The first step to change the Python C API is to define what is a good and a bad C API. The goal is to hide implementation details. The new C API must not leak implementation details anymore.

The Python C API is just too big. For performance reasons, CPython calls internally directly the implementation of a function instead of using the abstract API. For example, PyDict_GetItem() is preferred over PyObject_GetItem(). Inside, CPython, such optimization is fine. But exposing so many functions is an issue: CPython has to keep backward compatibility, PyPy has to implement all these functions, etc. Third party C extensions should call abstract functions like PyObject_GetItem().

Borrowed references

Problem caused by borrowed references

A borrowed reference is a pointer which doesn’t “hold” a reference. If the object is destroyed, the borrowed reference becomes a dangling pointer: point to freed memory which might be reused by a new object. Borrowed references can lead to bugs and crashes when misused. Recent example of CPython bug: bpo-25750: crash in type_getattro().

Borrowed references are a problem whenever there is no reference to borrow: they assume that a referenced object already exists (and thus have a positive refcount), so that it is just borrowed.

Tagged pointers are an example of this: since there is no concrete PyObject* to represent the integer, it cannot easily be manipulated.

PyPy has a similar problem with list strategies: if there is a list containing only integers, it is stored as a compact C array of longs, and the W_IntObject is only created when an item is accessed (most of the time the W_IntObject is optimized away by the JIT, but this is another story).

But for cpyext, this is a problem: PyList_GetItem() returns a borrowed reference, but there is no any concrete PyObject* to return! The current cpyext solution is very bad: basically, the first time PyList_GetItem() is called, the whole list is converted to a list of PyObject*, just to have something to return: see cpyext get_list_storage().

See also the Specialized list for small integers optimization: same optimization applied to CPython. This optimization is incompatible with borrowed references, since the runtime cannot guess when the temporary object should be destroyed.

If PyList_GetItem() returned a strong reference, the PyObject* could just be allocated on the fly and destroy it when the user decref it. Basically, by putting borrowed references in the API, we are fixing in advance the data structure to use!

C API using borrowed references

CPython 3.7 has many functions and macros which return or use borrowed references. For example, PyTuple_GetItem() returns a borrowed reference, whereas PyTuple_SetItem() stores a borrowed reference (store an item into a tuple without increasing the reference counter).

CPython contains Doc/data/refcounts.dat (file is edited manually) which documents how functions handle reference count.

See also functions steal references.


  • PyDict_GetItem()
  • PyDict_GetItemWithError()
  • PyDict_GetItemString()
  • PyDict_SetDefault()
  • PyErr_Occurred()
  • PyEval_GetBuiltins()
  • PyEval_GetFuncName(): return the internal const char* inside a
    borrowed reference to a function __name__.
  • PyFile_Name()
  • PyFunction_GetClosure()
  • PyFunction_GetCode()
  • PyFunction_GetDefaults()
  • PyFunction_GetGlobals()
  • PyFunction_GetModule()
  • Py_InitModule()
  • Py_InitModule3()
  • Py_InitModule4()
  • PyImport_GetModuleDict()
  • PyList_GetItem()
  • PyList_SetItem()
  • PyMethod_Class()
  • PyMethod_Function()
  • PyMethod_Self()
  • PyModule_GetDict()
  • PyNumber_Check()
  • PyObject_Init()
  • PySys_GetObject()
  • PySys_GetXOptions()
  • PyThreadState_GetDict()
  • PyTuple_GetItem()
  • PyTuple_SetItem()
  • PyWeakref_GetObject(): see


  • PyCell_GET()
  • PyList_GET_ITEM()
  • PyList_SET_ITEM()
  • PyMethod_GET_CLASS()
  • PyMethod_GET_FUNCTION()
  • PyMethod_GET_SELF()
  • PySequence_Fast_GET_ITEM()
  • PyTuple_GET_ITEM()
  • PyTuple_SET_ITEM()
  • PyWeakref_GET_OBJECT()

Border line

  • Py_SETREF(), Py_XSETREF(): the caller has to manually increment the reference counter of the new value
  • N format of Py_BuildValue()?

Py_TYPE() corner case

Technically, Py_TYPE() returns a borrowed reference to a PyTypeObject*. In practice, for heap types, an instance holds already a strong reference to the type in PyObject.ob_type. For static types, instances use a borrowed reference, but static types are never destroyed.

Hugh Fisher summarized:

It don’t think it is worth forcing every C extension module to be rewritten, and incur a performance hit, to eliminate a rare bug from badly written code.

See the discussion on capi-sig: Open questions about borrowed reference. (Sept 2018).

Duplicated functions

  • PyEval_CallObjectWithKeywords(): almost duplicate PyObject_Call(), except that args (tuple of positional arguments) can be NULL
  • PyObject_CallObject(): almost duplicate PyObject_Call(), except that args (tuple of positional arguments) can be NULL

Only keep abstract functions?

Good: abstract functions. Examples:

  • PyObject_GetItem(), PySequence_GetItem()

Bad? implementations for concrete types. Examples:

  • PyObject_GetItem(), PySequence_GetItem():
    • PyList_GetItem()
    • PyTuple_GetItem()
    • PyDict_GetItem()

Implementations for concrete types don’t have to be part of the C API. Moreover, using directly them introduce bugs when the caller pass a subtype. For example, PyDict_GetItem() must not be used on a dict subtype, since __getitem__() be be overridden for good reasons.

