Easy Stuctural Refactors to Python Source Code

Refactor is a source code refactoring engine. By taking advantage of the Python standard library's AST module, we can find-and-fix patterns in massive codebases.

  • Batuhan Taskaya
  • September 24, 20212 min read
Hero Picture

It is common for big codebases to grow to a complexity where it is nearly impossible for someone to tediously and flawlessly refactor things manually everywhere. The main problem with existing automated solutions (such as regex-based find-and-replace tools) is that they treat source code like a plain text document. This often results in false positives (tools making changes when they shouldn't) and/or false negatives (not changing what they should). This is primarily due to a lack of ability to truly encapsulate structural concepts of the programming language: syntax and grammar that are impossible to manifest in regexes.

This is where ASTs shine. They are the common building blocks of source code; produced by a parser that actually understands the language's syntax and creates a tree object where smaller parts (e.g. tokens) are ordered in a way that they are related by their syntactical meanings.

password = input("password? ")
if password == secrets.get("my_password"):

For example, the AST for the code above will look like this:

Fundamentals of MLOps Abstract Syntax Tree

The top-most "root" node of this tree represents a single Python file. Each file consists of a number of statements (e.g. function definitions, loops, etc.). For our example we have only 2 statements: an assignment (to password), and an if statement. Each of these statements in turn has child nodes as defined by Python's ASDL.

Refactoring source code through ASTs

Refactor simplifies the process of matching ASTs. It then applies your transformations to these ASTs without touching the other parts of your source code.

For example, consider this code:

foo = [

foo_2 = ['a', *foo]

if foo[0] >= 1:
    assert secrets.get("foo") == foo

As a simple example, let's try to find and replace all instances of the foo variable with bar… but without changing things inside strings or partial matches like foo_2.

import ast
import refactor

The first thing we need to do is define a rule. Each rule is a class that defines a single entrypoint (match())), takes AST nodes from the tree, and either rejects them (via raising an AssertionError or just returning None) or accepts them (via returning a refactor.Action).

class ReplaceFoo(refactor.Rule):

    def match(self, node):

Next, in the match() method, we will look for all Names (which is what the actual identifier is wrapped in), and check whether its id is foo.

        assert isinstance(node, ast.Name)
        assert node.id == "foo"

If any of these assertions fail, the function will terminate and the engine will move to the next node in the tree. But if we have a match, we need to return some sort of an action. The simplest thing we can return is a refactor.ReplacementAction which takes this node and replaces it with the given argument.

        return refactor.ReplacementAction(
            ast.Name("bar", node.ctx)

And that's it! To run this refactoring, we can simply create a CLI application from our rules via refactor.run():

if __name__ == "__main__":

If we run it on the file above, we will get this diff:

@@ -1,9 +1,9 @@
-foo = [
+bar = [

-foo_2 = ['a', *foo]
+foo_2 = ['a', *bar]

-if foo[0] >= 1:
-    assert secrets.get("foo") == foo
+if bar[0] >= 1:
+    assert secrets.get("foo") == bar

All instances of the foo variable have been replaced, but items like foo_2 and "foo" are left alone as expected!

Going Deeper

Obviously not all refactorings are as simple as this, so refactor is equipped with more features like different actions, observers and representatives for context manager. If you are curious about these and more advanced features, be sure to check out the refactor documentation!

Back to blog