Python Decorators

February 7 - 2021

Originally described in the “Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software” book, decorators are a powerful design pattern that allows us to extend or augment an object’s functionality. In this post I will show with some practical examples how this can be achieved in Python via the @decorator syntax.

What do decorators do?

The important question is not what decorators are, but what they can do for us. Decorators can be implemented as functions or as classes (we will see examples of both later), but what they do is “wrap” functions (or even classes) so that their behavior can be changed seamlessly. Python provides the @decorator syntax to do this, though it is merely syntactic sugar and not actually required to implement the decorator pattern.

Before we start implementing decorators though, there are a few things we need to remember:

  • Functions and classes are objects, and they can be passed around as arguments, functions can also return functions.
  • When we define nested functions, they will have access to the context they were defined in. This is basically a closure.

Building the concept with examples

A decorator will wrap a function and add some behavior (before or after) the original function. Probably the simplest way of decorating a function is:

This works, but it’s pretty clunky. There’s the obvious problem that we need to remember to call the decorated function instead of the original. Of course we could add something like say_name = decorated at the end of our code, but there’s also another problem, our “decorator” is pretty much impossible to reuse. It’s not that this way of decorating functions doesn’t work, it does, but it’s just not particularly useful.

If we consider we can pass functions around, we can come up with a slightly more reusable way of decorating functions. We can write our decorator as a function that takes a function to be wrapped and whose return value will be the decorated function. This sounds like a bit of a tongue-twister, it is better understood when seen in action.

If we now call wrapped_say_name we will get:

I'm going to call the original function...
I'm Mauro.
I just called the original function.

There’s a few important things to note here:

  1. We are passing the say_name function as an argument to decorator.
  2. The nested function, wrapped, has access to the context in which it was defined and can call function_to_wrap.
  3. The return value of our function (decorator) is a function (wrapped).

This is clearly much better as we can now reuse the same code to wrap other functions. This is still, however, a very flawed example as there are a couple of things we are not considering:

  • What would happen if the wrapped function had arguments that needed to be passed?
  • What would happen if the wrapped function had to return a value?

Addressing the second point is the easiest, we just need to add a return when calling function_to_wrap. Addressing the first point might be a bit tougher if we want to make sure our decorator is as generic as it can be. We can obviously add the same parameters that function_to_wrap would take (if it took any), but the generic solution here would be to take advantage of using * and ** in function definitions.

Let’s look at a more real life example of decorating a function. Let’s create a decorator that will time how long a function takes to execute and will print it out.

The output was:

Function took 1.9073486328125e-06 seconds.
Function took 9.5367431640625e-07 seconds.

In this case we wrapped the division function and timed how long it took. This is a more interesting example because division takes two arguments, the numbers to divide, and also returns the result. What the interface will look like for our decorator, and what we will do with the return value is something that we need to account for when designing a decorator. In this case the decorator’s interface is as generic as it can be, basically taking any positional and keyword arguments and passing them on to the wrapped function. It also has to be slightly careful with the return value, as it needs to store it before returning it so that it can print out the “Function took…” message instead of returning prematurely.

There is one thing this decorator is still not considering though, exceptions. Some functions, like the division function can raise exceptions. It is then the decorator’s responsibility to decide that to do (or not do) with them. In this case exceptions are ignored and allowed to go though, but this means we will never know how long it took for the function to fail. If it was relevant to us we would probably wrap the call in a try/except block and re-raise the original exception.

A fixed version of our decorator could look like:

Something interesting about exceptions raised in decorators is that when looking at the stack trace we can see the decorator is there.

Now that we’ve understood what decorators can do, let’s look at some syntactic sugar we can use and at some more complex examples.

The @decorator syntax

Python provides a handy way of decorating functions by preceding a function definition with a @ followed by the decorator name. This can be used in module-level functions or even in class methods. If we go back to our previous example, we can simply define our division function as:

If we do this, our definition of division is replaced by the decorated function, so in this case using @timed replaces division with what we previously defined as timed_division. Using @timed just allowed us to call the wrapped function as if we were calling the original one.

Decorators with parameters

Up until now, the decorator we were using did not take any arguments, but what if it did? In this case, the function to wrap would be wrapped with the result of calling decorator(args). This means that our decorator function has to be first “built” before it can be used to return a decorated function. This sounds a bit confusing so let’s look at an example. Let’s take the timed decorator from before and make it so that it can print a shorter version of the message. For brevity’s sake we will remove the exception handling. This new decorator will look like so:

This will output:

Function call took 2.1457672119140625e-06 seconds.

What the timed function now does is build the decorator itself, while the decorator function is what actually decorates division. decorator is now what timed was in our previous examples.

It is important to note that now when decorating something, we need to decorate with a call. Using plain old @timed will not work, we need to either use it like @timed() or pass a boolean in this case like @timed(False).

To do this we could also use a class instead of nesting functions. Basically instead of returning a function we can return a class instance that is also callable. Calling that class instance will return the decorated function. An alternative implementation of the decorator in this case could look like so:

When we do @timed(), a new instance of the timed class is created and initialized with verbose = false. Then that instance is called with division as an argument which is stored in self.decorated_f and a reference to the wrapper method is returned. It is the wrapper method that will wrap division and replace it. Note that I opted to make the wrapper a method, but it could have also been a nested function like we had been doing before.

Looking back, we could have also implemented the original decorator as a class with an __init__ that took the function to wrap and a __call__ to act as the decorated function.

If you want to use a class or a set of nested functions is really up to you, it depends on what you want to implement and what would look best in that case.


So far we’ve seen that it is rather easy to decorate a function and replace the original with it, but by replacing the original we are actually destroying some information.

All functions have a __name__ attribute which returns, you’ve guessed it, its name. Functions will also have a __doc__ attribute with their docstring. However, by replacing the original function, these are lost. If we took our last example and checked the value of division.__name__ we would see it returns 'wrapper'. If we checked division.__doc__, the wrapper’s docstring would be returned and not the one from our division function (if we had one).

Thankfully, the standard library comes with functools.wraps which ensures that the original name and docstring (among others) are preserved. The implementation is rather simple and can be found here.

Examples in the standard library

Some commonly used decorators in the standard library include:

Decorating classes

It is also possible to decorate classes, the difference is that the decorator will return a class instead of a function (or at least something that behaves like a class).

One example of this is the @dataclass decorator in the standard library.

While this can be useful, it means treading deeper into metaprogramming territory, and depending on the case, it is possible that metaclasses fit this use-case better. This is a whole other topic and is something too big to cover here.


Decorators are powerful tools that allow us to enhance our code and change its behavior in a very simple way that does not require us to change the structure of our programs. Mastering the use of decorators is a must for every Python programmer.