Python documentation too difficult for beginners

Discussion in 'Python' started by jk, Nov 2, 2010.

  1. jk

    jk Guest


    I've been coding in PHP and Java for years, and their documentation is
    concise, well structured and easy to scan.

    Others have mentioned this apparently for years (see:

    Compare for instance the differences in ease of use, and speed of use,
    of these:

    The former is difficult to find (try searching for 'open' in the
    search box and see what you get). It is simply a collection of
    paragraphs without strong enough contrast to differentiate the
    different parts - parameters, parameter values, return types,
    exceptions and related functions. It is slow to read and doesn't allow
    easy visual scanning.

    The latter has clearly delineated, standardised content areas for each
    of these without excessive text. It uses tables which are easy to scan
    for possible opening modes and allows users to contribute their own

    Sadly, the use of restructured text by python doesn't allow a new
    document generator to be written - all existing documentation would
    need updating with docblocks or something similar.

    Has anyone else struggled while trying to learn the language? The
    whole documentation system seems geared towards people who already
    know what they're looking for and is close to useless for beginners.
    I'm not the only one who finds google an easier way to find
    documentation about python.

    Is there much chance that the Python maintainers will change their
    documentation system to make it more like Java or PHP? How would I go
    about trying to make that happen?
    jk, Nov 2, 2010
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  2. jk

    jk Guest

    This ( is what I'm talking

    Why aren't the official docs like this, and why has it taken me 2 days
    of searching? All this needs is a search engine behind it and it'd be
    jk, Nov 2, 2010
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  3. jk

    Tim Wintle Guest

    Because not everyone likes documentation like that. Personally I far
    prefer the existing documentation to the JavaDoc-style link you sent.
    Personally I use Google, e.g.


    to bring up documentation about the list type.
    Tim Wintle, Nov 2, 2010
  4. jk

    Tim Golden Guest

    I'm glad you find the epydoc format useful. And I'm glad that various
    people have taken the trouble to produce documentation for Python in
    various formats that suit them. But why do you imagine that the core
    Python documentation -- developed and maintained by a group of people
    who clearly have some idea what they're doing -- should change to a
    format which happens to suit you?

    The Python documentation source and the source code of Python itself
    are all freely available. Any initiative by you or by others to
    produce alternative, possibly searchable and commentable, versions of
    them would I'm sure be welcomed by many. But not everyone finds, eg,
    the PHP style of user annotation helpful. Not everyone likes epydoc
    output: I don't myself.

    In short, please feel free to contribute directly to the core
    documentation effort, or to produce alternatives yourself and to
    advertise them here or elsewhere within the Python community. But
    please don't come along and say "Why aren't the Python docs like
    <this other thing> which happens to suit me better?"

    Tim Golden, Nov 2, 2010
  5. On 11/02/10 10:42, jk wrote:
    I am by no means an authority however since you ask it here I feel
    compelled to give you my opinion :)

    In general I would think that more documentation is always welcome, if
    you feel like you can make a contribution, excellent, please do!

    However, I found that the documentation available was enough for me, and
    I didn't even have to go to the googles for that.

    Typing help(thing_i_want_info_of) in the interpreter gives me precise
    consistent information for what I need to do with whatever it is I am
    doing and yes that is largely a replication of what is mentioned on the
    site itself (well more the other way around actually).

    In the odd cases this doesn't help me, I google for examples.
    If that doesn't help I look at the modules __file__ and open that module
    to read the source.

    And when I started 10 odd years ago with Python it was my first language
    with no prior confusion of other languages, since then I extended my
    knowledge with C and assembler but on a day to day basis I still use Python.
    Martin P. Hellwig, Nov 2, 2010
  6. Antoine Pitrou, Nov 2, 2010
  7. jk

    jk Guest

    It's not just me who's found the current documentation frustrating.
    And sure, the developers know how to code, but they probably can't see
    the project with the eyes of a beginner any more.

    Making a change to how code is documented to allow more javadoc-style
    documentation to be produced could help people migrate from a java
    background and ease the learning curve for them, leading to wider
    adoption of the language. It wouldn't necessarily mean that the
    current documentation style would need to change either.
    I may well do that.

    @Tim Wintle
    Surely you shouldn't have to go to google though? Or the interpreter?
    Maybe it's just what you're used to, but I'd expect the language's web
    site to provide enough of a reference in itself, while using google
    for examples.
    jk, Nov 2, 2010
  8. Well, that's one opinion.

    A fair point -- the built-in open comes up as hit #30, whereas searching
    for open in the PHP page brings up fopen as hit #1. But the PHP search
    also brings up many, many hits -- ten pages worth.

    But in any case, the Python search functionality could be smarter. If I
    had a complaint about the docs, that would be it. Fortunately, I have
    google :)

    It's *nine* paragraphs, three of which are one-liners, the longest of
    which is eight lines. If you have trouble reading that, well, you have a
    problem. The PHP docs for fopen are FIFTY-EIGHT paragraphs.

    Okay, okay, I was unfair. I counted section headings as separate
    paragraphs. A more reasonable count is... twenty-six paragraphs, tables,
    sections and subsections. Plus *dozens* of user-contributed recipes, bug
    reports, tricks, tips and comments. And you call this concise???

