Education Committee

Introduction to R

Part 1: Base R and Basic Packages

By Arun Ramamurthy


In this first tutorial on R, you will learn about how to actually use R to work with data, as well as the core concepts behind R programming. You will learn the basics of R syntax as well as several functions in base R. Finally, you will grow familiarity with R Markdown, especially as you work within the r1-workbook associated workbook.

About this Document


The only prerequisite for this tutorial is r0. You will need to install both R and RStudio to use the r1-workbook associated workbook. Visit r0 for general information on the philosophy and functionality of R and RStudio, as well as installation guides for both.


This document contains textbook-style information on R programming. It will cover the essentials of both base R and a few packages such as magrittr and stringr.


The r1-workbook contains associated exercises to work through as you learn about the concepts within this document. They are aimed to help you get practice and familiarity with R programming concepts and functions. At the end of each section of this document, solve the problems in the matching section of the workbook to help your understanding of the material.

R Markdown

The associated workbook requires some knowledge of R Markdown to use.

R Markdown is a powerful way to combine text, code, code output, images, LaTeX, and web elements into a single document, report, slide deck, or website. R Markdown is a file format and markup language that allows you to knit together Rmd files, which can either be interactive (as notebooks), or published (like this html document). It allows you to break up your code into bite-sized code chunks, surrounded by (optionally marked up) text. See the Additional Reading section at the end of this document for more information on how to make your own beautiful reports and workbooks in R! As R Markdown documents are standalone and work regardless of the computer that opens them, they are the best way to edit and share statistical code.

At the very core of the notebook philosophy is the code chunk. To make a chunk in RStudio, simply type three backticks, {R}, and then three more backticks when you are finished writing your code chunk. An example of the chunk syntax is below:

Base R

Base R (known as the base package internally) contains hundreds of functions by default to jumpstart your data analysis workflow. We will go over the syntax of R, as well as some of these functions.

Basic R

Syntax Basics

R is case-sensitive. So, ensure that you are always using the correct capitalization when dealing with functions, variables, and dataframe column names.

Additionally, every command is separated by a new line, or a semicolon if you want to make multiple commands on a single line.

Finally, you can comment code with #, which requests that R ignore the entire rest of the line, and treat it as normal text in the output.


You can do basic arithmetic in R without the need of more advanced functions. These operations include the EMDAS (^, *, /, +, - respectively) operators, as well as the modulo/remainder operator (%%). Some examples are below:

2 ^ 3
4 * 4
5 / 10
3 + 3
7 - 6
8 %% 6

We can also use the equality operator (==) and the inequality operator (!=), as well as operators like greater-than (>) and less-than-or-equal (<=) to test values. (To test means to return TRUE in some cases and FALSE otherwise). Some examples are below:

4 > 4
4 >= 4
4 == 4
4 != 4

Note that spaces between operators and operands are optional, but may improve readability.

Variables & Assignment

In R, a variable is an object that stores a value of some sort. After assigning a variable an initial value, you can re-assign it as many time as you'd like, even changing the type of object it stores.

The most basic way to assign a variable a value in R is to use the = operator, which sets a variable to the value to its right. However, you can also use the arrow operator to set variables on either the left or the right of the value.

As such, the following are equivalent:

a = 1
a <- 1
1 -> a

After you have set a variable, you can print its value using print. Alternatively, you can just type the variable to see its value.


Once you have set a variable, you can use it in arithmetic! For example, let's emulate the Pythagorean Formula.

a <- 3
b <- 4
c <- sqrt(a^2 + b^2)

Normally, R will not let you start a variable with a number or include any spaces in your variable name. To get around this, surround your variable with backticks.

`5 and a space` <- 420
print(`5 and a space`)

Atomic Objects

An atomic object in R is an object or list of objects that are both flat (cannot be reduced or opened further) and of the same type.

