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Negative Index in Python

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In this article, I shall be explaining negative indexes in Python. But first, we have to know these prerequisites: iterables and indexing. Having a fair knowledge on these two are paramount to understanding how negative indexes works.
So we shall be looking at the following:

  • Iterable
  • Indexing
  • Negative indexes
  • Pictorial illustration of negative indexes
  • Code examples of the use of neagtive index in a list iterable
  • Benefits of negative indexes


An iterable is an object that can be traversed over. Meaning you can go through all the elements contained in the object. Iterables are also capable of returning each element they contain one-by-one and the amount of elements they can contain is only limited by the memory size of the computer. Examples of iterables are:

  • Lists
  • Sets
  • Tuples
  • Dicts (Dictionaries)
  • Strings

Although Sets and Dicts are iterables, they do not have indices. Meaning that thier elements cannot be indexed unlike Lists, Tuples and Strings


Indexing in Python is performed on iterables. It is a means of getting individual elements within an iterable by the element's position. This enables you to get or remove a specific element within a selected iterable if that elements postion is known.
Elements in an iterable are normally positively indexed in Python, starting from zero (0) and going up to the tail or last element of the iterable.

Negative Index

Earlier, we mentioned that elements in a Python iterable are positively indexed by default. The reverse is also possible here as they can be negatively indexed as well, starting from -1.
Negative indexes in Python works completely differently from positive (or zero-based) indexes. With negative indexes, elements are returned from the end of the iterable, with the last element having a value of -1. As negative indexes are used to get or remove an element starting from the back of the iterable, they are very useful in slicing.

Slicing in Python is the means of accessing parts of an iterable like strings, lists and tuples.


negindex(Negative Index Illustration)

Code Examples

In the code examples, we shall be using the list iterable as a preferred choice. The same example also works for tuple and str (string) iterables.

1. Returning elements in a list iterable with negative index

#list definition
test_list = [0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

#returns the 'last' element in the list

#returns the 'second to last' element in the list

#returns the 'third to last' element in the list



In this example, we define and initialize test_list and using the negative index to get the last 3 values, 6, 5, 4 was printed vertically on the screen.

2.Removing elements in a list iterable with negative index

Using the builtin function pop(), we can remove any element from the list to get a new list.

This will not work for the tuple iterable since they are immutable. meaning that thier values cannot be changed or removed.

#list definition
test_list = [0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

#removes the 'last' element in the list

#removes the 'second to last' element in the list

#removes the 'third to last' element in the list



[0, 1, 2, 3]

In this example, we used pop() to access and remove the last 3 elements in the list which resulted in a new list.

3. Slicing a list iterable with negative index

#list definition
test_list = [0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

#Slicing the list with negative index 
#Assigning the new list to a variable
sliced_list = test_list [-5:-1]

#Returns the new list


[2, 3, 4, 5]

In this example, we defined a list and sliced it to create a new list. The slicing was done from the last element (exclsuive) to the fifth to last element (inclusive).

The syntax for slicing in Python is item[start:stop:step], with all of them being optional values if you just want the original list back after slicing (which is redundant and probably best to avoid).

4. Reversing the order of a list iterable with negative index

#list definition
test_list = [0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

#reversing the list
#assigning the reversed list to a variable
reversed_list = test_list[::-1]

#returns the reversed list


[6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0]

In this example, we reversed the list to display the last element first and the first element last using a negative index step of -1. This is required in order to traverse through the list from the back in steps of 1.

Benefits of Negative index

Negative indexing has a lot of advantages in programming. Some of these benefits include:

  1. Reverses an iterable in just a single line of code which enhances productivity.
  2. Enables access to the last element of an iterable in case the size is not known.
  3. Helps in negative slicing.
  4. Reduces the overall complexity of performed operations on an iterable.


Question 1

Which iterable cannot be indexed in the options below?

The Set iterable cannot be indexed

Question 2

In negative indexing, the last element of an iterable has an index value of what?

Negative index always starts from -1. So the last element of an iterable will have an index value of -1
Negative Index in Python
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