Chapter 1 Introduction and preliminaries

1.1 The R environment

R is an integrated suite of software facilities for data manipulation, calculation and graphical display. Among other things it has

  • an effective data handling and storage facility,
  • a suite of operators for calculations on arrays, in particular matrices,
  • a large, coherent, integrated collection of intermediate tools for data analysis,
  • graphical facilities for data analysis and display either directly at the computer or on hardcopy, and
  • a well developed, simple and effective programming language (called ‘S’) which includes conditionals, loops, user defined recursive functions and input and output facilities. (Indeed most of the system supplied functions are themselves written in the S language.)

The term “environment” is intended to characterize it as a fully planned and coherent system, rather than an incremental accretion of very specific and inflexible tools, as is frequently the case with other data analysis software.

R is very much a vehicle for newly developing methods of interactive data analysis. It has developed rapidly, and has been extended by a large collection of packages. However, most programs written in R are essentially ephemeral, written for a single piece of data analysis.

R can be regarded as an implementation of the S language which was developed at Bell Laboratories by Rick Becker, John Chambers and Allan Wilks, and also forms the basis of the S-PLUS systems.

The evolution of the S language is characterized by four books by John Chambers and coauthors. For R, the basic reference is The New S Language: A Programming Environment for Data Analysis and Graphics by Richard A. Becker, John M. Chambers and Allan R. Wilks. The new features of the 1991 release of S are covered in Statistical Models in S edited by John M. Chambers and Trevor J. Hastie. The formal methods and classes of the methods package are based on those described in Programming with Data by John M. Chambers. See References, for precise references.

There are now a number of books which describe how to use R for data analysis and statistics, and documentation for S/S-PLUS can typically be used with R, keeping the differences between the S implementations in mind. See What documentation exists for R? in The R statistical system FAQ.

1.3 R and statistics

Our introduction to the R environment did not mention statistics, yet many people use R as a statistics system. We prefer to think of it of an environment within which many classical and modern statistical techniques have been implemented. A few of these are built into the base R environment, but many are supplied as packages. There are about 25 packages supplied with R (called “standard” and “recommended” packages) and many more are available through the CRAN family of Internet sites (via and elsewhere. More details on packages are given later (see Packages).

Most classical statistics and much of the latest methodology is available for use with R, but users may need to be prepared to do a little work to find it.

There is an important difference in philosophy between S (and hence R) and the other main statistical systems. In S a statistical analysis is normally done as a series of steps, with intermediate results being stored in objects. Thus whereas SAS and SPSS will give copious output from a regression or discriminant analysis, R will give minimal output and store the results in a fit object for subsequent interrogation by further R functions.

1.4 R and the window system

The most convenient way to use R is at a graphics workstation running a windowing system. This guide is aimed at users who have this facility. In particular we will occasionally refer to the use of R on an X window system although the vast bulk of what is said applies generally to any implementation of the R environment.

Most users will find it necessary to interact directly with the operating system on their computer from time to time. In this guide, we mainly discuss interaction with the operating system on UNIX machines. If you are running R under Windows or macOS you will need to make some small adjustments.

Setting up a workstation to take full advantage of the customizable features of R is a straightforward if somewhat tedious procedure, and will not be considered further here. Users in difficulty should seek local expert help.

1.5 Using R interactively

When you use the R program it issues a prompt when it expects input commands. The default prompt is ‘>’, which on UNIX might be the same as the shell prompt, and so it may appear that nothing is happening. However, as we shall see, it is easy to change to a different R prompt if you wish. We will assume that the UNIX shell prompt is ‘\(</code>’.</p> <p>In using R under UNIX the suggested procedure for the first occasion is as follows:</p> <ol> <li>Create a separate sub-directory, say work, to hold data files on which you will use R for this problem. This will be the working directory whenever you use R for this particular problem. <div class="example"> <pre class="example1"><code>\) mkdir work $ cd work

  • Start the R program with the command
    $ R
  • At this point R commands may be issued (see later).
  • To quit the R program the command is

    > q()

    At this point you will be asked whether you want to save the data from your R session. On some systems this will bring up a dialog box, and on others you will receive a text prompt to which you can respond yes, no or cancel (a single letter abbreviation will do) to save the data before quitting, quit without saving, or return to the R session. Data which is saved will be available in future R sessions.

  • Further R sessions are simple.

    1. Make work the working directory and start the program as before:
      $ cd work
      $ R
    2. Use the R program, terminating with the q() command at the end of the session.

    To use R under Windows the procedure to follow is basically the same. Create a folder as the working directory, and set that in the Start In field in your R shortcut. Then launch R by double clicking on the icon.

    1.6 An introductory session

    Readers wishing to get a feel for R at a computer before proceeding are strongly advised to work through the introductory session given in A sample session.