There are three types in R - we will be going over their properties individually, before discussing vectors, which are collections of atomic objects. To check the type of an object, use the mode function:




A numeric is an atomic object that refers to integers, doubles (decimals), and more.

Some examples are below:


R also contains the constant pi, which evaluates to 3.141593.


A logical is a quantity that evaluates to either TRUE or FALSE. Recall the (in)equality testing we reviewed above - the output of these operators are logicals.

Any non-zero numeric evaluates to TRUE. You can also use T and F rather than TRUE and FALSE, respectively.

The boolean operators in R are operators that have logicals as operands. There are three basic ones:

  • | the binary OR operator, which returns TRUE if either of its arguments are TRUE
  • & the binary AND operator, which returns TRUE if both of its arguments are TRUE
  • ! the unary NOT operator, which returns the opposite of its logical operand

A single lexographical symbol or string of multiple symbols is of type character. To make a string, surround one or more symbols in double-quotes (or alternatively, in single-quotes). A string does not evaluate its contents, and so "TRUE" and "123" are distinct from TRUE and 123. Observe the functionality of various basic string syntaxes and functions below:

str <- "susa"; nchar(str)
str2 <- "1.2"; str2 == 1.2
str3 <- paste("Statistics", "Undergraduate", "Students", "Association"); print(str3)


A vector is an ordered finite sequence of elements, each of the same type. Just like the atomic objects it contains, a vector is also considered an atomic object*. As such, they must be both flattened (fully reduced) and of the same type. Vectors are an important building block in R, as they compute quickly and are a way to bind together multiple values.

*(In fact, singleton values are just single-element vectors in R.)

Vector Basics

To construct a vector, we use the c function, which stands for concatenate, as it can also add more values to the vector. You can also use the : notation to make ordered sequences of numbers. Finally, you can check the length of a vector using length. Observe these behaviors below:

vec <- c(1,2,3,4)
vec2 <- 1:4
vec === vec2
Vectorized Functionality

Notice that operators (e.g. ==) function on vectors element-wise. This is an example of R's vectorization behavior. Essentially, R will try to take basic operators and functions and apply it to each element in a vector automatically, then return the resultant vector. Because of vectorization, vector operation in R is efficient. Here are some examples of vectorization in R:

v <- c(1, 12, 169, 7)
2*v^2 - v + 3

Recall from the previous section that atomic objects are always flattened. That is, they cannot contain non-atomic objects. When you combine two vectors in R with c, they will automatically become one long vector, rather than a 2-element vector of two vectors. To better illustrate this, observe the following examples of flattening:

v <- 1:5
c(1:3, v)
w <- c(v, v)

An example of both properties of atomic objects (flattening and same-typeness) is that R will automatically cast elements of different types to be the type. Logicals will turn into numerics, and both numerics and logicals will turn into strings if R has to convert them to retain same-typeness. Consider the following example of this behavior:

a <- v(T, F)
c(a, 3)
c(a, "TREE")
Subsetting Vectors

All vectors are indexed (labeled by number) so that you can access them by telling R which elements you want. The indicies are 1-indexed - i.e. the first element is labeled 1, the second 2, and so on. You can specify which elements with square brackets. Finally, you can tell R to exclude rather than select the indices you pass to it using -. Observe the following behaviors:

v <- c("red", "blue", "green")

Alternatively, you can specify an inclusion indicator for each element by giving a vector of logicals. Observe the following behaviors:

v <- 1:5
v[c(T, F, F, F, T)]
v[! c(T, F, T, F, T)]

Finally, if you set names for the elements of your vector, you can access the elements in your named vector by giving which specifying you want. Observe the following behaviors:

v <- c(one = 1, two = 2, three = 3)
get_these <- c("one", "three")


Now let's learn a few non-atomic objects. A list is an ordered sequence of values of flexible type. In comparison to vectors, lists are unconstrained in what they can contain. Their elements can be of different type or even be vectors or lists themselves! To access elements of a list, use single square brackets to get a sublist, or extract a single value with double bracket.s Observe the following behaviors:

vec <- 3:1
1  <- list("SUSA", vec, c(F, T)); 1
1[2] #[] returns a sublist
1[[2]] #[[]] returns the item within the list


Now that you've learnt some of the basic data structures in R, let's learn some of the functions that operate on them! A function is a device that accepts zero or more input arguments and yields single output, or result. Unlike the binary and unary operators (e.g. +, ==, etc.) we've been reading about, functions have the following usage syntax: f(x,y), just like functions you study in math class.

