Recursion: Python
No Nested Lists Anymore, I Want Them to Turn Flat

Let’s use recursion to solve another problem involving lists: flatten().

We want to write a function that removes nested lists within a list but keeps the values contained.

nested_planets = ['mercury', 'venus', ['earth'], 'mars', [['jupiter', 'saturn']], 'uranus', ['neptune', 'pluto']] flatten(nested_planets) # ['mercury', # 'venus', # 'earth', # 'mars', # 'jupiter', # 'saturn', # 'uranus', # 'neptune', # 'pluto']

Remember our tools for recursive functions. We want to identify a base case, and we need to think about a recursive step that takes us closer to achieving the base case.

For this problem, we have two scenarios as we move through the list.

  • The element in the list is a list itself.
    • We have more work to do!
  • The element in the list is not a list.
    • All set!

Which is the base case and which is the recursive step?



Define flatten() which has a single parameter named my_list.

We’ll start by declaring a variable, result and setting it to an empty list.

result is our intermediary variable that houses elements from my_list.

Return result.


Returning an empty list isn’t much good to us, it should be filled with the values contained in my_list.

Use a for loop to iterate through my_list.

Inside the loop, we need a conditional for our recursive step. Check if the element in the current iteration is a list.

We can use Python’s isinstance() like so:

a_list = ['listing it up!'] not_a_list = 'string here' isinstance(a_list, list) # True isinstance(not_a_list, list) # False

For now, print "List found!" in the conditional.

Outside of the method definition, call flatten() and pass planets as an argument.


We need to make the recursive step draw us closer to the base case, where every element is not a list.

After your print statement, declare the variable flat_list, and assign it to a recursive call to flatten() passing in your iterating variable as the argument.

flatten() will return a list, update result so it now includes every element contained in flat_list.

Test flatten() by calling it on the planets and printing the result.


Nice work! Now the base case.

If the iterating variable is not a list, we can update result, so it includes this element at the end of the list.

flatten() should now return the complete result.

Print the result!

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