Debugging Tips and Techniques

This debugging guide is courtesy of Dr. John DeNero and the CS 61A course staff at UC Berkeley.

Introduction

By now, you will have encountered various bugs when programming for this class. Most often, you will try to run your code and see something like this:

Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<pyshell#29>", line 3 in <module>
    result = buggy(5)
  File <pyshell#29>", line 5 in buggy
    return f + x
TypeError: unsupported operand type(s) for +: 'function' and 'int'

This is called a traceback message. It prints out the chain of function calls that led up to the error, with the most recent function call at the bottom. You can follow this chain to figure out which function(s) caused the problem.

Traceback Messages

Notice that the lines in the traceback appear to be paired together. The first line in such a pair has the following format:

File "<file name>", line <number>, in <function>

That line provides you with the following information:

  • File name: the name of the file that contains the problem.
  • Number: the line number in the file that cuased the problem, or the line number that contains the next function call
  • Function: the name of the function in which the line can be found.

The second line in the pair (it's indented farther in than the first) displays the actual line of code that makes the next function call. This gives you a quick look at what arguments were passed into the function, in what context the function was being used, etc.

Finally, remember that the traceback is organized with the "most recent call last."

Error Messages

The very last line in the traceback message is the error statement. An error statement has the following format:

<error type>: <error message>

This line provides you with two pieces of information:

  • Error type: the type of error that was caused (e.g. SyntaxError, TypeError). These are usually descriptive enough to help you narrow down your search for the cause of error.
  • Error message: a more detailed description of exactly what caused the error. Different error types produce different error messages.

Debugging Process

Using print statements

When you first learn how to program, it can be hard to spot bugs in your code. One common practice is to add print statements. For example, let's say the following function foo keeps returning the wrong thing:

def foo(x):
    result = some_function(x)
    return result // 5

We can add a print statement before the return to check what some_function is returning:

def foo(x):
    result = some_function(x)
    print('result is', result)
    return other_function(result)

If it turns out result is not what we expect it to be, we would go look in some_function to see if it works properly. Otherwise, we might have to add a print statement before the return to check other_function:

def foo(x):
    result = some_function(x)
    print('result is', result)
    tmp = other_function(result)
    print('other_function returns', tmp)
    return tmp

Some advice:

  • Don't just print out a variable -- add some sort of message to make it easier for you to read:

    print(tmp)   # harder to keep track
    print('tmp was this:', tmp)  # easier
  • Use print statements to view the results of function calls (i.e. after function calls).
  • Use print statements at the end of a while loop to view the state of the counter variables after each iteration:

    i = 0
    while i < n:
        i += func(i)
        print('i is', i)
  • Don't just put random print statements after lines that are obviously correct.

Long-term debugging

The print statements described above are meant for quick debugging of one-time errors -- after figuring out the error, you would remove all the print statements.

However, sometimes we would like to leave the debugging code if we need to periodically test our file. It can get kind of annoying if every time we run our file, debugging messages pop up. One way to avoid this is to use a global debug variable:

debug = True

def foo(n):
i = 0
while i < n:
    i += func(i)
    if debug:
        print('i is', i)

Now, whenever we want to do some debugging, we can set the global debug variable to True, and when we don't want to see any debugging input, we can turn it to False (such a variable is called a "flag").

Error Types

The following are common error types that Python programmers run into.

SyntaxError

  • Cause: code syntax mistake
  • Example:

      File "file name", line number
        def incorrect(f)
                        ^
    SyntaxError: invalid syntax
  • Solution: the ^ symbol points to the code that contains invalid syntax. The error message doesn't tell you what is wrong, but it does tell you where.
  • Notes: Python will check for SyntaxErrors before executing any code. This is different from other errors, which are only raiased during runtime.

IndentationError

  • Cause: improper indentation
  • Example:

      File "file name", line number
        print('improper indentation')
    IndentationError: unindent does not match any outer indentation level
  • Solution: The line that is improperly indented is displayed. Simply re-indent it.
  • Notes: If you are inconsistent with tabs and spaces, Python will raise one of these. Make sure you use either spaces or tabs, not both!

TypeError

  • Cause 1:

    • Invalid operand types for primitive operators. You are probably trying to add/subract/multiply/divide incompatible types.
    • Example:

      TypeError: unsupported operand type(s) for +: 'function' and 'int'
  • Cause 2:

    • Using non-function objects in function calls.
    • Example:

      >>> square = 3
      >>> square(3)
      Traceback (most recent call last):
        ...
      TypeError: 'int' object is not callable
  • Cause 3:

    • Passing an incorrect number of arguments to a function.
    • Example:

      >>> add(3)
      Traceback (most recent call last):
        ...
      TypeError: add expected 2 arguments, got 1

NameError

  • Cause: variable not assigned to anything OR it doesn't exist. This includes function names.
  • Example:

    File "file name", line number
      y = x + 3
    NameError: global name 'x' is not defined
  • Solution: Make sure you are initializing the variable (i.e. assigning the variable to a value) before you use it.
  • Notes: The reason the error message says "global name" is because Python will start searching for the variable from a function's local frame. If the variable is not found there, Python will keep searching the parent frames until it reaches the global frame. If it still can't find the variable, Python raises the error.

IndexError

  • Cause: trying to index a sequence (e.g. a tuple, list, string) with a number that exceeds the size of the sequence.
  • Example:

    File "file name", line number
      x[100]
    IndexError: tuple index out of range
  • Solution: Make sure the index is within the bounds of the sequence. If you're using a variable as an index (e.g. seq[x], make sure the variable is assigned to a proper index.

Common Bugs

Spelling

Python is case sensitive. The variable hello is not the same as Hello or hello or helo. This will usually show up as a NameError, but sometimes misspelled variables will actually have been defined. In that case, it can be difficult to find errors, and it is never gratifying to discover it's just a spelling mistake.

Missing Parentheses

A common bug is to leave off the closing parenthesis. This will show up as a SyntaxError. Consider the following code:

def fun():
    return foo(bar()   # missing a parenthesis here

fun()

Python will raise a SyntaxError, but will point to the line after the missing parenthesis:

File "file name", line "number"
    fun()
      ^
SyntaxError: invalid syntax

In general, if Python points a SyntaxError to a seemingly correct line, you are probably forgetting a parenthesis somewhere.

Missing close quotes

This is similar to the previous bug, but much easier to catch. Python will actually tell you the line that is missing the quote:

File "file name", line "number"
  return 'hi
           ^
SyntaxError: EOL while scanning string literal

EOL stands for "End of Line."

= vs. ==

The single equal sign = is used for assignment; the double equal sign == is used for testing equivalence. The most common error of this form is something like:

if x = 3:

Infinite Loops

Infinite loops are often caused by while loops whose conditions never change. For example:

i = 0
while i < 10:
    print(i)

Sometimes you might have incremented the wrong counter:

i, n = 0, 0
while i < 10:
    print(i)
    n += 1

Off-by-one errors

Sometimes a while loop or recursive function might stop one iteration too short. Here, it's best to walk through the iteration/recursion to see what number the loop stops at.