I recently came across a weird discrepancy when trying to sort self-referential lists using `.sort()`

and `sorted()`

. I was hoping someone could shed some light on this. The code in question is the following:

```
lst = [1, 2, 3]
lst[0] = lst
lst[1] = lst
lst[2] = lst
print(lst)
print(sorted(lst))
lst.sort()
print(lst)
```

The above code produces the following output:

```
[[...], [...], [...]]
[[[...], [...], [...]], [[...], [...], [...]], [[...], [...], [...]]]
[[...], [...], [...]]
```

It's the output from `print(sorted(lst))`

that baffles me. Wonder if it is some form of recursion that's causing it?

·
Hanz Gallego

I'm going to call your list `x`

, because frankly `l`

looks too much like the number one and is throwing me off. So you've got a list `x`

which looks like this

```
[x, x, x]
```

Now, we do

```
print(x)
```

Python is smart enough to say "hey, look, this list contains itself recursively, let's not print it again inside of itself." All of the places `x`

appears in your list, we get `[...]`

```
[[...], [...], [...]]
```

Now consider

```
x.sort()
print(x)
```

We sort the list, which doesn't do much since every element is the same. However, crucially, it all happens *in-place*. The list started out looking like `[x, x, x]`

and will end looking like `[x, x, x]`

, where `x`

is our list. So the print looks the same.

```
[[...], [...], [...]]
```

Finally, your fun example.

```
sorted(x)
```

`sorted`

, unlike `list.sort`

, does *not* modify the list and instead produces a *new* list. Let's call this new list `y`

. In your `x.sort`

example, at the end, we have the *same* list `x`

that looks like `x = [x, x, x]`

. When we print the list, we *immediately* see the recursion and stop printing.

However, `sorted(x)`

produces a *new* list. The list will still look like `[x, x, x]`

, but it's *not* the list `x`

. It's a new list `y = [x, x, x]`

.

Now, we do

```
print(sorted(x))
```

Python sees a list of three elements: `[x, x, x]`

. We look at each of those elements. We're printing `y`

, so the fact that this list contains `x`

is *not* a recursion problem; it's a perfectly ordinary list that contains other lists. So we print `x`

inside of `y`

. Now, one more layer down, we look inside `x`

and see that it contains, lo and behold, `x`

again. That *is* a recursion problem, but it happened one step later, because we made a new list that, although it looks identical to the original, is distinct.

```
[[[...], [...], [...]], [[...], [...], [...]], [[...], [...], [...]]]
```

·
Hanz Gallego
Report

Maybe you thought after `lst[0] = lst`

that `lst`

would be `[[1,2,3],2,3]`

. If so, you'd be assuming ` = lst`

passes by value. But lists are passed by reference, so at that point `lst`

is `[lst,2,3]`

.

To pass by value, use `lst[0] = list(lst)`

etc. This time the right-hand side creates a new list, with the same value as before but a new reference, since in this context `list(lst)`

is syntactic sugar for `[v for v in lst]`

.

As @DeepSpace noted, this fact about `list`

also explains why `print(list(lst))`

is three times more verbose than `print(lst)`

; it prints `[v for v in lst]`

, which is just `[lst, lst, lst]`

.

·
Hanz Gallego
Report