    Reading the docs, I'd say that PHP needs all this extra documentation
    because it's so much more complicated. fopen has all this implicit magic
    behaviour that needs documenting -- it will try to guess a scheme from
    the file name, if it can't guess the scheme it will guess that it's a
    local file, and the behaviour depends on various globals. In comparison,
    Python's open is very simple: it only opens files. No wonder Python's
    docs are simpler.

    The PHP docs felt it necessary to give a warning *three times*, one after
    the other, about using binary mode when opening files. Apparently once
    was not enough.

    The Description subsection of the PHP fopen doc says:

    fopen() binds a named resource, specified by filename, to a stream.

    What's a stream? So I read, and read, and read, and eventually, almost at
    the bottom of the official docs, I find the section "Return Values":

    Returns a file pointer resource on success, or FALSE on error.

    Great! Now, what's a file pointer resource, and how does it differ from a
    stream? No idea.

    Contrast that with the Python docs. In the *very first sentence*, it says:

    Open a file, returning an object of the file type described in
    section File Objects.

    with both "file" and "File Objects" being hyperlinks to the appropriate
    part of the docs. I think I'll stick with the Python style, thank you
    very much.

    There has been discussion on python-dev about user contributed examples.
    The pros are that users can add tricks and tips. The cons are that,
    without constant attention, the user-contributed content will grow old
    and stale, or worse, be filled with nonsense.

    However, there is a Python wiki. It doesn't get anywhere near as much
    love as it deserves, and (I think) the consensus was that the official
    Python docs should stay official, but link to the wiki for user-
    contributed content. This hasn't happened yet.

    Why do you think this is a bad thing? The Python docs are the reference
    manual, not a tutorial. Quite frankly, if I were a PHP developer, I'd be
    pretty annoyed at having to read this in the docs for fopen:

    If you use the wrong line ending characters when writing your
    files, you might find that other applications that open those
    files will "look funny".

    Gosh, really? Thanks for the tip, Captain Obvious.

    It's always difficult to know how much information is too much. The PHP
    docs seem to take an "everything including the kitchen sink" approach.
    Given that approach, it makes sense to divide everything into
    subsections, one page per function. But with Python's minimalist
    approach, it would just be annoying. Compare the four lines of:

    with this re-write in the PHP fashion:

    (Python 1.x, Python 2.x, Python 3.x)

    id -- id of an object



    id returns the numeric "identity" of an object, which is guaranteed to be
    unique and constant for this object during its lifetime.

    Note: two objects with non-overlapping lifetimes may have the same id()

    Note: CPython implementation detail: This is the address of the object.


    * object

    Any object.

    Note: all data in Python are objects, even ints and strings.

    Note: there are no undefined objects in Python. If you call
    id(variable) on an unbound variable name, Python will raise an

    Return values

    Returns an integer or long integer object representing the ID of the


    If the argument to id() is a named variable rather than a literal, and
    that name is not bound to any object, then a NameError will be raised.
    Otherwise every call to id() must succeed.

    Note: if the call to id() is inside a function, the exception may be a
    subclass of NameError such as UnboundLocalError.

    Note: literals are not guaranteed to always refer to the same object.


    0.9 First version added (I think).


    id(['key'].method(arg1, arg2).seq[2])


    If you're still reading, I admire your persistence.

    See also

    Python's object model

    Unlikely. You could raise the issue on the python-dev list, or see if
    there is a SIG mailing list specifically for the docs.

    Frankly, I think that the best thing you could do is start a fork of the
    docs and see if you get any interest from people. If you do, then you can
    go back to python-dev with proof that there is a genuine popular desire
    for more structured, PHP-style documentation.
    Steven D'Aprano, Nov 2, 2010
  9. jk

    jk Guest

    You're right in that the python docs in this case are less lines, but
    that's one of the problems. It doesn't mention anywhere the extra
    detail you've added regarding exceptions thrown. That's the kind of
    thing that probably comes through experience or some kind of
    convention which isn't obvious to beginners. Having things split into
    sections - parameters, return types, exceptions, etc - lets me find
    what I'm looking for quickly.

    As for the 9 paragraphs statement, there's a usability book that
    applies here - it's called "Don't make me think". I shouldn't have to
    go through freeform text to find what I'm looking for when a list
    would make that information easier to find. And splitting the docs
    into sections would allow me to skip to what I'm looking for. I really
    would be much happier with your example documentation.

    I think the key difference is that I don't want to have to *read* the
    python docs - I want to be able to scan for what I'm looking for and
    find it easily. That makes me productive.
    jk, Nov 2, 2010
  10. jk

    Paul Rudin Guest

    OTOH googling for "python open" gives you the correct (for 2.7) page as
    hit #1 - although you then have to use your browser's "find" facilty to
    actually get to the description of the function in question.
    Paul Rudin, Nov 2, 2010
  11. jk a écrit :
    Totally unrelated, but the last example is nothing but a reference -
    xahlee is one of the worst internet troll ever.

