How to write pylint checker plugins

Posted by Alexander Todorov on Fri 05 January 2018

In this post I will walk you through the process of learning how to write additional checkers for pylint!


  1. Read Contributing to pylint to get basic knowledge of how to execute the test suite and how it is structured. Basically call tox -e py36. Verify that all tests PASS locally!

  2. Read pylint's How To Guides, in particular the section about writing a new checker. A plugin is usually a Python module that registers a new checker.

  3. Most of pylint checkers are AST based, meaning they operate on the abstract syntax tree of the source code. You will have to familiarize yourself with the AST node reference for the astroid and ast modules. Pylint uses Astroid for parsing and augmenting the AST.

    NOTE: there is compact and excellent documentation provided by the Green Tree Snakes project. I would recommend the Meet the Nodes chapter.

    Astroid also provides exhaustive documentation and node API reference.

    WARNING: sometimes Astroid node class names don't match the ones from ast!

  4. Your interactive shell weapons are ast.dump(), ast.parse(), astroid.parse() and astroid.extract_node(). I use them inside an interactive Python shell to figure out how a piece of source code is parsed and converted back to AST nodes! You can also try this ast node pretty printer! I personally haven't used it.

How pylint processes the AST tree

Every checker class may include special methods with names visit_xxx(self, node) and leave_xxx(self, node) where xxx is the lowercase name of the node class (as defined by astroid). These methods are executed automatically when the parser iterates over nodes of the respective type.

All of the magic happens inside such methods. They are responsible for collecting information about the context of specific statements or patterns that you wish to detect. The hard part is figuring out how to collect all the information you need because sometimes it can be spread across nodes of several different types (e.g. more complex code patterns).

There is a special decorator called @utils.check_messages. You have to list all message ids that your visit_ or leave_ method will generate!

How to select message codes and IDs

One of the most unclear things for me is message codes. pylint docs say

The message-id should be a 5-digit number, prefixed with a message category. There are multiple message categories, these being C, W, E, F, R, standing for Convention, Warning, Error, Fatal and Refactoring. The rest of the 5 digits should not conflict with existing checkers and they should be consistent across the checker. For instance, the first two digits should not be different across the checker.

I'm usually having troubles with the numbering part so you will have to get creative or look at existing checker codes.

Practical example

In Kiwi TCMS there's legacy code that looks like this:

def add_cases(run_ids, case_ids):
    trs = TestRun.objects.filter(run_id__in=pre_process_ids(run_ids))
    tcs = TestCase.objects.filter(case_id__in=pre_process_ids(case_ids))

    for tr in trs.iterator():
        for tc in tcs.iterator():


Notice the dangling return statement at the end! It is useless because when missing the default return value of this function will still be None. So I've decided to create a plugin for that.

Armed with the knowledge above I first try the ast parser in the console:

Python 3.6.3 (default, Oct  5 2017, 20:27:50) 
[GCC 4.8.5 20150623 (Red Hat 4.8.5-11)] on linux
Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.
>>> import ast
>>> import astroid
>>> ast.dump(ast.parse('def func():\n    return'))
"Module(body=[FunctionDef(name='func', args=arguments(args=[], vararg=None, kwonlyargs=[], kw_defaults=[], kwarg=None, defaults=[]), body=[Return(value=None)], decorator_list=[], returns=None)])"
>>> node = astroid.parse('def func():\n    return')
>>> node
<Module l.0 at 0x7f5b04621b38>
>>> node.body
[<FunctionDef.func l.1 at 0x7f5b046219e8>]
>>> node.body[0]
<FunctionDef.func l.1 at 0x7f5b046219e8>
>>> node.body[0].body
[<Return l.2 at 0x7f5b04621c18>]

As you can see there is a FunctionDef node representing the function and it has a body attribute which is a list of all statements inside the function. The last element is .body[-1] and it is of type Return! The Return node also has an attribute called .value which is the return value! The complete code will look like this:
import astroid

from pylint import checkers
from pylint import interfaces
from pylint.checkers import utils

class UselessReturnChecker(checkers.BaseChecker):
    __implements__ = interfaces.IAstroidChecker

    name = 'useless-return'

    msgs = {
        'R2119': ("Useless return at end of function or method",
                  'Emitted when a bare return statement is found at the end of '
                  'function or method definition'

    def visit_functiondef(self, node):
            Checks for presence of return statement at the end of a function
            "return" or "return None" are useless because None is the default
            return type if they are missing
        # if the function has empty body then return
        if not node.body:

        last = node.body[-1]
        if isinstance(last, astroid.Return):
            # e.g. "return"
            if last.value is None:
                self.add_message('useless-return', node=node)
            # e.g. "return None"
            elif isinstance(last.value, astroid.Const) and (last.value.value is None):
                self.add_message('useless-return', node=node)

def register(linter):
    """required method to auto register this checker"""

Here's how to execute the new plugin:

$ PYTHONPATH=./myplugins pylint --load-plugins=uselessreturn tcms/xmlrpc/api/ | grep useless-return
W: 40, 0: Useless return at end of function or method (useless-return)
W:117, 0: Useless return at end of function or method (useless-return)
W:242, 0: Useless return at end of function or method (useless-return)
W:495, 0: Useless return at end of function or method (useless-return)


  • If you contribute this code upstream and pylint releases it you will get a traceback:

    pylint.exceptions.InvalidMessageError: Message symbol 'useless-return' is already defined

    this means your checker has been released in the latest version and you can drop the custom plugin!

  • This is example is fairly simple because the AST tree provides the information we need in a very handy way. Take a look at some of my other checkers to get a feeling of what a more complex checker looks like!

  • Write and run tests for your new checkers, especially if contributing upstream. Have in mind that the new checker will be executed against existing code and in combination with other checkers which could lead to some interesting results. I will leave the testing to yourself, all is written in the documentation.

This particular example I've contributed as PR #1821 which happened to contradict an existing checker. The update, raising warnings only when there's a single return statement in the function body, is PR #1823.

Workshop around the corner

I will be working together with HackSoft on an in-house workshop/training for writing pylint plugins. I'm also looking at reviving pylint-django so we can write more plugins specifically for Django based projects.

If you are interested in workshop and training on the topic let me know!

Thanks for reading and happy testing!

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