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What is eval in Python

Understanding eval in Python

When you're starting out in the world of programming, you'll often hear that Python is an incredibly powerful and versatile language. One of the features that makes Python stand out is its ability to evaluate expressions from a string-based input. This is where eval comes into play.

What is eval?

eval is a built-in Python function that takes a string argument and runs it as if it were a Python expression. In simpler terms, it's like having a mini Python interpreter that can execute code within your code. This might sound a bit confusing, so let's break it down with an example.

Imagine you have a calculator, and you type in 2 + 2. The calculator takes that input, processes it, and gives you back the result, 4. The eval function does something similar but with Python code. If you give eval the string '2 + 2', it will process it and return the result 4.

result = eval('2 + 2')
print(result)  # This will print out 4.

When to Use eval

You might be thinking, "Why would I need to use eval when I can just write the code directly?" Well, there are scenarios where eval can be quite useful. For example, if you're creating a program that needs to execute dynamic Python expressions based on user input, eval would be a tool to consider.

Let's say you're building a simple command-line calculator. You could use eval to process the user's input:

user_input = input("Enter a mathematical expression: ")
result = eval(user_input)
print(f"The result is: {result}")

This would allow users to type in expressions like 50 * 2 or 100 / 4 and get results instantly.

The Risks of Using eval

Now, before we go further, it's crucial to understand that eval can be dangerous. Since it can execute arbitrary code, a user could potentially input something malicious. For instance, if someone inputs __import__('os').system('rm -rf /'), it could attempt to delete all the files on your computer! (Note: Please do not try this; it's just an example of what could go wrong.)

Because of this, you should be extremely cautious when using eval. Always validate and sanitize the input before passing it to eval. In many cases, it's better to avoid eval altogether if you're dealing with untrusted input.

Limiting the Power of eval

If you must use eval, Python provides a way to restrict the available functions and variables that the evaluated code can access. This is done by passing optional arguments to eval: globals and locals.

The globals argument is a dictionary that defines the global variables in the evaluated code. If you pass an empty dictionary, the code will not have access to any global variables or functions.

The locals argument is similar but for local variables. By controlling these, you can limit what the evaluated code can do.

restricted_globals = {}
restricted_locals = {'a': 1, 'b': 2}
result = eval('a + b', restricted_globals, restricted_locals)
print(result)  # This will print out 3.

In this example, the evaluated code can only use the variables a and b that we've defined. It can't access other parts of Python.

Alternatives to eval

If you're wary of the risks of eval, there are safer alternatives depending on your use case. For mathematical expressions, you can use the ast module's literal_eval function, which only allows literals like strings, numbers, tuples, lists, dicts, booleans, and None.

from ast import literal_eval

safe_expression = '1 + 2'
result = literal_eval(safe_expression)
print(result)  # This will print out 3.

literal_eval is much safer because it doesn't allow the execution of arbitrary code, only expressions that result in Python literals.

Intuition and Analogies

To help understand eval, imagine you have a friend who's really good at math. You can write down any math problem on a piece of paper, give it to them, and they'll solve it for you. That's kind of what eval does with Python code.

However, if you accidentally include a personal question or a secret code in your note, your friend might reveal something you didn't intend. This is similar to how eval can execute something harmful if you're not careful with what you pass to it.

Practical Code Examples

Let's dive into some code examples to see eval in action.

Example 1: Simple Arithmetic

expression = '3 * (4 + 5)'
print(eval(expression))  # Outputs: 27

Example 2: Using Variables

x = 10
expression = 'x * 2'
print(eval(expression))  # Outputs: 20

Example 3: A Dynamic Function

def square(num):
    return num * num

expression = 'square(5)'
print(eval(expression))  # Outputs: 25

In these examples, eval is used to evaluate simple arithmetic expressions, use variables in expressions, and even call functions dynamically.


The eval function in Python is like a Swiss Army knife – incredibly versatile but should be handled with care. It can be useful in scenarios where you need to execute dynamic code, but it also poses security risks if not used properly. Always validate and sanitize inputs before using eval, and consider safer alternatives like literal_eval when dealing with untrusted input.

As you continue on your programming journey, remember that functions like eval are powerful tools in your toolbox. With a good understanding of when and how to use them, you'll be able to write smarter and more dynamic Python programs. Just like learning to handle a sharp knife in the kitchen, mastering eval requires practice and respect for its capabilities—and its dangers. Happy coding!