What Is a Parameter vs. an Argument in Programming

Welcome to an exploration into the cornerstones of programming: parameters and arguments. This tutorial will delve into these concepts that are fundamental to any programming language, including Python. Understanding the distinction between the two and their applications is an essential stepping stone for programmers at any level. Whether you’re just starting your programming adventure or seeking to solidify your understanding, this tutorial promises to shed light on these concepts in a manner that’s digestible, informative, and, dare we say, fun!

What Are Parameters and Arguments?

Parameters and arguments are the lifeblood of functions in programming. They are key to making our code dynamic and reusable by allowing our functions to work on different inputs or ‘data’. But what distinguishes one from the other, and why are both concepts so frequently misunderstood?

A parameter is a variable listed as part of a function’s definition, and an argument is the actual value passed to the function when it is called. Think of it as a play: parameters are the roles yet to be cast, and arguments are the actors breathing life into the roles.

What Are They For?

Without parameters and arguments, every function would be a one-act play capable of a single, unchangeable performance. Instead, we use these concepts to script functions capable of diverse and dynamic behaviors. They allow our functions to be flexible and adaptable, accepting different values to perform varied tasks with a simple function call.

Why Should I Learn About Them?

Grasping the intricacies of parameters and arguments can empower you to write functions that are both powerful and efficient. This understanding will allow you to:

– Create more versatile and dynamic code structures.
– Improve code readability and maintainability.
– Gain a deeper comprehension of how other people’s code functions.
– Optimize your problem-solving skills for a wide range of programming challenges.

From game development to data analysis, mastering parameters and arguments is a valuable skill in any programmer’s toolkit. Let’s embark on this journey of discovery and see just how impactful these elements can be in the art of coding.

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Python Function Parameters

In Python, when we define a function, we specify parameters in the function header. These parameters are placeholders for the arguments that will be passed to the function when it’s called. Here’s a very basic example of a function with parameters:

def greet(name):
    print(f'Hello, {name}!')


In this snippet, name is a parameter of the function greet(). When we call greet('Alice'), the argument ‘Alice’ is passed to the function.

Now, let’s increase the complexity a bit and use more than one parameter:

def add_numbers(num1, num2):
    result = num1 + num2
    print(f'The sum is {result}')

add_numbers(5, 3)

We defined a function add_numbers with two parameters, num1 and num2, added them together, and printed the sum. When calling add_numbers(5, 3), 5 and 3 are the arguments passed.

Passing Arguments to Python Functions

Arguments can be passed to functions in different ways. The most straightforward way is by position, as shown above. However, Python also allows you to pass arguments by keyword.

def print_info(name, age):
    print(f'Name: {name}, Age: {age}')

print_info(age=30, name='Bob')

Here, we use keyword arguments to specify the values for name and age. This can increase readability and avoid errors caused by incorrect argument order. Note that after a keyword argument, all subsequent arguments must also be named.

Python also has default parameter values. If no argument is passed, the default value is used:

def print_details(name, team='Unknown'):
    print(f'Player: {name}, Team: {team}')

print_details('Cristiano', 'Manchester United')

team has a default value of ‘Unknown’. Therefore, when we call print_details('Leo'), the team prints as ‘Unknown’. When we call print_details('Cristiano', 'Manchester United'), we override the default value with ‘Manchester United’.

Lastly, let’s look at variable-length arguments which enable a function to accept an arbitrary number of arguments:

def make_pizza(*toppings):
    print('Making a pizza with the following toppings:')
    for topping in toppings:
        print(f'- {topping}')

make_pizza('mushrooms', 'green peppers', 'extra cheese')

The *toppings parameter allows make_pizza function to accept any number of arguments, making the function incredibly flexible.

In these examples, we’ve covered the basics: defining parameters, passing positional and keyword arguments, using default parameter values, and handling variable-length arguments. These form the foundation upon which you can build more complex and powerful functions.

Another handy feature in Python is the ability to pass arguments as dictionaries using the ** syntax, which unpacks the dictionary keys and values into keyword arguments:

def configure_system(**settings):
    for key, value in settings.items():
        print(f'{key} is set to {value}')

configure_system(database='MySQL', port=3306, theme='light mode')

This function, configure_system, can take any number of keyword arguments which are then processed in a loop. The call to configure_system passes a dictionary of settings using the ** syntax.

Python also allows a mix of positional, keyword, and variable-length arguments. It’s crucial that these are defined in the correct order when creating the function.

def create_profile(name, email, *interests, **personal_details):
    print(f'Name: {name}, Email: {email}')
    for interest in interests:
        print(f'- {interest}')
    print('Personal Details:')
    for key, value in personal_details.items():
        print(f'- {key}: {value}')

create_profile('John Doe', '[email protected]',
               'coding', 'basketball',
               age=29, city='New York')

In the create_profile function, name and email are positional parameters; *interests collects any number of interests, and **personal_details gathers additional named details about the profile.

Understanding the use of *args and **kwargs is vital for more advanced function definitions. *args is used to pass a variable number of non-keyworded arguments, while **kwargs allows for passing a variable number of keyword arguments.

def order_food(menu_item, *args, **kwargs):
    print(f'Ordering: {menu_item}')
    if args:
        for ingredient in args:
            print(f'- {ingredient}')
    if kwargs:
        print('Special Instructions:')
        for key in kwargs:
            print(f'- {key}: {kwargs[key]}')

order_food('Hamburger', 'beef patty', 'lettuce', 'tomato', sauce='mayo', cook='well done')

The order_food function demonstrates ordering a customizable menu item with both ingredients and special instructions.

