| Store | Cart

ActiveState Docs

ActivePython 2.7 Documentation

Title:Imports: Multi-Line and Absolute/Relative
Last-Modified:2007-06-18 21:20:07 -0700 (Mon, 18 Jun 2007)
Author:Aahz <aahz at pythoncraft.com>
Type:Standards Track
Python-Version:2.4, 2,5, 2.6, 2.7


The import statement has two problems:

  • Long import statements can be difficult to write, requiring various contortions to fit Pythonic style guidelines.
  • Imports can be ambiguous in the face of packages; within a package, it's not clear whether import foo refers to a module within the package or some module outside the package. (More precisely, a local module or package can shadow another hanging directly off sys.path.)

For the first problem, it is proposed that parentheses be permitted to enclose multiple names, thus allowing Python's standard mechanisms for multi-line values to apply. For the second problem, it is proposed that all import statements be absolute by default (searching sys.path only) with special syntax (leading dots) for accessing package-relative imports.


In Python 2.5, you must enable the new absolute import behavior with

from __future__ import absolute_import

You may use relative imports freely. In Python 2.6, any import statement that results in an intra-package import will raise DeprecationWarning (this also applies to from <> import that fails to use the relative import syntax). In Python 2.7, import will always be an absolute import (and the __future__ directive will no longer be needed).

Rationale for Parentheses

Currently, if you want to import a lot of names from a module or package, you have to choose one of several unpalatable options:

  • Write a long line with backslash continuations:

    from Tkinter import Tk, Frame, Button, Entry, Canvas, Text, \
  • Write multiple import statements:

    from Tkinter import Tk, Frame, Button, Entry, Canvas, Text
    from Tkinter import LEFT, DISABLED, NORMAL, RIDGE, END

(import * is not an option ;-)

Instead, it should be possible to use Python's standard grouping mechanism (parentheses) to write the import statement:

from Tkinter import (Tk, Frame, Button, Entry, Canvas, Text,

This part of the proposal had BDFL approval from the beginning.

Parentheses support was added to Python 2.4.

Rationale for Absolute Imports

In Python 2.4 and earlier, if you're reading a module located inside a package, it is not clear whether

import foo

refers to a top-level module or to another module inside the package. As Python's library expands, more and more existing package internal modules suddenly shadow standard library modules by accident. It's a particularly difficult problem inside packages because there's no way to specify which module is meant. To resolve the ambiguity, it is proposed that foo will always be a module or package reachable from sys.path. This is called an absolute import.

The python-dev community chose absolute imports as the default because they're the more common use case and because absolute imports can provide all the functionality of relative (intra-package) imports -- albeit at the cost of difficulty when renaming package pieces higher up in the hierarchy or when moving one package inside another.

Because this represents a change in semantics, absolute imports will be optional in Python 2.5 and 2.6 through the use of

from __future__ import absolute_import

This part of the proposal had BDFL approval from the beginning.

Rationale for Relative Imports

With the shift to absolute imports, the question arose whether relative imports should be allowed at all. Several use cases were presented, the most important of which is being able to rearrange the structure of large packages without having to edit sub-packages. In addition, a module inside a package can't easily import itself without relative imports.

Guido approved of the idea of relative imports, but there has been a lot of disagreement on the spelling (syntax). There does seem to be agreement that relative imports will require listing specific names to import (that is, import foo as a bare term will always be an absolute import).

Here are the contenders:

  • One from Guido:

    from .foo import bar


    from ...foo import bar

    These two forms have a couple of different suggested semantics. One semantic is to make each dot represent one level. There have been many complaints about the difficulty of counting dots. Another option is to only allow one level of relative import. That misses a lot of functionality, and people still complained about missing the dot in the one-dot form. The final option is to define an algorithm for finding relative modules and packages; the objection here is "Explicit is better than implicit". (The algorithm proposed is "search up from current package directory until the ultimate package parent gets hit".)

    Some people have suggested other punctuation as the separator, such as "-" or "^".

    Some people have suggested using "*":

    from *.foo import bar
  • The next set of options is conflated from several posters:

    from __pkg__.__pkg__ import


    from .__parent__.__parent__ import

    Many people (Guido included) think these look ugly, but they are clear and explicit. Overall, more people prefer __pkg__ as the shorter option.

  • One suggestion was to allow only sibling references. In other words, you would not be able to use relative imports to refer to modules higher in the package tree. You would then be able to do either

    from .spam import eggs


    import .spam.eggs
  • Some people favor allowing indexed parents:

    from -2.spam import eggs

    In this scenario, importing from the current directory would be a simple

    from .spam import eggs
  • Finally, some people dislike the way you have to change import to from ... import when you want to dig inside a package. They suggest completely rewriting the import syntax:

    from MODULE import NAMES as RENAME searching HOW


    import NAMES as RENAME from MODULE searching HOW
        [from NAMES] [in WHERE] import ...

    However, this most likely could not be implemented for Python 2.5 (too big a change), and allowing relative imports is sufficiently critical that we need something now (given that the standard import will change to absolute import). More than that, this proposed syntax has several open questions:

    • What is the precise proposed syntax? (Which clauses are optional under which circumstances?)

    • How strongly does the searching clause bind? In other words, do you write:

      import foo as bar searching XXX, spam as ham searching XXX


      import foo as bar, spam as ham searching XXX

Guido's Decision

Guido has Pronounced [1] that relative imports will use leading dots. A single leading dot indicates a relative import, starting with the current package. Two or more leading dots give a relative import to the parent(s) of the current package, one level per dot after the first. Here's a sample package layout:


Assuming that the current file is either moduleX.py or subpackage1/__init__.py, following are correct usages of the new syntax:

from .moduleY import spam
from .moduleY import spam as ham
from . import moduleY
from ..subpackage1 import moduleY
from ..subpackage2.moduleZ import eggs
from ..moduleA import foo
from ...package import bar
from ...sys import path

Note that while that last case is legal, it is certainly discouraged ("insane" was the word Guido used).

Relative imports must always use from <> import; import <> is always absolute. Of course, absolute imports can use from <> import by omitting the leading dots. The reason import .foo is prohibited is because after

import XXX.YYY.ZZZ



is usable in an expression. But


is not usable in an expression.

Relative Imports and __name__

Relative imports use a module's __name__ attribute to determine that module's position in the package hierarchy. If the module's name does not contain any package information (e.g. it is set to '__main__') then relative imports are resolved as if the module were a top level module, regardless of where the module is actually located on the file system.

Relative Imports and Indirection Entries in sys.modules

When packages were introduced, the concept of an indirection entry in sys.modules came into existence [2]. When an entry in sys.modules for a module within a package had a value of None, it represented that the module actually referenced the top-level module. For instance, 'Sound.Effects.string' might have a value of None in sys.modules. That meant any import that resolved to that name actually was to import the top-level 'string' module.

This introduced an optimization for when a relative import was meant to resolve to an absolute import. But since this PEP makes a very clear delineation between absolute and relative imports, this optimization is no longer needed. When absolute/relative imports become the only import semantics available then indirection entries in sys.modules will no longer be supported.