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Hamming Distance One-liner in Python

The hamming distance of strings \(a\) and \(b\) is defined as the number of character mismatches between \(a\) and \(b\). The hamming distance can be calculated in a fairly concise single line using Python.

The Code

def hamming(a, b):
    return len([i for i in filter(lambda x: x[0] != x[1], zip(a, b))])

The Explanation

If you aren’t familiar with many of the shortcuts that Python provides, this line may seem quite cryptic. To best explain how this function works, I will expand it to the equivalent multi-line version, and then go over each part of the multi-line version.

def hamming(a, b):
    zipped_strings = zip(a, b)

    mismatched_chars = []

    # equivalent of the [...]
    for i in zipped_strings:
        # equivalent of the filter(lambda x: x[0] != x[1], ...)
        if i[0] != i[1]:

    return len(mismatched_chars)


zip is a useful built-in Python function that takes two lists as its arguments and returns a list where each element is a tuple, and the first element in the tuple comes from the first list and the second element in the tuple comes from the second list. For example:

a = [1, 2, 3]
b = ['a', 'b', 'c']

print(list(zip(a, b)))
[(1, 'a'), (2, 'b'), (3, 'c')]

In this case, the elements of a are paired up with the elements of b.

List comprehension

List comprehensions in Python are a very handy trick to shorten any for loop in Python. They follow the form of [... for i in iterable] where the ... is replaced by the code that is run on each element of iterable (list, generator, etc.).

An example of a list comprehension is:

evens = [i * 2 for i in range(10) if i % 2 == 0]


This code creates a list of all even numbers between 0 and 10, each of which are multiplied by 2. Notice how the conditional is placed at the end of the expression.

Lambda functions

Lambda functions may look scary (mostly because it can be hard to recognize where the parameters come from), but just think of them as functions that don’t have a name. Lambda functions are usually short functions that perform something straight-forward. In the case of the one-liner, the lambda function

lambda x: x[0] != x[1]

takes one argument x (which is of type tuple) and checks if the two elements of the tuple (x[0] and x[1) are equal, thereby returning a boolean value.


The final piece to our one-line puzzle, filter. In functional programming there are patterns and ways to perform certain operations. Three ubiquitous functions in any language resembling a functional language are map, reduce, and filter. They are of themselves very simple, yet extremely powerful (if you want to read more about how to use them in Python, I would recommend Python Tips).

filter takes two arguments, first a function that takes an element of an iterable as input and returns a boolean, and second an iterable. In our one line case, we have

filter(lambda x: x[0] != x[1], zip(a, b))

As described earlier, lambda is just a function without a name, and zip is a list of tuples from two elements of a list. Our filter expression returns a list where the condition x[0] != x[1] is True, thus giving us a list of characters that don’t match up with one another. When we take the length of this list we get, by definition, the hamming distance.

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