Using Functions

Let's learn a couple of functions that should help illustrate how functions work in R. First up, we have the sqrt function, which simply finds the square root of its argument. Observe the following behavior:

real_negative = -1; sqrt(real_negative)
complex_negative = as.complex(-1); sqrt(complex_negative)

Notice that sqrt(-1) returns NaN("Not a Number") for real -1, but returns i for complex -1.

To check how a function works in R, simply type e.g. ?sqrt in your console. The associated documentation for the function you searched will open up in the Help pane. You will see a Description section, which discusses the function's purpose in English; a Usage section, which shows you the right syntax to use the function; a Arguments section, which details what kinds of objects will be accepted as arguments; a Details section, which explains special cases and considerations; and an Examples sections which gives example code segments on how to use the function in question.

Some functions have default values for some arguments. For example, if you type ?log, you will see information on R's log function. Notice that the default base is base = exp(1). That is, if we use log in R, by default it will take the natural log. If we wanted to change the base, we could specify it as something else than its default value. Finally, note that many functions in R (e.g. log), also support vectorization. Observe the following examples:

tens <- 10^(1:10)
log(tens, base = 10)
log(tens, base = 2)
Writing Functions

To write your own function in R, we will use curly brackets, the function function, and the return function. For example, to make a function square that returns the 2nd power of its inputted argument, we can run:

square <- function(x){return(x^2)}

Then, we can use the square function anytime we wish. Since the contents of the square function uses the vectorized operator ^, our square function is vectorized too.


Suppose we also wanted to make a more general function power, that will raise a number to the $n^{th}$ power, but default to just squaring a number. We could write it as so:

power <- function(x, n = 2){return(x^n)}

Observe the following behaviors of our handmade function:

power(12, n = 5)
power(1:10, n = 1/2)

Finally, if you want to use multple functions together, you can compose them just like you do in math (e.g. f(g(x))). We will later learn about a package called magrittr that makes reading function compositions much easier. Observe the following examples:

sqrt(power(12, n = 3))


Now that we've learnt about vectors, lists, and functions, we are ready to learn about the most essential object for data analysis: the dataframe. A dataframe is a list of (named) vectors, all of the same length.

Constructing Dataframes

For example, let's suppose we wanted to make a dataframe of a group of friends, with their ages and favorite colors. First, we would make a vector of their names, a vector of their ages, and a vector of their favorite colors. Notice that these vectors are of different types, but all contain exactly 3 elements:

friends <- c("Hadley", "Mom", "R"); class(friends)
ages <- c(30, 45, 18); class(ages)
fav_colors <- c("Pink", "Yellow", "Blue"); class(fav_colors)

Then, we can combine these into a dataframe, or list of named vectors, using the data.frame function. Alternatively, we can first make a list of vectors, and then give it as an argument to data.frame to acheive the same thing:

my_friends <- data.frame(Name = friends, Age = ages, `Favorite Color` = fav_colors, check.names = F)
my_friends_2_precursor <- list(Name = friends, Age = ages, `Favorite Color` = fav_colors)
my_friends_2 <- data.frame(my_friends_2_precursor, check.names = F)
# my_friends is identical to my_friends_2

R has constructed a dataframe called my_friends with three column vectors, Name, Age, and Favorite Color. We can check the structure of our dataframe with the str command, which details the number of observations (rows) and the number of variables (columns), as well as the type of each:


Notice that data.frame converted our string vectors (friends, fav_colors) into factor vectors. A factor is a new type that refers to categorical data with a finite number of categories. R prefers to work with factors, as it makes checking equality and sorting faster than if it had to parse strings. R will implicitly convert strings into factors, unless you ask it not to by specifying stringsAsFactors=FALSE in the function call of data.frame.

