Writing functions in R

Materials: Please download the lesson materials for this bootcamp, unzip, go to the directory functions, and open (double click) on the file functions.Rproj to open Rstudio.

Abstracting your code into many small functions is key for writing nice R code. In our experience, biologists are initially reluctant to use functions in their code. Where people do use functions, they don't use them enough, or try to make their functions do too much at once.

R has many built in functions, and you can access many more by installing new packages. So there's no-doubt you already use functions. But what about writing your own?

Writing functions is simple. Paste the following code into your console

double <- function(number) {
  2 * number

This function takes number as an argument and returns twice number as a value (i.e., it doubles a number.

The bit in the brackets is the "body" of the function; it is evaluted every time that the function is called. The body of the function can contain any valid R expression.

Whatever is used as an argument to this function becomes value within the body of the function. So

z <- 10

returns 20. It does not matter at all if a variable called value exists in the global environment

z     <- 10
value <- 1
double(z) # 20
value     # still 1

This is one of the main uses of functions: they isolate different variables within your program. This makes it easier to think about what you are doing. It also lets you forget about things you don't want to think about - we could have implemented double differently:

double <- function(value) {
  value + value

but this detail is abstracted away.

The procedure for using functions in your work involves three key steps:

  1. Define the function,
  2. Load the function into the R session,
  3. Use the function.

Means, variances, skewness

As a simple starting point, let's re-implement some functions that are already in R to compute means and variances, and then extend this to compute the skewness of a distribution.

NB: This material is designed to teach functions, not necessarily the best way of doing this analysis. In some cases there are existing functions that would be much nicer to use in place of those that we will write. But the universe of functions in R is absolutely massive, so you'll often find yourself rewriting things that exist in some package, or even in the base system. One nice thing about having written things as functions though, is that it is then easy to swap out your version for a better version (sometimes involving some wrapping).

We're going to use some data from gapminder - this is available in the lesson material (see top of page), alternatively you can download from here and unzip into the directory that you are using.

data <- read.csv(gapminder-FiveYearData.csv", stringsAsFactors=FALSE)

This is pretty big, so grab just the data from 1982:

data.1982 <- data[data$year == 1982,]

Exercise: Write a function that computes the mean of the data, and use it to compute the mean of the gdpPercap column and the pop column. Perhaps call this function average to avoid colliding with the R function mean.

Instructors: See exercises.R for potential solutions.

Exercise Sample variance is defined as

Write a function that computes sample variance and run it on the same columns as before. Perhaps call this function variance to avoid colliding with the R function var.

Exercise Skewness can be defined as

Write a function that computes skewness. This might be best to do in several steps. Call this whatever you want, because R does not have a built-in function to do this! Compute the skewness of the same columns as before.

Defining a function (more theory)

Functions can have more than one argument. You can see how any function is defined by using the args function. For example:



function(x, na.rm = FALSE, dims = 1L)

x, na.rm, dims: these are the arguments of this function, also called formals. You can write a function with any number of arguments. These can be any R object: numbers, strings, arrays, data frames, of even pointers to other functions; anything that is needed for the function.name function to run.

default arguments: Some arguments have default values specified (here, na.rm and dims). Arguments without a default generally need to have a value supplied for the function to run. You do not need to provide a value for those arguments with a default, as the function will use the default value.

The function body is ommited here, but we could see it by using body(colSums) or just by typing colSums. The code after the function, in brackets, is run every time the function is called. This code might be very long or very short. Ideally functions are short and do just one thing -- problems are rarely too small to benefit from some abstraction. Sometimes a large function is unavoidable, but usually these can be in turn constructed from a bunch of small functions. More on that below.

Return value: The last line of the code is the value that will be returned by the function. It is not necessary that a function return anything, for example a function that makes a plot might not return anything, whereas a function that does a mathematical operation might return a number, or a list. There is a return function in R, but it is typical not to use it and just have the value be the last thing computed.

R functions are objects just like anything else

  • can be deleted or written over
  • Can be passed as arguments to other functions or returned from other functions.

Functions make life a lot easier

Now we're going to use data from the gapminder project, which gathers together a wide arrange of metrics for countries of the world. We're going to use a subset of data from this project which includes average life expectancy and GDP per capita on 5-year intervals from last 50 years. This is a nice plot of the data that we're going to work towards recreating in R.

plot(lifeExp ~ gdpPercap, data.1982, log="x")

plot of chunk plain

Plot the points so that their radius is proportional to population size:

## Scale on to [0,1]
p <- (data.1982$pop - min(data.1982$pop)) /
  (max(data.1982$pop) - min(data.1982$pop))
## Convert to [0.2, 10]
cex <- 0.2 + p * (10 - 0.2)
plot(lifeExp ~ gdpPercap, data.1982, log="x", cex=cex)

plot of chunk scaled_manually

It might be nicer if we scaled against square-root of population size, so that area became proportional to population size:

tmp <- sqrt(data.1982$pop)
p <- (tmp - min(tmp)) /
  (max(tmp) - min(tmp))
cex <- 0.2 + p * (10 - 0.2)
plot(lifeExp ~ gdpPercap, data.1982, log="x", cex=cex)

plot of chunk scaled_manually_sqrt

By this point, it's probably apparent that if we have lots of things like that flopping around in our code, things are going to messy and hard to read quickly. Some way of taking a vector of numbers and rescaling them to lie within some new range is called for.

rescale <- function(x, r.out) {
  p <- (x - min(x)) / (max(x) - min(x))
  r.out[[1]] + p * (r.out[[2]] - r.out[[1]])

This code now does exactly the same thing as the previous block, but captures more of the what than the how. We could completely rework the definition of rescale and this block of code will not change.

cex <- rescale(sqrt(data.1982$pop), c(0.2, 10))
plot(lifeExp ~ gdpPercap, data.1982, log="x", cex=cex)

plot of chunk scaled_function

In the original gapminder plots, countries are coloured by continent. The continent definitions are different in the data set that we have, but we can do basically the same thing.