Function parameters can also be ‘packed’ with the * syntax when calling functions, taking a sequence of arguments and expanding it into the function call.

def print_coordinates(x, y):
    print(f'X: {x}, Y: {y}')

coords = (3, 5)

Here, we pass the coords tuple to print_coordinates, and it’s automatically unpacked into the x and y parameters.

Lastly, it’s very important to know the difference between mutable and immutable types when dealing with function arguments. Mutables are objects whose values can be changed, like lists, dictionaries, and sets, while immutables cannot be changed, like strings, numbers, and tuples.

# Mutable example
def add_to_list(item, target_list=[]):
    return target_list

print(add_to_list('blue'))          # ['blue']
print(add_to_list('red'))           # ['blue', 'red']

# Immutable example
def add_to_number(value, target_value=0):
    return target_value + value

print(add_to_number(5))             # 5
print(add_to_number(3))             # 3

In the mutable example, the default list persists between function calls, which can lead to unexpected behavior. In the immutable example, each call returns a new value without side effects from previous calls.

Understanding these subtletities is essential for writing effective functions that produce predictable outcomes. At Zenva, we strive to break down complex topics like these into manageable pieces, helping our students build a robust foundation in programming that will elevate their coding journey to new heights. Happy coding!

Moving on with more nuanced details about parameters and arguments, let’s examine various scenarios and code examples where understanding their intricacies becomes crucial. Pay close attention as these subtleties can significantly impact the functionality and performance of your code.

Using *args and **kwargs Together:

def create_user(username, *roles, **attributes):
    print(f'Username: {username}')
    for role in roles:
        print(f'- {role}')
    for attr, value in attributes.items():
        print(f'- {attr}: {value}')

create_user('jane_doe', 'admin', 'user', email='[email protected]', location='Earth')

In this example, the create_user function can take a username, a list of roles, and a dictionary of additional attributes. The flexible argument structure allows for users with varying roles and attributes to be created.

Default Mutable Arguments (Pitfall):

def append_to_element(element, element_list=None):
    if element_list is None:
        element_list = []
    return element_list

# Correct use avoiding mutable default argument
print(append_to_element('a'))  # Output: ['a']
print(append_to_element('b'))  # Output: ['b']

This function solves the mutable default argument problem by checking if element_list is None and then creating a new list if it is. This ensures that the function doesn’t share the same list across different calls.

Unpacking Sequences as Arguments:

def set_coordinates(*coords):
    x, y, z = coords
    print(f'X: {x}, Y: {y}, Z: {z}')

coords_list = [100, 200, 300]

coords_tuple = (400, 500, 600)

Here we show how to pass a list or tuple to a function and unpack it into individual arguments using the * operator, allowing the function to distribute the values across the parameters.

Ensuring Function Arguments with Type Hints (Python 3.5+):

def welcome_guest(guest_name: str, party_size: int) -> str:
    return f'Welcome, {guest_name}. Party of {party_size}.'

print(welcome_guest('Hendrix', 3))
# Catching type errors before runtime can save debugging time and improve code quality.

In this snippet, we’re defining type hints for our function parameters and return type. This can help with static type checking and making the function’s expected argument types and return type explicit.

Functions with Read-Only Parameters:

def connect_to_database(connection, /, **options):
    # Connection must be specified as a positional argument
    # Following arguments are passed as keyword arguments
    print(f"Connecting to {connection} with options {options}")

connect_to_database('PostgreSQL', timeout=10, retry=True)

The / in the function’s signature indicates that connection must be specified as a positional argument. The parameters after / can only be passed as keyword arguments. This is a way to enforce clarity when specifying arguments for the function call.

Documenting Functions with Docstrings:

def calculate_area(width: float, height: float) -> float:
    Calculate the area of a rectangle.
    :param width: The width of the rectangle.
    :param height: The height of the rectangle.
    :return: The area of the rectangle.
    return width * height

# Using the help function or __doc__ to view the function's docstring.

Docstrings provide a convenient way to associate documentation with functions. This internal documentation can be extremely valuable for both the original authors and others who use or maintain the codebase.

Through a variety of examples, we’ve explored how to use default values, unpack arguments, employ type hints, enforce read-only parameters, and document our functions. Fostering an understanding of these elements will greatly enhance your Python programming abilities. At Zenva, we encourage you to play around with these examples and experiment on your own to truly get a firm grasp of parameters and arguments in Python.

Continuing Your Python Journey

Congratulations on taking this important step in understanding parameters and arguments in Python! This foundation sets the stage for a plethora of programming endeavors, and there’s no better way to solidify this knowledge than by continuous practice and advancement in your coding abilities.

If you’re eager to dive deeper into the versatile and powerful world of Python, we cordially invite you to explore our Python Mini-Degree. This curated collection of courses ranges from the basics to the complexities of Python programming, including hands-on projects that will see you building games, apps, and much more. Whether starting fresh or sharpening your skills, this Mini-Degree will arm you with the knowledge and practical expertise to venture further in your programming career.

For those who aim to broaden their skill set beyond Python, our Programming courses cover a multitude of languages and topics, designed to nurture beginners and fuel the aspirations of seasoned developers. Join us at Zenva Academy to learn at your own pace, gain valuable certificates, and embark on a path that could transform your hobby into a rewarding profession or launch your next big project.


As you’ve now seen, parameters and arguments are not just a crucial part of Python – they are fundamental to understanding any programming language. They give you the power to create flexible and dynamic code, which is at the heart of efficient and powerful software development. The journey through coding is an ever-evolving adventure, one that consistently rewards curiosity and tenacity.

We at Zenva are committed to equipping you with the skills needed to succeed in this exciting journey. Expand upon what you’ve learned here and continue building your coding repertoire with our comprehensive Python Mini-Degree. Take this opportunity to transform knowledge into experience – your future projects await the touch of your newfound expertise. Happy coding!

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