Simplifying argparse usage with subcommands


October 12, 2016

One of the best things about Python is its standard library: it’s frequently possible to create complex applications while requiring few (if any) external dependencies. For example, command line interfaces can be easily built with the argparse module. Despite this, there exist several alternative, third-party modules (e.g., docopt, click, and begins). These all tend to share similar motivations: while argparse is powerful, it is by inherently verbose and is therefore cumbersome to use for more complex CLIs which use advanced features such as subcommands. Nevertheless, I tend to prefer sticking with argparse in part because I am already familiar with the API and because using it means I don’t need to bring in another dependency from PyPI just to add a small bit of extra functionality. The good news is that with a simple decorator and a convenience function, writing CLIs with subcommands in argparse is pretty trivial and clean.

Start by creating a parser and subparsers in

from argparse import ArgumentParser

cli = ArgumentParser()
subparsers = cli.add_subparsers(dest="subcommand")

Note that we are storing the name of the called subcommand so that we can later print help if either no subcommand is given or if an unrecognized one is. Now we can define a decorator to turn a function into a subcommand:

def subcommand(args=[], parent=subparsers):
    def decorator(func):
        parser = parent.add_parser(func.__name__, description=func.__doc__)
        for arg in args:
            parser.add_argument(*arg[0], **arg[1])
    return decorator

What this does is take the wrapped function and use its name and docstring for the subcommand name and help string, respectively. Next it automatically adds arguments for the subcommand from a list passed to the decorator. In order to dispatch the command later, the usual parser.set_defaults method is used to store the function itself in the func variable.

In the simplest case, we can create a subcommand which requires no arguments as follows:

def nothing(args):
    print("Nothing special!")

Meanwhile, in our main function, we dispatch the subcommand as follows:

if __name__ == "__main__":
    args = cli.parse_args()
    if args.subcommand is None:

Now running python nothing will run the nothing function and simply print Nothing special! to stdout.

More often, subcommands require their own set of options. In the definition of the subcommand decorator above, these options can be given as a list of length-2 lists that contain the name or flags for the argument and all keyword arguments used by ArgumentParser.add_argument. This is a bit cumbersome as is, so it’s useful to define a small helper function that takes arguments just like ArgumentParser.add_argument:

def argument(*name_or_flags, **kwargs):
    return ([*name_or_flags], kwargs)

Now we can define commands with arguments like so:

@subcommand([argument("-d", help="Debug mode", action="store_true")])
def test(args):

@subcommand([argument("-f", "--filename", help="A thing with a filename")])
def filename(args):

@subcommand([argument("name", help="Name")])
def name(args):

That’s all there is to it! Quite a bit better than the default way to build a CLI with subcommands. The full example can be found here.