Here is a small named vector mapping continents to colours:

col.table <- c(Asia="tomato",

There are at least two ways of doing the map:

cols <- unname(col.table[match(data.1982$continent, names(col.table))])
cols <- unname(col.table[data.1982$continent])

(the unname bit removes extraneous continent names from the resulting vector). We can wrap this up nicely:

colour.by.category <- function(x, table) {

Note that this is longer than the function definition! But it captures intent better.

col <- colour.by.category(data.1982$continent, col.table)
cex <- rescale(sqrt(data.1982$pop), c(0.2, 10))
plot(lifeExp ~ gdpPercap, data.1982, log="x", cex=cex, col=col, pch=21, lwd=2.5)

plot of chunk scaled_coloured

Let's say we want to add a linear trendline to the plot.

(This example is a bit tricky; R's formula (y ~ x) does lots of magic work in finding it's targets, and wrapping this up with functions can be a bit hard.)

(The other bit of magic here is the ellipsis argument. In the practical, work up to this by passing in nothing and then look at how ellipsis is useful)

add.trend.line <- function(x, y, d, ...) {
  fit <- lm(d[[y]] ~ log10(d[[x]]))
  abline(fit, ...)
plot(lifeExp ~ gdpPercap, data.1982, log="x", cex=cex, col=col, pch=21, lwd=2.5)
add.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982)
add.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982, lwd=2)
add.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982, lwd=2, lty=2, col="blue")

plot of chunk with_trend_line

Now that we have this function, we can do all sorts of fun things with it:

plot(lifeExp ~ gdpPercap, data.1982, log="x", cex=cex, col=col, pch=21)
add.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982[data.1982$continent == "Asia",], col=col.table["Asia"])
add.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982[data.1982$continent == "Africa",], col=col.table["Africa"])
add.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982[data.1982$continent == "Europe",], col=col.table["Europe"])
add.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982[data.1982$continent == "Americas",], col=col.table["Americas"])
add.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982[data.1982$continent == "Oceania",], col=col.table["Oceania"])

plot of chunk with_trend_lines

Which still looks a bit ugly. Could be nicer with another function:

add.continent.trend.line <- function(x, y, d, continent, col.table, ...)
  add.trend.line(x, y, d[d$continent == continent,], col=col.table[continent], ...)
plot(lifeExp ~ gdpPercap, data.1982, log="x", cex=cex, col=col, pch=21)
add.continent.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982, "Asia", col.table)
add.continent.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982, "Africa", col.table)
add.continent.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982, "Europe", col.table)
add.continent.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982, "Americas", col.table)
add.continent.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982, "Oceania", col.table)

plot of chunk with_trend_lines_function

For throwaways like this we might use global variables but beware here. This is only OK when you use the function immediately upon creation and never again:

f <- function(continent)
  add.continent.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982, continent, col.table)
plot(lifeExp ~ gdpPercap, data.1982, log="x", cex=cex, col=col, pch=21)

plot of chunk with_trend_lines_function_throwaway

One of the nice things about this sort of approach is that we've not really specified how things have happened. So we're free to swap out the details.

add.trend.line <- function(x, y, d, ...) {
  lx <- log10(d[[x]])
  fit <- lm(d[[y]] ~ lx)
  xr <- range(lx)
  lines(10^xr, predict(fit, list(lx=xr)), ...)

When we rerun this, we now get nicely clipped lines; but we didn't change anything else! This is one of the big benefits of working with some level of abstraction.

f <- function(continent)
  add.continent.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982, continent, col.table)
plot(lifeExp ~ gdpPercap, data.1982, log="x", cex=cex, col=col, pch=21)

plot of chunk with_trend_lines_function_reimplement

We will revisit this when it comes time to repeat things nicely.

Another example - population growth over time.

pop.by.country.relative <- function(country, data, base.year=1952) {
  dsub <- data[data$country == country, c("year", "pop")]
  dsub$pop.rel <- dsub$pop / dsub$pop[dsub$year == base.year]

Can use this to plot relative growth trajectories over time:

plot(pop.rel ~ year, pop.by.country.relative("India", dat), type="o")
lines(pop.rel ~ year, pop.by.country.relative("Australia", dat), type="o", col="green4")
lines(pop.rel ~ year, pop.by.country.relative("China", dat), type="o", col="red")

plot of chunk growth1

General points:

Qu: Do we need to know how a function works to use it?

No, difference between what and implementation.

But you do need to know that function is working as it should.

Workflow for developing functions

  1. Identify what you want to achieve
  2. Code it up in global environment
  3. Move into function
  4. Debug

Qu: My function is only one line - is this useful?

Yes: More readable, less code when using repeatedly --> Don't Repeat Yourself

Yes: Your program becomes defined around the "what" and not the "how". It might be that you move to using some other implementation, but your function will still work.

What makes for a good function?

It's short

Performs a single operation

Has an informative name and argument names

Concluding thoughts

This material written for coders with limited experience. Program design is a bigger topic than could be covered in a whole course, and we haven't even begun to scratch the surface here. Using functions is just one tool in ensuring that your code will be easy for you to read in future, but it is an essential tool.

Further reading

If you want to read more about function syntax, check out the following:


This material was developed by Rich FitzJohn and Daniel Falster.