Functions kept for backward compatibility

  • PyEval_CallFunction(): a comment says “PyEval_CallFunction is exact copy of PyObject_CallFunction. This function is kept for backward compatibility.”
  • PyEval_CallMethod(): a comment says “PyEval_CallMethod is exact copy of PyObject_CallMethod. This function is kept for backward compatibility.”

No public C functions if it can’t be done in Python

There should not be C APIs that do something that you can’t do in Python.

Example: the C buffer protocol, the Python memoryview type only expose a subset of buffer features.

Array of pointers to Python objects (PyObject**)

PyObject** must not be exposed: PyObject** PySequence_Fast_ITEMS(ob) has to go.


The PyDict_GetItem() API is one of the most commonly called function but it has multiple flaws:

The dictionary lookup is surrounded by PyErr_Fetch() and PyErr_Restore() to ignore any exception.

If hash(key) raises an exception, it clears the exception and just returns NULL.

Enjoy the comment from the C code:

/* Note that, for historical reasons, PyDict_GetItem() suppresses all errors
 * that may occur (originally dicts supported only string keys, and exceptions
 * weren't possible).  So, while the original intent was that a NULL return
 * meant the key wasn't present, in reality it can mean that, or that an error
 * (suppressed) occurred while computing the key's hash, or that some error
 * (suppressed) occurred when comparing keys in the dict's internal probe
 * sequence.  A nasty example of the latter is when a Python-coded comparison
 * function hits a stack-depth error, which can cause this to return NULL
 * even if the key is present.

Functions implemented with PyDict_GetItem():

  • PyDict_GetItemString()
  • _PyDict_GetItemId()

There is PyDict_GetItemWithError() which doesn’t ignore all errors: it only ignores KeyError if the key doesn’t exist. Sadly, the function still returns a borrowed references.

C structures

Don’t leak the structures like PyObject or PyTupleObject to not access directly fields, to not use fixed offset at the ABI level. Replace macros with functions calls. PyPy already does this in its C API (cpyext).

Example of macros:

  • PyCell_GET(): access directly PyCellObject.ob_ref
  • PyList_GET_ITEM(): access directly PyListObject.ob_item
  • PyMethod_GET_FUNCTION(): access directly PyMethodObject.im_func
  • PyMethod_GET_SELF(): access directly PyMethodObject.im_self
  • PySequence_Fast_GET_ITEM(): use PyList_GET_ITEM() or PyTuple_GET_ITEM()
  • PyTuple_GET_ITEM(): access directly PyTupleObject.ob_item
  • PyWeakref_GET_OBJECT(): access directly PyWeakReference.wr_object

PyType_Ready() and setting directly PyTypeObject fields

  • PyTypeObject structure should become opaque
  • PyType_Ready() should be removed

See Implement a PyTypeObject in C for the rationale.

Integer overflow

PyLong_AsUnsignedLongMask() ignores integer overflow.

k format of PyArg_ParseTuple() calls PyLong_AsUnsignedLongMask().

See also PyLong_AsLongAndOverflow().

Functions stealing references

  • PyContext_Exit(): ctx
  • PyContextVar_Reset(): token
  • PyErr_Restore(): type, value, traceback
  • PySet_Discard(): key, no effect if key not found
  • PyString_ConcatAndDel(): newpart
  • Py_DECREF(): o
  • Py_XDECREF(): o, if o is not NULL
  • PyModule_AddObject(): o on success, no change on error!

See also borrowed references.

Open questions

Reference counting

Should we do something for reference counting, Py_INCREF and Py_DECREF? Replace them with function calls at least?

See Change the garbage collector and Py_INCREF.


Weird PyObject_CallFunction() API: bpo-28977. Fix the API or document it?

PyPy requests

Finalizer API

Deprecate finalizer API: PyTypeObject.tp_finalize of PEP 442. Too specific to the CPython garbage collector? Destructors (__del__()) are not deterministic in PyPy because of their garbage collector: context manager must be used (ex: with file:), or resources must be explicitly released (ex: file.close()).

Cython uses _PyGC_FINALIZED(), see:

Compact Unicode API

Deprecate Unicode API introduced by the PEP 393, compact strings, like PyUnicode_4BYTE_DATA(str_obj).


The family of PyArg_Parse*() functions like PyArg_ParseTuple() support a wide range of argument formats, but some of them leak implementation details:

  • O: returns a borrowed reference
  • s: returns a pointer to internal storage

Is it an issue? Should we do something?

For internal use only

The C API documentation contains a few functions with the note “For internal use only”. Examples:

  • _PyImport_Init()
  • PyImport_Cleanup()
  • _PyImport_Fini()

Why PyImport_Cleanup() is still a public method?

Public but not documented and not part of Python.h:

  • PyFrame_FastToLocalsWithError()
  • PyFrame_FastToLocals()
  • PyFrame_LocalsToFast()

These functions should be made really private and removed from the C API.