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Python Enhancement Proposals

PEP 3122 – Delineation of the main module

Brett Cannon
Standards Track

Table of Contents


This PEP has been rejected. Guido views running scripts within a package as an anti-pattern [3].


Because of how name resolution works for relative imports in a world where PEP 328 is implemented, the ability to execute modules within a package ceases being possible. This failing stems from the fact that the module being executed as the “main” module replaces its __name__ attribute with "__main__" instead of leaving it as the absolute name of the module. This breaks import’s ability to resolve relative imports from the main module into absolute names.

In order to resolve this issue, this PEP proposes to change how the main module is delineated. By leaving the __name__ attribute in a module alone and setting sys.main to the name of the main module this will allow at least some instances of executing a module within a package that uses relative imports.

This PEP does not address the idea of introducing a module-level function that is automatically executed like PEP 299 proposes.

The Problem

With the introduction of PEP 328, relative imports became dependent on the __name__ attribute of the module performing the import. This is because the use of dots in a relative import are used to strip away parts of the calling module’s name to calculate where in the package hierarchy an import should fall (prior to PEP 328 relative imports could fail and would fall back on absolute imports which had a chance of succeeding).

For instance, consider the import from .. import spam made from the bacon.ham.beans module (bacon.ham.beans is not a package itself, i.e., does not define __path__). Name resolution of the relative import takes the caller’s name (bacon.ham.beans), splits on dots, and then slices off the last n parts based on the level (which is 2). In this example both ham and beans are dropped and spam is joined with what is left (bacon). This leads to the proper import of the module bacon.spam.

This reliance on the __name__ attribute of a module when handling relative imports becomes an issue when executing a script within a package. Because the executing script has its name set to '__main__', import cannot resolve any relative imports, leading to an ImportError.

For example, assume we have a package named bacon with an file containing:

from . import spam

Also create a module named spam within the bacon package (it can be an empty file). Now if you try to execute the bacon package (either through python bacon/ or python -m bacon) you will get an ImportError about trying to do a relative import from within a non-package. Obviously the import is valid, but because of the setting of __name__ to '__main__' import thinks that bacon/ is not in a package since no dots exist in __name__. To see how the algorithm works in more detail, see importlib.Import._resolve_name() in the sandbox [2].

Currently a work-around is to remove all relative imports in the module being executed and make them absolute. This is unfortunate, though, as one should not be required to use a specific type of resource in order to make a module in a package be able to be executed.

The Solution

The solution to the problem is to not change the value of __name__ in modules. But there still needs to be a way to let executing code know it is being executed as a script. This is handled with a new attribute in the sys module named main.

When a module is being executed as a script, sys.main will be set to the name of the module. This changes the current idiom of:

if __name__ == '__main__':


import sys
if __name__ == sys.main:

The newly proposed solution does introduce an added line of boilerplate which is a module import. But as the solution does not introduce a new built-in or module attribute (as discussed in Rejected Ideas) it has been deemed worth the extra line.

Another issue with the proposed solution (which also applies to all rejected ideas as well) is that it does not directly solve the problem of discovering the name of a file. Consider python bacon/ By the file name alone it is not obvious whether bacon is a package. In order to properly find this out both the current direction must exist on sys.path as well as bacon/ existing.

But this is the simple example. Consider python ../ From the file name alone it is not at all clear if is in a package or not. One possible solution is to find out what the absolute name of .., check if a file named exists, and then look if the directory is on sys.path. If it is not, then continue to walk up the directory until no more files are found or the directory is found on sys.path.

This could potentially be an expensive process. If the package depth happens to be deep then it could require a large amount of disk access to discover where the package is anchored on sys.path, if at all. The stat calls alone can be expensive if the file system the executed script is on is something like NFS.

Because of these issues, only when the -m command-line argument (introduced by PEP 338) is used will __name__ be set. Otherwise the fallback semantics of setting __name__ to "__main__" will occur. sys.main will still be set to the proper value, regardless of what __name__ is set to.


When the -m option is used, sys.main will be set to the argument passed in. sys.argv will be adjusted as it is currently. Then the equivalent of __import__(self.main) will occur. This differs from current semantics as the runpy module fetches the code object for the file specified by the module name in order to explicitly set __name__ and other attributes. This is no longer needed as import can perform its normal operation in this situation.

If a file name is specified, then sys.main will be set to "__main__". The specified file will then be read and have a code object created and then be executed with __name__ set to "__main__". This mirrors current semantics.

Transition Plan

In order for Python 2.6 to be able to support both the current semantics and the proposed semantics, sys.main will always be set to "__main__". Otherwise no change will occur for Python 2.6. This unfortunately means that no benefit from this change will occur in Python 2.6, but it maximizes compatibility for code that is to work as much as possible with 2.6 and 3.0.

To help transition to the new idiom, 2to3 [1] will gain a rule to transform the current if __name__ == '__main__': ... idiom to the new one. This will not help with code that checks __name__ outside of the idiom, though.

Rejected Ideas

__main__ built-in

A counter-proposal to introduce a built-in named __main__. The value of the built-in would be the name of the module being executed (just like the proposed sys.main). This would lead to a new idiom of:

if __name__ == __main__:

A drawback is that the syntactic difference is subtle; the dropping of quotes around “__main__”. Some believe that for existing Python programmers bugs will be introduced where the quotation marks will be put on by accident. But one could argue that the bug would be discovered quickly through testing as it is a very shallow bug.

While the name of built-in could obviously be different (e.g., main) the other drawback is that it introduces a new built-in. With a simple solution such as sys.main being possible without adding another built-in to Python, this proposal was rejected.

__main__ module attribute

Another proposal was to add a __main__ attribute to every module. For the one that was executing as the main module, the attribute would have a true value while all other modules had a false value. This has a nice consequence of simplify the main module idiom to:

if __main__:

The drawback was the introduction of a new module attribute. It also required more integration with the import machinery than the proposed solution.

Use __file__ instead of __name__

Any of the proposals could be changed to use the __file__ attribute on modules instead of __name__, including the current semantics. The problem with this is that with the proposed solutions there is the issue of modules having no __file__ attribute defined or having the same value as other modules.

The problem that comes up with the current semantics is you still have to try to resolve the file path to a module name for the import to work.

Special string subclass for __name__ that overrides __eq__

One proposal was to define a subclass of str that overrode the __eq__ method so that it would compare equal to "__main__" as well as the actual name of the module. In all other respects the subclass would be the same as str.

This was rejected as it seemed like too much of a hack.



Last modified: 2023-09-09 17:39:29 GMT