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Python Enhancement Proposals

PEP 487 – Simpler customisation of class creation

Martin Teichmann <lkb.teichmann at>
Standards Track
27-Feb-2015, 05-Feb-2016, 24-Jun-2016, 02-Jul-2016, 13-Jul-2016
Python-Dev message

Table of Contents


Currently, customising class creation requires the use of a custom metaclass. This custom metaclass then persists for the entire lifecycle of the class, creating the potential for spurious metaclass conflicts.

This PEP proposes to instead support a wide range of customisation scenarios through a new __init_subclass__ hook in the class body, and a hook to initialize attributes.

The new mechanism should be easier to understand and use than implementing a custom metaclass, and thus should provide a gentler introduction to the full power of Python’s metaclass machinery.


Metaclasses are a powerful tool to customize class creation. They have, however, the problem that there is no automatic way to combine metaclasses. If one wants to use two metaclasses for a class, a new metaclass combining those two needs to be created, typically manually.

This need often occurs as a surprise to a user: inheriting from two base classes coming from two different libraries suddenly raises the necessity to manually create a combined metaclass, where typically one is not interested in those details about the libraries at all. This becomes even worse if one library starts to make use of a metaclass which it has not done before. While the library itself continues to work perfectly, suddenly every code combining those classes with classes from another library fails.


While there are many possible ways to use a metaclass, the vast majority of use cases falls into just three categories: some initialization code running after class creation, the initialization of descriptors and keeping the order in which class attributes were defined.

The first two categories can easily be achieved by having simple hooks into the class creation:

  1. An __init_subclass__ hook that initializes all subclasses of a given class.
  2. upon class creation, a __set_name__ hook is called on all the attribute (descriptors) defined in the class, and

The third category is the topic of another PEP, PEP 520.

As an example, the first use case looks as follows:

>>> class QuestBase:
...    # this is implicitly a @classmethod (see below for motivation)
...    def __init_subclass__(cls, swallow, **kwargs):
...        cls.swallow = swallow
...        super().__init_subclass__(**kwargs)

>>> class Quest(QuestBase, swallow="african"):
...    pass

>>> Quest.swallow

The base class object contains an empty __init_subclass__ method which serves as an endpoint for cooperative multiple inheritance. Note that this method has no keyword arguments, meaning that all methods which are more specialized have to process all keyword arguments.

This general proposal is not a new idea (it was first suggested for inclusion in the language definition more than 10 years ago, and a similar mechanism has long been supported by Zope’s ExtensionClass), but the situation has changed sufficiently in recent years that the idea is worth reconsidering for inclusion.

The second part of the proposal adds an __set_name__ initializer for class attributes, especially if they are descriptors. Descriptors are defined in the body of a class, but they do not know anything about that class, they do not even know the name they are accessed with. They do get to know their owner once __get__ is called, but still they do not know their name. This is unfortunate, for example they cannot put their associated value into their object’s __dict__ under their name, since they do not know that name. This problem has been solved many times, and is one of the most important reasons to have a metaclass in a library. While it would be easy to implement such a mechanism using the first part of the proposal, it makes sense to have one solution for this problem for everyone.

To give an example of its usage, imagine a descriptor representing weak referenced values:

import weakref

class WeakAttribute:
    def __get__(self, instance, owner):
        return instance.__dict__[]()

    def __set__(self, instance, value):
        instance.__dict__[] = weakref.ref(value)

    # this is the new initializer:
    def __set_name__(self, owner, name): = name

Such a WeakAttribute may, for example, be used in a tree structure where one wants to avoid cyclic references via the parent:

class TreeNode:
    parent = WeakAttribute()

    def __init__(self, parent):
        self.parent = parent

Note that the parent attribute is used like a normal attribute, yet the tree contains no cyclic references and can thus be easily garbage collected when out of use. The parent attribute magically becomes None once the parent ceases existing.

While this example looks very trivial, it should be noted that until now such an attribute cannot be defined without the use of a metaclass. And given that such a metaclass can make life very hard, this kind of attribute does not exist yet.

Initializing descriptors could simply be done in the __init_subclass__ hook. But this would mean that descriptors can only be used in classes that have the proper hook, the generic version like in the example would not work generally. One could also call __set_name__ from within the base implementation of object.__init_subclass__. But given that it is a common mistake to forget to call super(), it would happen too often that suddenly descriptors are not initialized.

Key Benefits

Easier inheritance of definition time behaviour

Understanding Python’s metaclasses requires a deep understanding of the type system and the class construction process. This is legitimately seen as challenging, due to the need to keep multiple moving parts (the code, the metaclass hint, the actual metaclass, the class object, instances of the class object) clearly distinct in your mind. Even when you know the rules, it’s still easy to make a mistake if you’re not being extremely careful.

