Python Sets

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Python, a versatile and user-friendly language, provides a variety of data structures. Among these, the set stands out for its distinct features and unique applications. A set is a collection of distinct objects, much like its mathematical counterpart. In this article, we’ll delve deep into Python sets, exploring their properties, methods, and use-cases.

1. What are Python Sets?

A set in Python is an unordered collection of unique items. It is defined by values separated by commas inside curly braces {}. Because of its unique nature, it does not support indexing, slicing, or other sequence-like behaviors.


fruits = {"apple", "banana", "cherry"}


{'cherry', 'banana', 'apple'}

2. Characteristics of Sets

  • Unordered: Sets do not record element position. The order of items is not preserved.
  • Unindexed: Sets do not support indexing or slicing.
  • Mutable: We can add or remove items from a set.
  • Unique Elements: Sets eliminate duplicate items.

3. Creating a Set in Python

A set in Python can be created in several ways, each suitable for different situations. Here’s an in-depth look at the most common methods:

3.1. Using Curly Braces:

This is the most direct way to create a set. Just like you’d use [] for lists, you can use {} for sets.


my_set = {1, 2, 3}
print(my_set)  # Output: {1, 2, 3}

Note: Do not confuse this with dictionary creation. If you provide key-value pairs inside {}, Python will create a dictionary, not a set. For instance, {1: 'one', 2: 'two'} is a dictionary, not a set.

3.2. Using the set() Constructor:

For situations where you want to convert another iterable (like a list, tuple, or string) into a set, you can use the set() constructor.


list_data = [1, 2, 2, 3, 4, 4]
my_set = set(list_data)
print(my_set)  # Output: {1, 2, 3, 4}

Note that in the example above, the duplicate values 2 and 4 from the list are removed in the resulting set.

3.3. Creating an Empty Set:

An empty set is a set that contains no items. It’s important to note that simply using {} will not create an empty set, but rather an empty dictionary. To create an empty set, you have to use the set() constructor without any argument.


empty_set = set()
print(type(empty_set))  # Output: <class 'set'>

3.4. Creating a Set from a String:

When creating a set from a string, each character of the string becomes an individual element of the set.


string_data = "hello"
my_set = set(string_data)
print(my_set)  # Output: {'h', 'e', 'l', 'o'}

As you can observe, the repeated ‘l’ in “hello” appears only once in the set, illustrating the property of sets that they contain unique values.

3.5. Set Comprehensions:

Python also allows a concise way to create sets using set comprehensions, much like list or dictionary comprehensions. This is especially useful when you want to apply a specific operation to each item before adding it to the set.


squared_set = {x**2 for x in range(5)}
print(squared_set)  # Output: {0, 1, 4, 9, 16}

In the above example, we squared each number in the range 0 through 4 and added the result to the set.

Sets are versatile and can be created from various data types using different methods. Whether you’re creating a set from scratch, converting another data type, or using comprehensions, Python offers a straightforward way to achieve your objective.

4. Accessing Set Items

Sets in Python are fundamentally different from lists and tuples in how their elements are accessed. Unlike lists and tuples, sets are unordered collections, meaning the items don’t have a predefined order. As a result, they don’t support indexing or slicing. However, there are methods to interact with and access items in a set.

4.1. Iterating Through a Set with a For Loop:

While you can’t directly retrieve an item from a set using an index, you can loop through all the items in a set using a for loop. This allows you to access and work with each item individually.


fruits = {"apple", "banana", "cherry"}

for fruit in fruits:



The output will display all the items in the set, but remember that the order is not guaranteed.

4.2. Checking Membership with the in Keyword:

If you want to determine whether a specific item is present in a set, the in keyword is invaluable. This provides a quick way to check membership without having to loop through the set.


fruits = {"apple", "banana", "cherry"}

print("apple" in fruits)   # Output: True
print("orange" in fruits) # Output: False

Membership tests with sets are generally faster than with lists, especially as the size of the set grows. This is because sets are implemented as hash tables.

4.3. Accessing Items using Set Methods:

While sets don’t offer direct methods to retrieve specific items, they do offer methods like pop() which removes and returns an arbitrary item from the set. However, it’s important to remember that since sets are unordered, you won’t know which item you’ll get when using pop().


fruits = {"apple", "banana", "cherry"}
print(fruits.pop())  # This could return any of the three fruits

4.4. Limitations of Accessing Set Items:

  • No Indexing & Slicing: Unlike lists and tuples, sets cannot be indexed or sliced. Attempting to do so will result in a TypeError.
  • Order is Unpredictable: The order of items in a set is arbitrary and can vary over time and with different operations.

Although sets have limitations in terms of direct item access, their unique properties make them essential for certain operations, such as deduplication and membership testing. When working with sets, it’s essential to understand their unordered nature and adapt your strategies accordingly. If ordered access is crucial, then other data structures like lists or tuples might be more appropriate.

5. Modifying a Set

Sets are mutable data structures, which means you can change their content by adding or removing items after they’ve been created. However, they come with certain constraints, most notably regarding the types of items they can contain.

5.1. Mutability of Sets:

Being mutable, sets allow for the dynamic addition and removal of items. This can be beneficial in situations where you’re unsure of all the elements at the time of set creation or when you want the set to be updated based on certain conditions or inputs.

5.2. Immutable Set Items:

Despite the mutability of sets, there’s a key restriction: all items in a set must be of an immutable (or hashable) type. This means you can include integers, strings, and tuples in a set, but not lists, dictionaries, or other sets. The primary reason for this restriction is how sets are implemented underneath; they rely on each item’s hash value for quick access and to ensure uniqueness.


