Making Enums (as always, arguably) more Pythonic

by Harry, 2020-10-27

OK this isn’t really anything to do with software architecture, but:

I hate enums!

I thought to myself, again and again, when having to deal with them recently.


class BRAIN(Enum):
    SMALL = 'small'
    MEDIUM = 'medium'
    GALAXY = 'galaxy'

What could be wrong with that, I hear you ask? Well, accuse me of wanting to stringly type everything if you will, but: those enums may look like strings but they aren’t!

assert BRAIN.SMALL == 'small'
# nope, <BRAIN.SMALL: 'small'> != 'small'

assert str(BRAIN.SMALL) == 'small'
# nope, 'BRAIN.SMALL' != 'small'

assert BRAIN.SMALL.value == 'small'
# finally, yes.

I imagine some people think this is a feature rather than a bug? But for me it’s an endless source of annoyance. They look like strings! I defined them as strings! Why don’t they behave like strings arg!

Just one common motivating example: often what you want to do with those enums is dump them into a database column somewhere. This not-quite-a-string behaviour will cause your ORM or db-api library to complain like mad, and no end of footguns and headscratching when writing tests, custom SQL, and so on. At this point I’m wanting to throw them out and just use normal constants!

But, one of the nice promises from Python’s enum module is that it’s iterable. So it’s easy not just to refer to one constant, but also to refer to the list of all allowed constants. Maybe that’s enough to want to rescue it?

But, again, it doesn’t quite work the way you might want it to:

assert list(BRAIN) == ['small', 'medium', 'galaxy']  # nope
assert [thing for thing in BRAIN] == ['small', 'medium', 'galaxy']  # nope
assert [thing.value for thing in BRAIN] == ['small', 'medium', 'galaxy']  # yes

Here’s a truly wtf one:

assert random.choice(BRAIN) in ['small', 'medium', 'galaxy']
# Raises an Exception!!!

  File "/usr/local/lib/python3.9/", line 346, in choice
    return seq[self._randbelow(len(seq))]
  File "/usr/local/lib/python3.9/", line 355, in __getitem__
    return cls._member_map_[name]
KeyError: 2

I have no idea what’s going on there. What we actually wanted was

assert random.choice(list(BRAIN)) in ['small', 'medium', 'galaxy']
# which is still not true, but at least it doesn't raise an exception

Now the standard library does provide a solution if you want to duck-type your enums to integers, IntEnum

class IBRAIN(IntEnum):
    SMALL = 1
    MEDIUM = 2
    GALAXY = 3

assert IBRAIN.SMALL == 1
assert int(IBRAIN.SMALL) == 1
assert IBRAIN.SMALL.value == 1
assert [thing for thing in IBRAIN] == [1, 2, 3]
assert list(IBRAIN) == [1, 2, 3]
assert [thing.value for thing in IBRAIN] == [1, 2, 3]
assert random.choice(IBRAIN) in [1, 2, 3]  # this still errors but:
assert random.choice(list(IBRAIN)) in [1, 2, 3]  # this is ok

That’s all fine and good, but I don’t want to use integers. I want to use strings, because then when I look in my database, or in printouts, or wherever, the values will make sense.

Well, the docs say you can just subclass str and make your own StringEnum that will work just like IntEnum. But it’s LIES:

class BRAIN(str, Enum):
    SMALL = 'small'
    MEDIUM = 'medium'
    GALAXY = 'galaxy'

assert BRAIN.SMALL.value == 'small'  # ok, as before
assert BRAIN.SMALL == 'small'  # yep
assert list(BRAIN) == ['small', 'medium', 'galaxy']  # hooray!
assert [thing for thing in BRAIN] == ['small', 'medium', 'galaxy']  # hooray!
random.choice(BRAIN)  # this still errors but ok i'm getting over it.

# but:
assert str(BRAIN.SMALL) == 'small'   #NOO!O!O!  'BRAIN.SMALL' != 'small'
# so, while BRAIN.SMALL == 'small', str(BRAIN.SMALL)  != 'small' aaaargh

So here’s what I ended up with:

class BRAIN(str, Enum):
    SMALL = 'small'
    MEDIUM = 'medium'
    GALAXY = 'galaxy'

    def __str__(self) -> str:
        return str.__str__(self)
  • this basically avoids the need to use .value anywhere at all in your code
  • enum values duck type to strings in the ways you’d expect
  • you can iterate over brain and get string-likes out
  • altho random.choice() is still broken, i leave that as an exercise for the reader
  • and type hints still work!
# both of these type check ok
foo = BRAIN.SMALL  # type: str
bar = BRAIN.SMALL  # type: BRAIN

Example code is in a Gist if you want to play around. Let me know if you find anything better!