Being able to print things to the screen is a fundamental part of interacting with a programming language. So far, we’ve kept it simple by passing the data we want to print directly to the print function:

my_num <- 42
[1] 42

We then made things a bit nicer by using cat, which doesn’t automatically add a newline to the output, nor add the [1] at the beginning, e.g. 


This was then improved by recognising that cat allows multiple arguments to be printed, enabling us to combine our data with a message:

cat("My num is", my_num, "\n")
My num is 42

(remembering that \n means “newline”)

This works perfectly well but firstly you’re using the implicit space that’s added by cat as part of your sentence and secondly you’re passing in two separate pieces of information where they are logically one.

What we can do instead is create a single string which contains the message we want to print and put special placeholders inside it where we want our data to appear. There’s a few different ways to do this in R. For a good overview check out Handling Strings with R by Gaston Sanchez and Chitra Venkatesh. For research software programming, you will typically want complete control, and so the best approach is to use C-style formatting.

C-style formatting and sprintf

sprintf is an interface to the C function sprintf. This will create a string based on a format with some input data. You can get help on this function by typing into the console;


The function works by creating a string with placeholders, such as %s, %d and %f, into which it will format data. For example, type into the console;

cat(sprintf("My num is %d\n", my_num))

and hit return. You should see this printed to the screen;

My num is 42

The placeholder, %d is replaced by the value stored in the variable my_num. The %d means “format this value as a digit (integer)”. You can also choose to format as a floating point number (%f) or as a string (%s).

For example, if we type;

my_float <- 3.14159
cat(sprintf("A digit: %d, a float: %f.\n", my_num, my_float))

we get printed out;

A digit: 42, a float: 3.141590.

We can even control the width of the numbers, or the number of values after the decimal point, e.g.

cat(sprintf("Width 8, 3 after decimal point: %8.3f\n", my_float))

will print

Width 8, 3 after decimal point:    3.142

to the screen.

There are a lot of controls, which are described well in Handling Strings with R.

Writing to a file

You can use cat to write to a file. To do this specify the filename using the file argument. Use append=TRUE to append data to an existing file, or append=FALSE to overwrite and write to a new file.

cat("Writing to a new file\n", file="output.txt")
cat("Appending another line...\n", file="output.txt", append=TRUE)

will write two lines to the new file output.txt (in R’s current working directory, which you can check by running getwd() in the Console).


Take a look at the different C-style string formatting options in Handling Strings with R. Have a play with formatting different variables into different strings.


Have a go at writing text to a file. You can watch the text being written live by opening the file by clicking on it in the “Files” pane (bottom left)


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