Understanding the proposed implicit class initialization hook only requires ordinary method inheritance, which isn’t quite as daunting a task. The new hook provides a more gradual path towards understanding all of the phases involved in the class definition process.

Reduced chance of metaclass conflicts

One of the big issues that makes library authors reluctant to use metaclasses (even when they would be appropriate) is the risk of metaclass conflicts. These occur whenever two unrelated metaclasses are used by the desired parents of a class definition. This risk also makes it very difficult to add a metaclass to a class that has previously been published without one.

By contrast, adding an __init_subclass__ method to an existing type poses a similar level of risk to adding an __init__ method: technically, there is a risk of breaking poorly implemented subclasses, but when that occurs, it is recognised as a bug in the subclass rather than the library author breaching backwards compatibility guarantees.

New Ways of Using Classes

Subclass registration

Especially when writing a plugin system, one likes to register new subclasses of a plugin baseclass. This can be done as follows:

class PluginBase:
    subclasses = []

    def __init_subclass__(cls, **kwargs):

In this example, PluginBase.subclasses will contain a plain list of all subclasses in the entire inheritance tree. One should note that this also works nicely as a mixin class.

Trait descriptors

There are many designs of Python descriptors in the wild which, for example, check boundaries of values. Often those “traits” need some support of a metaclass to work. This is how this would look like with this PEP:

class Trait:
    def __init__(self, minimum, maximum):
        self.minimum = minimum
        self.maximum = maximum

    def __get__(self, instance, owner):
        return instance.__dict__[self.key]

    def __set__(self, instance, value):
        if self.minimum < value < self.maximum:
            instance.__dict__[self.key] = value
            raise ValueError("value not in range")

    def __set_name__(self, owner, name):
        self.key = name

Implementation Details

The hooks are called in the following order: type.__new__ calls the __set_name__ hooks on the descriptor after the new class has been initialized. Then it calls __init_subclass__ on the base class, on super(), to be precise. This means that subclass initializers already see the fully initialized descriptors. This way, __init_subclass__ users can fix all descriptors again if this is needed.

Another option would have been to call __set_name__ in the base implementation of object.__init_subclass__. This way it would be possible even to prevent __set_name__ from being called. Most of the times, however, such a prevention would be accidental, as it often happens that a call to super() is forgotten.

As a third option, all the work could have been done in type.__init__. Most metaclasses do their work in __new__, as this is recommended by the documentation. Many metaclasses modify their arguments before they pass them over to super().__new__. For compatibility with those kind of classes, the hooks should be called from __new__.

Another small change should be done: in the current implementation of CPython, type.__init__ explicitly forbids the use of keyword arguments, while type.__new__ allows for its attributes to be shipped as keyword arguments. This is weirdly incoherent, and thus it should be forbidden. While it would be possible to retain the current behavior, it would be better if this was fixed, as it is probably not used at all: the only use case would be that at metaclass calls its super().__new__ with name, bases and dict (yes, dict, not namespace or ns as mostly used with modern metaclasses) as keyword arguments. This should not be done. This little change simplifies the implementation of this PEP significantly, while improving the coherence of Python overall.

As a second change, the new type.__init__ just ignores keyword arguments. Currently, it insists that no keyword arguments are given. This leads to a (wanted) error if one gives keyword arguments to a class declaration if the metaclass does not process them. Metaclass authors that do want to accept keyword arguments must filter them out by overriding __init__.

In the new code, it is not __init__ that complains about keyword arguments, but __init_subclass__, whose default implementation takes no arguments. In a classical inheritance scheme using the method resolution order, each __init_subclass__ may take out it’s keyword arguments until none are left, which is checked by the default implementation of __init_subclass__.

For readers who prefer reading Python over English, this PEP proposes to replace the current type and object with the following:

class NewType(type):
    def __new__(cls, *args, **kwargs):
        if len(args) != 3:
            return super().__new__(cls, *args)
        name, bases, ns = args
        init = ns.get('__init_subclass__')
        if isinstance(init, types.FunctionType):
            ns['__init_subclass__'] = classmethod(init)
        self = super().__new__(cls, name, bases, ns)
        for k, v in self.__dict__.items():
            func = getattr(v, '__set_name__', None)
            if func is not None:
                func(self, k)
        super(self, self).__init_subclass__(**kwargs)
        return self

    def __init__(self, name, bases, ns, **kwargs):
        super().__init__(name, bases, ns)

class NewObject(object):
    def __init_subclass__(cls):

Reference Implementation

The reference implementation for this PEP is attached to issue 27366.

