It is likely that a lot of the R code in the vignettes you saw in the last page did not make sense to you now. Do not worry! You are new to R and are still near the beginning of your learning journey. Over the last half of this workshop we will explore some of the building blocks of R so that they will begin to make a little more sense ;-)

A core building block of all programming languages is a function. A function is a reusable block of code that can be used over and over again in your program. A function takes inputs (called arguments), it then does something to those inputs to produce some outputs, which are returned to you.

You’ve already used many functions. For example,

library(stringr)
hello <- "Hello R"
length <- str_length(hello)
cat(sprintf("'%s' has %d characters\n", hello, length)) 

will print 'Hello R' has 7 characters.

This code has four functions:

Writing your own functions

You can write your own functions in R! For example, let’s try to write a function that calculates the mean average of a list of numbers.

As input, the function will take a list of numbers. It should output a number which is the mean of those numbers.

There are many ways this function could be written. Here is a possible solution;

calculate_mean <- function(values){
     total <- 0.0
     count <- 0
     for (value in values){
         total <- total + value
         count <- count + 1
     }
     return(total / count)
}

We can then use this function, to, e.g. calculate the average height of a group of people, by typing;

person_heights = c(1.62, 1.80, 1.56, 1.73, 1.91)

average_height <- calculate_mean(person_heights)

cat(sprintf("The average height is %.2f m\n", average_height))

Running this would print;

The average height is 1.72 m

Scaffolding

To explain how this worked, we need to look at how this function was defined. There is some scaffolding that is common to all functions. First, we define the function name. In R, this is a variable that holds the code of the function. We define this variable and assign data to it in the same way as if this was assigning a number to a numeric variable, or a string to a string variable, namely using the syntax variable <- value:

   Variable    assigned  value 
      ↓           ↓      ↓
calculate_average <- function(...

Next, we have the keyword function, that says that this is some data that is of type function. This means that the data will contain code. The arguments to function are the arguments you would like to use as input for your new function;

                     keyword  arguments
                        ↓        ↓
calculate_average <- function(values) {

Next, you need the body of the function. This body is the lines of code that will be run when your function is called. Just like with for loops or if statements, the body of code is contained within curly brackets

                                  Open curly brackets
                                      ↓
calculate_average <- function(values) {
    # body of the function is the
    # lines of code within the curly brackets
}
↑
Close curly brackets

The input(s) for the function is/are the argument(s) that are passed to function, in this case, values. Our code will loop through all of the values in values to calculate the mean average. Once we have finished, we reach the final part of the function, which is return. This is used to return the output of the function back to the caller.

                           Input(s)
                             ↓
calculate_mean <- function(values){
     total <- 0.0
     count <- 0
     for (value in values){
         total <- total + value
         count <- count + 1
     }
     return(total / count)
        ↑
     Return output
}

Finally, when we call the function, the arguments that pass to the function are used as the input. The output is then returned and assigned to the result variable. So, in this case;

                Call function      with input(s)
                        ↓             ↓  
average_height <- calculate_mean(person_heights)
     ↑         ↑
  Output     assigned

calculate_mean is called with person_heights. The data referred to by person_heights is passed to calculate_mean and in this function is referred to as values. This data is looped over, the mean average calculated, resulting in an output that is returned at the end of the function, and assigned to the variable average_height.

EXERCISE

Write a function, called calculate_max, that returns the largest value. Use this to find the largest height in the list of heights above.

Hint - start by using a variable called max_value and setting that equal to NA. Then use if (is.na(max_value) || value > max_value) to test whether a value in values is greater. The || means “or”

Answer

## Errors

Your function works well, but what would happen if the wrong arguments were passed? What should we do if someone did this?

result <- calculate_mean(c("cat", "dog", "horse"))

If you run this now, you will see that R prints an error;

Error in total + value : non-numeric argument to binary operator

This isn’t very descriptive of helpful. You can control how R will behave in an error condition by using stop or warning.

You use stop if you want to stop the function from continuing, and to print an error message for the user. For example, we could use is.numeric to check if all of the values are numeric. If not, then we could stop;

calculate_mean <- function(values){
     total <- 0.0
     count <- 0
     for (value in values){
         if (!is.numeric(value)){
             stop("Cannot calculate average of non-numeric values")
         }
         total <- total + value
         count <- count + 1
     }
     return(total / count)
}

(note that ! means “not”)

Now running;

result <- calculate_mean(c("cat", "dog", "horse"))

gives the more useful error message;

Error in calculate_mean(c("cat", "dog", "horse")) : 
  Cannot calculate average of non-numeric values

However, what if instead of stopping, we want to calculate the average of any numeric values, and just warn the user if non-numeric values are passed? We can do this using the warning function, e.g.

calculate_mean <- function(values){
     total <- 0.0
     count <- 0
     for (value in values){
         number <- as.numeric(value)

         if (!is.na(number)){
             total <- total + number
             count <- count + 1
         } else {
             warning("Skipping '", value, 
                     "' as it is not numeric")
         }
     }
     return(total / count)
}

In this case, we try to convert the value into a number using the as.numeric function. If this fails, it will return NA. We then test for NA using the is.na function, printing a warning that we are skipping this value if it isn’t a number.

EXERCISE

Add error handling to your calculate_max function so that it warns when non-numeric values are skipped, and stops when there is no maximum value (i.e. because there are no numeric values passed).

Answer

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