple:

    from dataclasses import dataclass
    from typing import Any
    class SumType:
        enum: Enum
        data: Any
    SumType(Token.Number, 42)
  • isinstance

    if isinstance(data, int):
    if isinstance(data, str):

    Or in combination with the "enum" idea from above:

    token = SumType(Token.Number, 42)
    if token.enum == Token.Number:
  • sumtypes module

These approaches all have their various drawbacks, of course.

Answered By: Mateen Ulhaq

One use case not addressed by previous answers is building a union type from pre-existing types, and having isinstance() consider that any instance of the pre-existing types are instances of the union type.

This is supported in Python through Abstract Base Classes. For example:

>>> import abc
>>> class IntOrString(abc.ABC): pass
>>> IntOrString.register(int)
<class 'int'>
>>> IntOrString.register(str)
<class 'str'>

Now int and str can be seen as subclasses of IntOrString:

>>> issubclass(int, IntOrString)
>>> isinstance(42, IntOrString)
>>> isinstance("answer", IntOrString)
Answered By: Yann Dirson

Note: As others mentioned, Python type hinting (by default) doesn’t have any impact on runtime behavior, and it’s used in static analysis and the like.

From Python 3.10 onwards, you can use | separator for union types. Taking the example from What’s New In Python 3.10:

def square(number: int | float) -> int | float:
    return number ** 2

# Instead of 
def square(number: Union[int, float]) -> Union[int, float]:
    return number ** 2

Also, if you are using Python 3.7+, you can have the feature by using the __future__ package, with some limitations, however:

from __future__ import annotations

# Works in Python 3.7+
def square(number: int | float) -> int | float:
    return number ** 2

# Works only in Python 3.10+
isinstance(3.10, int | float)
numeric = int | float

For more information, see Union Types documentation and PEP 604.

Answered By: MAChitgarha