Python Off-by-One Errors

Off-by-one errors are a type of logic error in Python programming, which are surprisingly common and can easily trip you up until you gain the habit of thinking really carefully about you code – especially when it comes to iteration, AKA loops in Python.

Off-by-one errors occur when you make a mistake in a loop or index that results in one too many or one too few iterations. This can lead to unintended consequences such as index out of bounds errors or incorrect/unexpected results.

In Python, off-by-one errors are quite common due to the way that the range function works. The range function generates a sequence of numbers from a start value to an end value, but it does not include the end value in the sequence. For example, the following code will print a sequence of numbers from 1 to 10:

for i in range(1, 11):

You can see that it prints the numbers 1 through 10, but it does not include the number 11. This is because the range function, when used with two parameters, starts at the first value and stops one short of the second. If used with just one value, the starting value is implicitly 0.

If you want to include the end value in the sequence, you will need to add 1 to it. For example, to print a sequence of numbers from 1 to 11, you would use the following code:

for i in range(1, 12):

To avoid off-by-one errors when using the range function, it’s important to carefully consider the start and end values of the range.

Using try and except to Catch Off by One Errors in Python

Off-by-one errors can be difficult to spot, especially in long or complex programs. To avoid them, it’s important to carefully consider the start and end values of your loops and the indices you are using to access elements in lists and strings. One place where you can easily get tripped up by off-by-one errors is when learning to implement the various types of sorting algorithms such as Bubble Sort, Selection Sort, Insertion Sort, Merge Sort etc.

Python provides a great way to handle various issues which your code may run into, in the form of Exceptions. These are a subject for another post, but below is an example of how to use try and except to catch off-by-one errors:

This example shows how to use try, except and raise to exit a program cleanly if an index value error occurs:

import random

xs = [random.randint(0, 9) for _ in range(10)]

for i in range(len(xs)):
        print(xs[i] == xs[i + 1])
    except IndexError:
        print("That index doesn't exist.")
        raise SystemExit

Here’s an example of output from that code:

That index doesn't exist.

What we tried to do was to see if the value at a particular index was the same as the one at the next index, but we “fell off the end” of our list! However, Python handled the situation gracefully by “catching” the ValueError and exiting cleanly with a user friendly message, rather than simply crashing.

This article has discussed off-by-one errors in Python. These can be a pesky source of bugs in your Python code until you develop the habit of thinking really carefully about how your use loops in your programs.

Happy computing!

Recommended Python Books for Beginners

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *