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How to sort Pandas dataframe

Understanding Data Sorting in Pandas

In the world of data analysis with Python, the Pandas library stands out for its powerful data manipulation capabilities. One of the fundamental tasks you'll often need to perform is sorting your data to make sense of it or prepare it for further analysis. Think of sorting like organizing a bookshelf: you might arrange books by title, author, or genre to make finding what you need easier. Similarly, sorting data helps you to quickly locate and understand patterns or outliers.

Sorting by a Single Column

Let's dive into how you can sort a Pandas DataFrame, which is a two-dimensional, size-mutable, and potentially heterogeneous tabular data structure with labeled axes (rows and columns). To sort a DataFrame by a single column, you use the sort_values() method.

Imagine you have a DataFrame called df that contains information about books, with columns for 'Title', 'Author', and 'Year Published'. If you want to sort the DataFrame by the year the books were published, you would use the following code:

sorted_df = df.sort_values(by='Year Published')

This will sort df in ascending order (from the earliest to the latest year) and store the sorted DataFrame in a new variable called sorted_df. If you want to sort in descending order, you simply add the ascending=False parameter:

sorted_df_desc = df.sort_values(by='Year Published', ascending=False)

Sorting by Multiple Columns

Sometimes, you might need a more refined sort, like first organizing your bookshelf by genre, then within each genre, by author's last name. In Pandas, you can sort by multiple columns by passing a list of column names to the sort_values() method:

sorted_df = df.sort_values(by=['Genre', 'Author'])

This sorts df first by 'Genre' in ascending order, and then, within each genre, it sorts by 'Author'.

Handling Missing Values

When sorting, you might encounter missing values (NaNs). By default, Pandas will place these at the end of your DataFrame, regardless of whether you're sorting in ascending or descending order. If you want to control where NaNs appear, you can use the na_position parameter:

sorted_df = df.sort_values(by='Year Published', na_position='first')

This command will place any rows with a NaN in the 'Year Published' column at the beginning of the DataFrame.

Sorting by Index

Apart from sorting by column values, you might want to sort by the DataFrame's index. The index is like the page numbers in a book, helping you to quickly locate information. To sort by index, you use the sort_index() method:

sorted_df = df.sort_index()

This will sort the DataFrame based on the index in ascending order. For descending order, add ascending=False:

sorted_df = df.sort_index(ascending=False)

In-Place Sorting

When you sort a DataFrame, Pandas returns a new DataFrame by default. However, if you want to modify the original DataFrame directly, use the inplace=True parameter:

df.sort_values(by='Year Published', inplace=True)

This will sort df by 'Year Published' and the changes will be made in df itself, rather than creating a new sorted DataFrame.

Custom Sorting

Sometimes, you might need to sort by a custom order, not just ascending or descending. For example, if you have a column 'Genre' with values 'Fiction', 'Non-Fiction', and 'Poetry', and you want to sort in that specific order, you can do so with the help of the pd.Categorical type:

df['Genre'] = pd.Categorical(df['Genre'], ['Fiction', 'Non-Fiction', 'Poetry'])
sorted_df = df.sort_values(by='Genre')

This will sort the 'Genre' column by the custom order you specified.

Performance Tips

Sorting can be computationally expensive, especially with large datasets. One performance tip is to sort by the index whenever possible, as it's typically faster than sorting by values. Also, if you're working with a multi-index DataFrame (a DataFrame with multiple levels of indexing), it's generally more efficient to sort by index levels.

Practical Examples

To give you a clearer picture, let's walk through a practical example. Imagine you have a dataset of a small library with the following information:

import pandas as pd

# Sample data
data = {
    'Title': ['To Kill a Mockingbird', '1984', 'The Great Gatsby', 'The Hobbit'],
    'Author': ['Harper Lee', 'George Orwell', 'F. Scott Fitzgerald', 'J.R.R. Tolkien'],
    'Year Published': [1960, 1949, 1925, 1937],
    'Genre': ['Fiction', 'Fiction', 'Fiction', 'Fantasy']

# Create DataFrame
df = pd.DataFrame(data)

# Sort by Year Published in descending order
sorted_by_year = df.sort_values(by='Year Published', ascending=False)

# Sort by Genre, then by Title
sorted_by_genre_title = df.sort_values(by=['Genre', 'Title'])

Intuition and Analogies

To help you understand sorting in Pandas, imagine you're organizing a photo album. You might first decide to arrange photos by date, then within each year, by the event type. Sorting a DataFrame is much like this, where you're organizing rows based on the values in one or more columns.


Sorting is a fundamental skill in data analysis, helping to reveal insights and make your data more accessible. With Pandas, sorting is a breeze, whether you're dealing with simple or complex datasets. Remember, sorting a DataFrame is like organizing a bookshelf or a photo album: it's all about putting things in the right order to make the information you need easier to find. As you continue your programming journey, you'll find that mastering sorting will not only improve your data analysis skills but also enhance your ability to think logically and systematically about data organization. Happy sorting!