    Sorry but as far as I'm concerned, PHP doc sucks big time, and I find
    Javadoc-style stuff close to useless.

    Not as far as I'm concerned. I found Python the easiest language to
    learn right from the beginning. Not to say the doc couldn't be improved,
    or that alternate documentations could help, but I never had any problem
    with it.
    Bruno Desthuilliers, Nov 2, 2010
  12. jk

    Terry Reedy Guest

    duh. 'open' is a common word and if you make an unstructured search for
    it in all text, you should get a lot of hits.

    The Python docs have both a Global Module Index (which I use constantly)
    and a General Index of functions (methods), classes, and terms. Learn to
    use them. If you look in the [o] section for 'open', the first entry is
    "open() (built-in function)" -- just what you were looking for. There
    are also about 30 more nicely labelled entries for 'open' in various
    It is possible that this particular entry could be improved.
    There are plans to make doc feedback from users easier.
    Terry Reedy, Nov 2, 2010
  13. jk

    Tim Harig Guest

    Anything that promotes a lack of thinking sends up red flags in my head.
    We want to recruit smart people who think, not idiots.
    ctrl-f will bring up a search dialog in most graphical browsers. '/' will
    in many others. With some practice, your fingers will be able to find
    something far faster then your eyes can see it happen.

    There is a religious war in the GNU community between info page as
    documentation versus the traditional manual format. The manual format
    contains all of the information on one page that can be easily searched
    whereas the info pages are split into sections that must be viewed
    individually. With the man pages, you can almost always find what you want
    with a quick search through the document. Info pages are much harder to
    use because you have to try and figure out which section the author decided
    to place the information that you are looking for. The information may be
    stored several levels deep, which means that it can be a deep productivity
    hit if you don't guess the proper location on the first try.
    The real question is what do you want to gain by your posts here. You
    should already know that most groups are, by their very nature, slow to
    make changes to the status quo. The problem tends to be exasperated in
    open source projects where any changes mean that people have to donate
    their time to make anything happen. You will in general find two things to
    be true:

    1. Since they are dontating their time, you will find that people tend to
    scratch their own iches first.

    2. People who do take the time to contribute to open source projects are
    people of action. They don't tend to be appreciative of those who
    constantly generate feature requests but have no inclination to do
    any of the work themselves. They do appreciate other people of
    action who are interested in making the project better.

    Therefore, if you truly want changes in the documentation, I suggest that,
    rather then whining to the group, you make some of the changes yourself.
    When you are finished, you can post a link to your alternate documentation
    to this group. If you documentation is truly better then the existing
    documentation, you will not have to say another word. People within the
    community will rally around it and promote it. If it gains wide enough
    support, then there will be a movement to use it to supplant the existing
    documentation. It is the difference between whining from the sidelines and
    actively participating in the game.
    Tim Harig, Nov 2, 2010
  14. jk

    Ian Guest

    It doesn't mention it because those exceptions don't actually have
    anything to do with the id() function. They're just what happens any
    time an unbound variable name is evaluated, in any context. The exact
    same thing could be said about any Python function in existence that
    takes at least one argument.

    Ian, Nov 2, 2010
  15. jk

    Kee Nethery Guest

    In this world of moderated wikis one would think that noobs such as myself could enhance the docs when we find something confusing in the docs. <insert snarky comment here>

    Kee Nethery, Nov 2, 2010
  16. There is also the problem that people are less familiar with info
    browsers than the usual "less" pager which is used by "man" command.

    With the text terminal info browser called "info" as well as Emacs' info
    browser you can use command "s" (stands for "search"). It prompts for a
    regexp pattern to search in the whole document, including subsections
    Teemu Likonen, Nov 2, 2010
  17. jk

    John Nagle Guest

    Right. Google does a far better job of organizing Python's
    documentation than the Python community does. I don't even try
    looking up anything starting at; I always start
    with a Google search. Even though's search is
    powered by Google, it's inferior to a general search.


    John Nagle
    John Nagle, Nov 2, 2010
  18. jk

    Tim Harig Guest

    I thoroughly agree. The default info viewers are quite possibly the most
    counterintuitive programs I have ever encountered. I never did bother to
    learn how to use them. I instead installed the more intuitive pinfo
    Right, pinfo offers this as well; but, then you have to figure out where in
    the nodes that the search has taken you and how to navigate from that node
    to find additional information that you may need. I have, in general, come
    to think of info pages as a failed experiment and I know very few people
    who actually prefer them over the simpler man pages.
    Tim Harig, Nov 2, 2010
  19. jk

    Tim Harig Guest

    I should add two more things here:

    1. Another confusing aspect of the info pages is that you often have to
    know what package a command came from or you don't get the
    information that you are looking for.

    2. Series of man pages can be used in a way that seem like they have a
    structure as they can effectively link to other pages. If I open
    one of the ncurses man pages in pinfo, I can follow what seem like
    links to other man pages. I can open the main curses page and I
    effectively get an index to all of the other curses functions.
    Tim Harig, Nov 2, 2010

  20. Even better:


    John McMonagle
    John McMonagle, Nov 2, 2010
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