    1.7 Getting help with functions and features

    R has an inbuilt help facility similar to the man facility of UNIX. To get more information on any specific named function, for example solve, the command is

    > help(solve)

    An alternative is

    > ?solve

    For a feature specified by special characters, the argument must be enclosed in double or single quotes, making it a “character string”: This is also necessary for a few words with syntactic meaning including if, for and function.

    > help("[[")

    Either form of quote mark may be used to escape the other, as in the string “It’s important”. Our convention is to use double quote marks for preference.

    On most R installations help is available in HTML format by running

    > help.start()

    which will launch a Web browser that allows the help pages to be browsed with hyperlinks. On UNIX, subsequent help requests are sent to the HTML-based help system. The ‘Search Engine and Keywords’ link in the page loaded by help.start() is particularly useful as it is contains a high-level concept list which searches though available functions. It can be a great way to get your bearings quickly and to understand the breadth of what R has to offer.

    The command (alternatively ??) allows searching for help in various ways. For example,

    > ??solve

    Try ? for details and more examples.

    The examples on a help topic can normally be run by

    > example(topic)

    Windows versions of R have other optional help systems: use

    > ?help

    for further details.

    1.8 R commands, case sensitivity, etc.

    Technically R is an expression language with a very simple syntax. It is case sensitive as are most UNIX based packages, so A and a are different symbols and would refer to different variables. The set of symbols which can be used in R names depends on the operating system and country within which R is being run (technically on the locale in use). Normally all alphanumeric symbols are allowed2 (and in some countries this includes accented letters) plus ‘.’ and ‘_’, with the restriction that a name must start with ‘.’ or a letter, and if it starts with ‘.’ the second character must not be a digit. Names are effectively unlimited in length.

    Elementary commands consist of either expressions or assignments. If an expression is given as a command, it is evaluated, printed (unless specifically made invisible), and the value is lost. An assignment also evaluates an expression and passes the value to a variable but the result is not automatically printed.

    Commands are separated either by a semi-colon (‘;’), or by a newline. Elementary commands can be grouped together into one compound expression by braces (‘{’ and ‘}’). Comments can be put almost3 anywhere, starting with a hashmark (‘#’), everything to the end of the line is a comment.

    If a command is not complete at the end of a line, R will give a different prompt, by default


    on second and subsequent lines and continue to read input until the command is syntactically complete. This prompt may be changed by the user. We will generally omit the continuation prompt and indicate continuation by simple indenting.

    Command lines entered at the console are limited4 to about 4095 bytes (not characters).

    1.9 Recall and correction of previous commands

    Under many versions of UNIX and on Windows, R provides a mechanism for recalling and re-executing previous commands. The vertical arrow keys on the keyboard can be used to scroll forward and backward through a command history. Once a command is located in this way, the cursor can be moved within the command using the horizontal arrow keys, and characters can be removed with the DEL key or added with the other keys. More details are provided later: see The command-line editor.

    The recall and editing capabilities under UNIX are highly customizable. You can find out how to do this by reading the manual entry for the readline library.

    Alternatively, the Emacs text editor provides more general support mechanisms (via ESS, Emacs Speaks Statistics) for working interactively with R. See R and Emacs in The R statistical system FAQ.

    1.10 Executing commands from or diverting output to a file

    If commands5 are stored in an external file, say commands.R in the working directory work, they may be executed at any time in an R session with the command

    > source("commands.R")

    For Windows Source is also available on the File menu. The function sink,

    > sink("record.lis")

    will divert all subsequent output from the console to an external file, record.lis. The command

    > sink()

    restores it to the console once again.

    1.11 Data permanency and removing objects

    The entities that R creates and manipulates are known as objects. These may be variables, arrays of numbers, character strings, functions, or more general structures built from such components.

    During an R session, objects are created and stored by name (we discuss this process in the next session). The R command

    > objects()

    (alternatively, ls()) can be used to display the names of (most of) the objects which are currently stored within R. The collection of objects currently stored is called the workspace.

    To remove objects the function rm is available:

    > rm(x, y, z, ink, junk, temp, foo, bar)

    All objects created during an R session can be stored permanently in a file for use in future R sessions. At the end of each R session you are given the opportunity to save all the currently available objects. If you indicate that you want to do this, the objects are written to a file called .RData6 in the current directory, and the command lines used in the session are saved to a file called .Rhistory.

    When R is started at later time from the same directory it reloads the workspace from this file. At the same time the associated commands history is reloaded.

    It is recommended that you should use separate working directories for analyses conducted with R. It is quite common for objects with names x and y to be created during an analysis. Names like this are often meaningful in the context of a single analysis, but it can be quite hard to decide what they might be when the several analyses have been conducted in the same directory.