Python CLIs

Putting the “argument” in “command-line argument”

An infuriating quagmire. Parsing command line arguments in python is just hard enough to be a friction, but not so hard that enough developers are dissuaded from attempting to reinvent it. All the various solutions claim to be beautiful, and/or seamless and/or elegant, which individually they may be. Collectively they are riot of aggressive hawkers shouting in your face and at each other, wasting your time by reducing the probability that any two projects have the same libraries.


OK, since I have more than two python CLI packages to which I contribute, I have more than two CLI systems that I need to deal with. Here is a spotter’s guide.

built-in: argparse

argparse is built-in to python stdlib and is adequate, so why not just use that and avoid other dependencies? Answer: a dependency you might already have is likely to have introduced an additional CLI parsing library.

Cute hack: chriskiehl/Gooey will construct a GUI for programs by examining argparse code.


Google framework abseil has a python cli system whose selling points are that it

  1. Works across google ML apps
  2. integrates C++ arguments somehow? (Build arguments? Run-time? Someone who cares can answer that)
  3. allows distributed definition of arguments rather than centralized, and
  4. has some logging and testing features bolted together into the same library.

Actual value proposition: Because AFAICT it is a dependency of jax and Tensorflow if you do machine learning, this is pre-installed in all the examples. Thus you may as well keep it when copy-pasting Google sample code.

On the other hand, pretty much every machine learning framework has an equivalent command-line whatsit, so you will probably end up copy-pasting some other stuff from somewhere else which doesn’t work with abseil, so maybe you could just ditch this?


docopt/docopt: Pythonic command line arguments parser, that will make you smile

docopt helps you:

  • define the interface for your command-line app, and
  • automatically generate a parser for it.

docopt is based on conventions that have been used for decades in help messages and man pages for describing a program’s interface. An interface description in docopt is such a help message, but formalized.

Bonus feature: It is implemented in many langauges, so the same sommand line description will also generate parses in C++, julia etc.


Typer (source.):

FFS there is another hip one that uses even more shiny features yay. This one has unusually compact syntax, since it uses typed-hinting in arguments to sort it out, which, I get it, is nice. Is it nice enough to throw everything out and start again with a new, incompatible system? Whe yes, it is nice enough for at least a few developers, and now you need to know about it too.


Hydra is a framework for elegantly configuring complex applications.” As a special (main?) case it builds CLIs with autocomplete and other fun stuff.



is a Python package for creating beautiful command line interfaces in a composable way with as little code as necessary. It’s the “Command Line Interface Creation Kit”. It’s highly configurable but comes with sensible defaults out of the box. […]

  • arbitrary nesting of commands
  • automatic help page generation
  • supports lazy loading of subcommands at runtime

Aims to offer an alternative to the built-in argparse, which they regard as excessively magical. Its special feature is setuptools integration enabling installation of command-line tools from your current ipython virtualenv.



provides a clean, high level API for running shell commands and defining/organizing task functions from a file […] it offers advanced features as well — namespacing, task aliasing, before/after hooks, parallel execution and more.


argh was/is a popular extension to argparse

Argh is fully compatible with argparse. You can mix Argh-agnostic and Argh-aware code. Just keep in mind that the dispatcher does some extra work that a custom dispatcher may not do. comes with a passive-aggressive app name, (+1) is all about wrapping generic python commands in command-line applications easily, much like click. But different.

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