Backward compatibility issues

The exact calling sequence in type.__new__ is slightly changed, raising fears of backwards compatibility. It should be assured by tests that common use cases behave as desired.

The following class definitions (except the one defining the metaclass) continue to fail with a TypeError as superfluous class arguments are passed:

class MyMeta(type):

class MyClass(metaclass=MyMeta, otherarg=1):

MyMeta("MyClass", (), otherargs=1)

import types
types.new_class("MyClass", (), dict(metaclass=MyMeta, otherarg=1))
types.prepare_class("MyClass", (), dict(metaclass=MyMeta, otherarg=1))

A metaclass defining only a __new__ method which is interested in keyword arguments now does not need to define an __init__ method anymore, as the default type.__init__ ignores keyword arguments. This is nicely in line with the recommendation to override __new__ in metaclasses instead of __init__. The following code does not fail anymore:

class MyMeta(type):
    def __new__(cls, name, bases, namespace, otherarg):
        return super().__new__(cls, name, bases, namespace)

class MyClass(metaclass=MyMeta, otherarg=1):

Only defining an __init__ method in a metaclass continues to fail with TypeError if keyword arguments are given:

class MyMeta(type):
    def __init__(self, name, bases, namespace, otherarg):
        super().__init__(name, bases, namespace)

class MyClass(metaclass=MyMeta, otherarg=1):

Defining both __init__ and __new__ continues to work fine.

About the only thing that stops working is passing the arguments of type.__new__ as keyword arguments:

class MyMeta(type):
    def __new__(cls, name, bases, namespace):
        return super().__new__(cls, name=name, bases=bases,

class MyClass(metaclass=MyMeta):

This will now raise TypeError, but this is weird code, and easy to fix even if someone used this feature.

Rejected Design Options

Calling the hook on the class itself

Adding an __autodecorate__ hook that would be called on the class itself was the proposed idea of PEP 422. Most examples work the same way or even better if the hook is called only on strict subclasses. In general, it is much easier to arrange to explicitly call the hook on the class in which it is defined (to opt-in to such a behavior) than to opt-out (by remember to check for cls is __class in the hook body), meaning that one does not want the hook to be called on the class it is defined in.

This becomes most evident if the class in question is designed as a mixin: it is very unlikely that the code of the mixin is to be executed for the mixin class itself, as it is not supposed to be a complete class on its own.

The original proposal also made major changes in the class initialization process, rendering it impossible to back-port the proposal to older Python versions.

When it’s desired to also call the hook on the base class, two mechanisms are available:

  1. Introduce an additional mixin class just to hold the __init_subclass__ implementation. The original “base” class can then list the new mixin as its first parent class.
  2. Implement the desired behaviour as an independent class decorator, and apply that decorator explicitly to the base class, and then implicitly to subclasses via __init_subclass__.

Calling __init_subclass__ explicitly from a class decorator will generally be undesirable, as this will also typically call __init_subclass__ a second time on the parent class, which is unlikely to be desired behaviour.

Other variants of calling the hooks

Other names for the hook were presented, namely __decorate__ or __autodecorate__. This proposal opts for __init_subclass__ as it is very close to the __init__ method, just for the subclass, while it is not very close to decorators, as it does not return the class.

For the __set_name__ hook other names have been proposed as well, __set_owner__, __set_ownership__ and __init_descriptor__.

Requiring an explicit decorator on __init_subclass__

One could require the explicit use of @classmethod on the __init_subclass__ decorator. It was made implicit since there’s no sensible interpretation for leaving it out, and that case would need to be detected anyway in order to give a useful error message.

This decision was reinforced after noticing that the user experience of defining __prepare__ and forgetting the @classmethod method decorator is singularly incomprehensible (particularly since PEP 3115 documents it as an ordinary method, and the current documentation doesn’t explicitly say anything one way or the other).

A more __new__-like hook

In PEP 422 the hook worked more like the __new__ method than the __init__ method, meaning that it returned a class instead of modifying one. This allows a bit more flexibility, but at the cost of much harder implementation and undesired side effects.

Adding a class attribute with the attribute order

This got its own PEP 520.


This used to be a competing proposal to PEP 422 by Alyssa Coghlan and Daniel Urban. PEP 422 intended to achieve the same goals as this PEP, but with a different way of implementation. In the meantime, PEP 422 has been withdrawn favouring this approach.


Last modified: 2023-10-11 12:05:51 GMT