A hands-on guide to ‘sorting’ dataframes in Pandas

My tryst with the pandas’ library continues. Of late, I have been trying to look deeper into this library and consolidating some of the pandas’ features in byte-sized articles. I have written articles on reducing memory usage while working with pandas, converting XML files into a pandas dataframe easily, getting started with time series in pandas, and many more. In this article, I’ll touch upon a very useful aspect of data analysis, and that is sorting. We’ll begin with a brief introduction and then quickly jump on some ways to perform sorting efficiently in pandas.


If you are an excel user, one of the first things that you’ll do when you open a spreadsheet is to sort them in ascending or descending order based on a column(or columns). Technically, sorting is a way of ordering elements in an order based on their rank. There is complete documentation dedicated to various sorting algorithms in the programming field. Here are some of the commonly used sorting algorithms.

Different sorting algorithms | Image by Author

The different sorting algorithms have differt underlying principles of sorting data. For instance, in bubble sort, the algorithm compares an element to its neighbor and swaps them in the desired order. On the other hand, merge sort is based on based on the divide and conquer technique. in selection sort, the algorithm. The unordered array is first divided into equal halves and then combined in a sorted manner. Explaining about the intricacies of all these algorithms is beyond the scope of this article but if it has piques your interest, here is a great article which explains the concept with great visualisations.

Sorting in pandas

Let’s now see how we can perform sorting in pandas. For this, I’ll use a very interesting dataset consisting of a list of the top hundred Most starred Github repositories. It is publicly available on Kaggle. The dataset is updated daily and consists of other attributes like several forks, project description, language, and even project description. Let’s load the dataset and look at its structure.

df = pd.read_csv('Most starred Github Repositories.csv')
Image by Author

Let’s quickly go over the various columns of the dataset:

  • Project Name: Name of the repository in Github
  • Stars: A bookmark or display of appreciation for a repository.
  • Forks : A fork is a copy of a repository that you manage.
  • Language : Main programming languages used in the project
  • Open Issues : Issues are suggested improvements, tasks or questions related to the repository. The issues which haven’t been resolved are labelled as open issues.
  • Description : A paragraph detailing the purpose of the project.
  • Last Commit: A commit, or “revision”, is an individual change to a file (or set of files). This field stores the date and time of the last commit.

Note: All the above definitions have been taken from the Github glossary.

The current dataset is ordered by the number of Stars ⭐️ i.e, the project with the maximum number of stars comes first and so on. Pandas supports three kinds of sorting: sorting by index labels, sorting by column values, and sorting by a combination of both. Let’s now look at the different ways of sorting this dataset with some examples:

1. Sorting on a single column

The function used for sorting in pandas is called DataFrame.sort_values(). It is used to sort a DataFrame by its column or row values. Let’s sort the dataset by the Forks column.

forks = df.sort_values(by='Forks',ascending=False)
Sorting on a single column | Image by Author

The function dataframe.sort_values comes with a lot of parameters. We will touch upon a few important ones as we advance through the article. In the above example, we have encountered two of them :

  • by: The optional by parameter is used to specify the column(s) which are used to determine the sorted order.
  • ascending: specifies whether to sort the dataframe in ascending or descending order. The default value is ascending. To sort in descending order, we need to specify ascending=False.

2. Sorting on multiple columns

Pandas also make it possible to sort the dataset on multiple columns. Simply, pass in the list of the desired columns names in the sort_values function as follows:

df.sort_values(by=['Open Issues','Stars']).head(10)
Sorting on multiple columns | Image by Author

In the example above, we have sorted the dataframe based on the number of open issues and the number of stars a project has. Note that by default, the sorting has been done in ascending order.

3. Sorting by Multiple Columns With Different Sort Orders

When sorting by multiple columns, it is also possible to pass in different sort orders for different columns.

df.sort_values(by=['Open Issues', 'Stars'],
ascending=[False, True]).head(10)
Sorting by Multiple Columns With Different Sort Orders | Image by Author

In the above examples, the dataframe will be first sorted on the Open Issues column in ascending order and then on the Stars column in descending order.

4. Sorting by index

Another way of sorting a dataframe would be by its index. In section 1, we created a dataframe named forks. This is just another version of the original dataframe, which has been sorted on the Forks columns. The dataframe appears like this:

Dataset sorted on the ‘Forks’ column| Image by Author

As is evident, the index is unsorted. We can sort it by using the dataframe.sort_index() function.

Sorting by index | Image by Author

Alternatively, you can sort the index in descending order by passing in the ascending=False the argument in the function above.

5. Ignore the index while sorting

The index column can also be ignored entirely while sorting the dataframe. This results in an index labeled from 0 to n-1 where n refers to the number of observations.

df.sort_values(by='Forks',ascending=False, ignore_index=True).head()
Sorted index | Image by Author

If instead ignore_index is not set to True(or default), the resulting sorted dataframe would have been:

Unsorted index | Image by Author

6. Choosing the sorting algorithm

We touched upon the topic of different sorting algorithms in the beginning. By default, sort_values uses the quicksort algorithm. However, we can choose between quicksort,’ ‘mergesort’ and ‘heapsort’ algorithm using the kind parameter . Remember that this option is only applied when sorting on a single column or label.

df.sort_values(by='Forks', kind='mergesort')

7. Sorting by column names

Additionally, we can also sort the dataframe using the column names instead of the rows using the sort_index() function. For this we need to set the axis parameter to 1.

Sorting by column names | Image by Author

The columns above have been sorted in ascending alphabetical order. By setting ascending=False, the sorting can be done in descending order also.

8. Performing operations in-place

By setting the inplace parameter to True, all the sorting operations are done in place. This means that the existing dataframe gets modified. When inplace = False the operations take place on a copy of the dataframe, which is then returned. The original dataframe remains unchanged.

df.sort_values(by='Forks', inplace=True)

9. Handling missing values

Data usually contains null values. Using the na_position as first or last, in sort_values() function, we can choose to puts NaNs at the beginning or at the end.

df.sort_values(by='Forks', na_position='first') #NaN placed first
df.sort_values(by='Forks', na_position='last') #NaN placed in the end

10. Apply the key function to the values before sorting

We can also apply a key function to the values before sorting. The function expects a Series and return a Series with the same shape as the input. It will be applied to each column in by independently. In the example below, we first convert the column Project Name in lowercase and then sort the dataframe on this column

df.sort_values(by='Project Name',key=lambda col: col.str.lower())[:5]
Apply the key function to the values before sorting | Image by Author

Conclusion and additional resources

In this article we looked at the different ways of sorting a dataframe using the pandas library. We looked at the usage of both sort_values() as well as the sort_index() functions along with their parameters. The official documentation is an excellent resource if you are thinking of going deeper into the details.

Originally published here

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