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How PyDoc Helps Your Python Development

Published: Aug 7, 2021

Last updated: Aug 7, 2021

This is Day 19 of the #100DaysOfPython challenge.

This post will use the pydoc module from the standard library to to explore how we can navigate documentation as well as create our own.

The code can be found on my GitHub repo.

Getting started

Let's create the hello-pydoc directory and set up the required files.

# Make the `hello-pydoc` directory $ mkdir hello-pydoc $ cd hello-pydoc # Create a folder to place our example files $ mkdir src # Create the required files $ touch src/ src/

At this stage, we have our files sorted and we can start to write some code.

Exploring PyDoc from the command line

PyDoc is a tool that allows us to explore the documentation of a module.

As a simple starter, we can use PyDoc to explore the documentation of the datetime module from the command line.

To do so, we can run python -m pydoc [module] and we should see the output based on the doc strings for each of the functions in the module.

Let's explore this for the datetime module. From the command line, we can run the following command:

$ python -m pydoc datetime Help on module datetime: NAME datetime - Fast implementation of the datetime type. FILE /System/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Versions/2.7/lib/python2.7/lib-dynload/ MODULE DOCS CLASSES __builtin__.object date datetime time timedelta tzinfo class date(__builtin__.object) | date(year, month, day) --> date object | | Methods defined here: | | __add__(...) x.__add__(y) <==> x+y | | __eq__(...) # ... reset omitted for brevity ...

When you run the command, it opens up the documentation for the datetime module that can be traversed in the command-line.

It gives us information on the following:

NAMEThe name of the module.
FILEThe file that the module is defined in.
MODULE DOCSThe link to the documentation for the module.
CLASSESThe classes defined in the module.

We can search within the docs by using the / or ? operator followed by a search term.

For example, in my previous blog post Datetime in Python, we heavily relied upon the function.

To search for that documentation, I can run / followed by now and one of the search results will return the following:

now(tz=None) from builtins.type Returns new datetime object representing current time local to tz. tz Timezone object. If no tz is specified, uses local timezone.

Tip: after searching, you can use the n key to navigate to the next result.

The above documentation tells us that the now function returns a datetime object with the timezone's local time and date (with an optional argument of the timezone).

Given this, we know that we could can the function both with and without an argument:

from datetime import datetime, timezone # datetime.datetime(2021, 8, 7, 7, 22, 37, 216899) # datetime.datetime(2021, 8, 6, 21, 22, 30, 841500, tzinfo=datetime.timezone.utc)

If we go searching for the synonymous function utcnow, we can see the following:

utcnow(...) from builtins.type Return a new datetime representing UTC day and time.

This tells us that there are no arguments but the returned value is a datetime object with the timezone of UTC.

from datetime import datetime datetime.utcnow() # datetime.datetime(2021, 8, 6, 21, 24, 2, 865402)

Now that we know the basics of searching PyDoc, let's now document our math module.

Writing our own documented code

We can write and search for our own docstrings.

To demonstrate, add the following code to src/

def add(x, y): """add together two numbers Args: x (int): First number to add y (int): Second number to add Returns: int: sum of x and y """ return x + y

The docstring is a string that is used to document the function and is denoted as the comment between lines 2 and 10 of the code above.

Tip: if you use VSCode, check out the docstring generator

Once we have that code in place, it is enough to view our own documentation for the module!

Exploring our documented code

We can run python -m pydoc src.math and we should see the output of the docstring:

Help on module src.math in src: NAME src.math FUNCTIONS add(x, y) add together two numbers Args: x (int): First number to add y (int): Second number to add Returns: int: sum of x and y FILE /path/to/code/blog-projects/hello-pydoc/src/

How easy was that!

Viewing PyDoc in the browser

If we run pydoc -h, we see the following:

-h pydoc - the Python documentation tool pydoc <name> ... Show text documentation on something. <name> may be the name of a Python keyword, topic, function, module, or package, or a dotted reference to a class or function within a module or module in a package. If <name> contains a '/', it is used as the path to a Python source file to document. If name is 'keywords', 'topics', or 'modules', a listing of these things is displayed. pydoc -k <keyword> Search for a keyword in the synopsis lines of all available modules. pydoc -p <port> Start an HTTP server on the given port on the local machine. Port number 0 can be used to get an arbitrary unused port. pydoc -g Pop up a graphical interface for finding and serving documentation. pydoc -w <name> ... Write out the HTML documentation for a module to a file in the current directory. If <name> contains a '/', it is treated as a filename; if it names a directory, documentation is written for all the contents.

This gives us a list of the options that we can use to view our own documentation.

First of all, we will use the pydoc -p 4000 option to start a server on port 4000.

From here, you can open up http://localhost:4000 in your browser and explore the documentation. The interface isn't pretty, but the job gets done.

Outputting PyDoc as HTML

Finally, we can output the documentation as HTML by passing the -w option to pydoc.

Running pydoc -w src.math outputs HTML into src.math.html which contains the following:

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN"> <html> <head> <title>Python: module src.math</title> <meta charset="utf-8" /> </head> <body bgcolor="#f0f0f8"> <table width="100%" cellspacing="0" cellpadding="2" border="0" summary="heading" > <tr bgcolor="#7799ee"> <td valign="bottom"> &nbsp;<br /> <font color="#ffffff" face="helvetica, arial" >&nbsp;<br /><big ><big ><strong ><a href="src.html"><font color="#ffffff">src</font></a >.math</strong ></big ></big ></font > </td> <td align="right" valign="bottom"> <font color="#ffffff" face="helvetica, arial" ><a href=".">index</a><br /><a href="file:/path/to/code/blog-projects/hello-pydoc/src/" >/path/to/code/blog-projects/hello-pydoc/src/</a ></font > </td> </tr> </table> <p></p> <p></p> <table width="100%" cellspacing="0" cellpadding="2" border="0" summary="section" > <tr bgcolor="#eeaa77"> <td colspan="3" valign="bottom"> &nbsp;<br /> <font color="#ffffff" face="helvetica, arial" ><big><strong>Functions</strong></big></font > </td> </tr> <tr> <td bgcolor="#eeaa77"> <tt>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;</tt> </td> <td>&nbsp;</td> <td width="100%"> <dl> <dt> <a name="-add"><strong>add</strong></a >(x, y) </dt> <dd> <tt >add&nbsp;together&nbsp;two&nbsp;numbers<br /> &nbsp;<br /> Args:<br /> &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;x&nbsp;(int):&nbsp;First&nbsp;number&nbsp;to&nbsp;add<br /> &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;y&nbsp;(int):&nbsp;Second&nbsp;number&nbsp;to&nbsp;add<br /> &nbsp;<br /> Returns:<br /> &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;int:&nbsp;sum&nbsp;of&nbsp;x&nbsp;and&nbsp;y</tt > </dd> </dl> </td> </tr> </table> </body> </html>


Today's post demonstrated how to use the pydoc package to explore built-in and custom documentation.

Albeit a shallow exploration, the best way to improve on your searching capability is to use the command line in practice.

Resources and further reading

  1. pydoc
  2. GitHub repo

Photo credit: milada_vigerova

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Dennis O'Keeffe

  • Melbourne, Australia

Hi, I am a professional Software Engineer. Formerly of Culture Amp, UsabilityHub, Present Company and NightGuru.
I am currently working on Visibuild.


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How PyDoc Helps Your Python Development


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