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Learn Enough Python To Be Useful: argparse

Posted-on January 2020 By Jeff Hale

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​If you plan to be a software developer with Python, you’ll want to be able to use argparse for your scripting needs. If you’re a data scientist, you’ll likely find yourself needing to port your code from a Jupyter Notebook to a reproducible script. For many newer data scientists this can be a step from a comfortable, happy place into scary land. This guide, written by Jeff Hale, is designed to make the leap less scary.

'argparse is the “recommended command-line parsing module in the Python standard library.” It’s what you use to get command line arguments into your program.

I couldn’t find a good intro guide for argparse when I needed one, so I wrote this article. Enjoy!

Beyond the Jupyter Notebook

The first time I saw argparse in a Python script for a side project I thought, “What is this voodo magic?” And quickly moved the code into a Jupyter Notebook. This move turned out to be suboptimal.

I wanted to be able to run a script rather than have to step through a Jupyter Notebook. A script with argparse would have been much simpler to use and much less work. Unfortunately, I was in a hurry and didn’t find the docs easy to grasp.

Since then, I’ve come to understand and enjoy argparse. It’s indispensable.

Here’s what you need to know.

Why Use argparse?

argparse — parse the arguments.

Using argparse is how you let the user of your program provide values for variables at runtime. It’s a means of communication between the writer of a program and the user. That user might be your future self.

Using argparse means the doesn’t need to go into the code and make changes to the script. Giving the user the ability to enter command line arguments provides flexibility.


Say you have a directory with videos in it and want to turn those videos into images using the OpenCV library. You could use argparse so the user can enter input and output directories. Here’s what the argparse section of your file looks like:

This file imports the argparse library. Then it makes a parser object with a description. Then the variable indir is created using parser.add_argument(). The type of the variable is set to string and a help message is provided. Then the same is done for outdir. Next the args variable is set to the values of the parsed arguments.

Now the following command can be run from the command line:

python /videos /images

Note that quotes do not need to be placed around the values /videos and /images when you pass them.

"/videos" becomes the value for args.indir and "/images" becomes the value for args.outdir.

The output printed to the terminal is /videos.

We just showed that you can use the args.indir variable anywhere in your program. How cool is that?

You’ve now seen the magic of argparse!

What Else Should You Know About argparse?

Positional Arguments

parser.add_argument('indir', type=str, help='Input dir for videos') created a positional argument. For positional arguments to a Python function, the order matters. The first value passed from the command line becomes the first positional argument. The second value passed becomes the second positional argument.

What happens if you exclude these positional arguments and try to run python

You’ll get an error: error: the following arguments are required: indir, outdir. Positional arguments are always required to be passed in the command to run the script.

Optional Arguments

What happens if you run python --help?

You get the helpful information we put into our script to tell you what you need to do.

Excellent! help is an example of an optional argument. Note that --help is the only optional argument you get for free, but you can make more.

Optional arguments are created just like positional arguments except that they have a '--' double dash at the start of their name (or a'-' single dash and one additional character for the short version). For example, you can create an optional argument with parser.add_argument('-m', '--my_optional').

The following larger example shows how to create and reference an optional argument. Note that we specify the type int for an integer in this example. You could also specify other valid Python variable types.

Note that the argument specified with '--my_optional' becomes this namespaced variable without the dashes: 'my_namespace.my_optional'.

Also note that the optional argument can have a default value. Here we specify a default of 2. Running python outputs 2.

The optional argument value can be set at run time from the command line like this: python The program then outputs 3.

You can do even more with argparse. For example, you can have arguments gathered into lists with nargs='*’. You can also check for ranges of values with choices. See the argparse docs for all you can do.

When Else Might I Use argparse?

You can also use argparse with programs running in Docker containers. If you want to pass command line arguments to your scripts when building your image you can do so with RUN. If you want to pass arguments to your script at run time you can do so with CMD or ENTRYPOINT.


Now you’ve seen the basics of argparse. You’ve seen how to get positional and optional arguments into your programs from the command line. You’ve also seen how to set default optional arguments. If you want to go deeper, check out the official docs.

I should mention that there are a number of packages available to add command line arguments to your program. Readers have suggested several in the comments, the most popular of which I’ve linked to here:

This article was written by Jeff Hale and published on


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