Valid set items:

valid_set = {1, "apple", (1, 2, 3)}

Invalid set items:

# This will raise a TypeError since a list is mutable
invalid_set = {1, "apple", [1, 2, 3]}

5.3. Adding Items to a Set:

There are primarily two methods to add items:

add() Method: Adds a single item to the set.

fruits = {"apple", "banana"}
print(fruits)  # Output: {"apple", "banana", "cherry"}

update() Method: Used for adding multiple items. It can accept any iterable like lists, strings, or other sets.

fruits = {"apple", "banana"}
fruits.update(["cherry", "grape"])
print(fruits)  # Output: {"apple", "banana", "cherry", "grape"}

5.4. Removing Items from a Set:

Sets offer several methods to remove items:

remove() Method: Removes the specified item. If the item is not present, it raises a KeyError.

fruits = {"apple", "banana", "cherry"}
print(fruits)  # Output: {"apple", "cherry"}

discard() Method: Removes the specified item. If the item isn’t found, it does nothing (no error is raised).

fruits = {"apple", "banana", "cherry"}
fruits.discard("grape")  # No error even if "grape" is not in the set

pop() Method: Removes an arbitrary item from the set. It returns the removed item. Be cautious, as the removed item is unpredictable due to the unordered nature of sets. If the set is empty, it raises a KeyError.

fruits = {"apple", "banana", "cherry"}
removed_item = fruits.pop()

clear() Method: Empties the entire set, removing all items.

fruits = {"apple", "banana", "cherry"}
print(fruits)  # Output: set()

6. Set Operations

In Python, sets are not just mere collections of items but also have mathematical properties inherited from the concept of sets in mathematics. This allows for powerful operations that can be very useful, especially when dealing with large datasets or complex logic. Below, we’ll explore the main operations one can perform on sets.

6.1. Union:

The union of two sets is a new set containing all distinct elements from both sets.

Using the | Operator:

A = {1, 2, 3}
B = {3, 4, 5}
result = A | B
print(result)  # Output: {1, 2, 3, 4, 5}

Using the union( ) Method:

result = A.union(B)
print(result)  # Output: {1, 2, 3, 4, 5}

Note that both methods will give you the same result.

6.2. Intersection:

The intersection of two sets is a new set containing only elements that are present in both sets.

Using the & Operator:

result = A & B
print(result)  # Output: {3}

Using the intersection( ) Method:

result = A.intersection(B)
print(result)  # Output: {3}

Again, both approaches yield the same result, providing elements common to both sets.

6.3. Difference:

The difference between two sets is a new set containing elements that are in the first set but not in the second set.

Using the – Operator:

result = A - B
print(result)  # Output: {1, 2}

Using the difference( ) Method:

result = A.difference(B)
print(result)  # Output: {1, 2}

For both methods, the order matters. In the examples above, we’re finding elements that are in A but not in B. Reversing (B - A or B.difference(A)) would give {4, 5}.

6.4. Symmetric Difference:

The symmetric difference between two sets is a new set containing elements that are unique to each set—basically, elements that are in one of the sets, but not in both.

Using the ^ Operator:

result = A ^ B
print(result)  # Output: {1, 2, 4, 5}

Using the symmetric_difference( ) Method:

result = A.symmetric_difference(B)
print(result)  # Output: {1, 2, 4, 5}

This operation effectively combines the results of the two difference operations (A - B and B - A).

7. Set Comparisons

Python provides methods to determine the relationships between sets, helping to clarify how one set compares to another. These comparison methods can be especially useful in mathematical, logical, or data analysis scenarios. Below are detailed explanations of each method:

7.1. issubset():

A set A is considered a subset of set B if every element of A is also an element of B. In mathematical terms, A⊆B. It’s worth noting that by this definition, a set is considered a subset of itself.


A = {1, 2}
B = {1, 2, 3, 4, 5}
C = {1, 2, 3}

print(A.issubset(B))  # Output: True
print(C.issubset(B))  # Output: True
print(B.issubset(A))  # Output: False

In the above example, both A and C are subsets of B, but B is not a subset of A.

7.2. issuperset():

Conversely, a set A is a superset of set B if A contains every element of B. In mathematical terms, A⊇B. By definition, a set is also a superset of itself.


A = {1, 2, 3, 4, 5}
B = {1, 2}
C = {1, 2, 3}

print(A.issuperset(B))  # Output: True
print(A.issuperset(C))  # Output: True
print(B.issuperset(A))  # Output: False

In the example, A is a superset of both B and C, but B is not a superset of A.

7.3. isdisjoint():

Two sets are disjoint if they have no elements in common. The isdisjoint() method checks this relationship and returns True if the sets do not overlap.


A = {1, 2, 3}
B = {4, 5, 6}
C = {3, 4, 5}

print(A.isdisjoint(B))  # Output: True
print(A.isdisjoint(C))  # Output: False

In the example, A and B are disjoint because they have no elements in common. However, A and C are not disjoint because they both contain the element 3.

8. Set Comprehensions

Similar to list comprehensions, set comprehensions allow for concise set creation.

squared_set = {x**2 for x in (1, 2, 3, 4)}

9. Practical Applications of Sets

  • Data Deduplication: Since sets don’t allow duplicate items, they can be used to deduplicate lists or other collection types.
  • Membership Testing: Checking if an item is part of a set is faster than checking membership in lists or tuples.
  • Mathematical Operations: Operations like union, intersection, and set difference can be useful in various applications.


Python’s set is a powerful and flexible data structure. By understanding its properties and methods, we can effectively use it to solve a myriad of problems, from data processing to mathematical computations. Always remember to choose the right data structure for your specific needs, and in many scenarios, the set might just be the perfect fit!

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