What does the slash mean when help() is listing method signatures?

It signifies the end of the positional only parameters, parameters you cannot use as keyword parameters. Before Python 3.8, such parameters could only be specified in the C API.

It means the key argument to __contains__ can only be passed in by position (range(5).__contains__(3)), not as a keyword argument (range(5).__contains__(key=3)), something you can do with positional arguments in pure-python functions.

Also see the Argument Clinic documentation:

To mark all parameters as positional-only in Argument Clinic, add a / on a line by itself after the last parameter, indented the same as the parameter lines.

and the (very recent addition to) the Python FAQ:

A slash in the argument list of a function denotes that the parameters prior to it are positional-only. Positional-only parameters are the ones without an externally-usable name. Upon calling a function that accepts positional-only parameters, arguments are mapped to parameters based solely on their position.

The syntax is now part of the Python language specification, as of version 3.8, see PEP 570 – Python Positional-Only Parameters. Before PEP 570, the syntax was already reserved for possible future inclusion in Python, see PEP 457 – Syntax For Positional-Only Parameters.

Positional-only parameters can lead to cleaner and clearer APIs, make pure-Python implementations of otherwise C-only modules more consistent and easier to maintain, and because positional-only parameters require very little processing, they lead to faster Python code.

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