Subsetting Dataframes

To extract a specific vector back out of a dataframe, use $ notation. Alternatively, you can use the standard list double square-bracket notation:

vec <- my_friends$Name
vec2 <- my_friends[[1]]
vec == vec2)

Finally, you can subset your dataframe to return a new dataframe with only particular columns or rows with the single square-bracket notation:

my_friends[1, ]
my_friends[, 3]

RDS Files

An RDS (R Data Structure) is the most efficient way to make your dataframes portable. It simply packages whatever object you pass to the saveRDS function in a memory-efficient way, and then you can Slack, email, or share your object, and another person can read it in R with readRDS.

Installing & Using Packages

We've now covered a fair amount of base R. We could keep going and learn more, but there are actually packages that accomplish a lot of the things in base R more easily. Next, we will learn how to install and load packages, and then learn about two of the most popular ones: magrittr and stringr.

A package is an addition to the base libraries in R. Some packages contain multiple smaller packages. Packages are easy to install and quick to load in R.

Installing Packages

The first time you use a package, you will need to install it first. Use the install.packages function to do this. Let's install the magrittr and stringr packages.

install.packages(c("magrittr", "stringr"))

After you've installed it the first time, the package will remain downloaded on your machine. Then, you just need to call library each time you re-open R to use the functions from that package. Let's load up magrittr and stringr for use in the next two sections.


magrittr is a package that allows you to use piping in R. Piping is a way to make your code more readable. Essentially, it allows you to compose functions as x %>% g %>% f rather than using f(g(x)). The symbol for pipe is %>%. Since piping reads left-to-right rather than the usual in-to-out, it is more readable and makes your code easier to manage. Furthermore, in magrittr notation, the . symbol is used indicate "what was just passed into the pipe". Therefore, the following are equivalent:

sqrt(power(123, n = 3))
# is equiv. to...
123 %>% power(n = 3) %>% sqrt
# is equiv. to
3 %>% power(123, n = .) %>% sqrt

You can also use magrittr to use functions rather than the equivalent operator, again making your code easier to read. To view all the aliases, type multiply_by in your R console. Observe the following example:

(((30 + 6) / 4) %% 3) > 0
## is equiv. to...
30 %>% add(6) %>% divide_by(4) %>% mod(3) %>% is_greater_than(0)

Finally, you can use magrittr for variable assigment, after running a variable through a lot of functions, using %<>%. Observe the following behaviors:

a = 64
a <- a %>% divide_by(4); print(a)
# is equiv. to
a %>% divide_by(4) -> a; print(a)
# is equiv. to
a %<>% divide_by(4); print(a)

stringr is a package used for text and string manipulation in R. We will learn it to gain more familiarity with functions, as well as ease into the tidyverse, which we will learn more about next week.


stringr's str_length function returns the number of characters in a string. Observe the following examples:

x <- "asdf"
str_length(c(x, x, "asdfgh"))

The str_sub function extracts a substring from a string, given a start and end index. Using negative values for the index indicates that you'd like to count the index from the back of the string rather than from the front. Observe the following examples:

x <- "SUSA is awesome!"
x %>% str_sub(start = 2, end = -2)
x %>% str_sub(1, 4)
x %>% str_sub(3, 3)

We can also use str_sub to edit a substring of a string. Observe the following example:

str_sub(x, 1, 4) <- "ggplot"

You can easily trim off the whitespace at the beginning or end of a string using str_trim. Observe the following example:

x <- "    there are unecessary spaces here    "
trimmed_x <- str_trim(x); trimmed_x

You can search a vector of strings for a search pattern using str_detect. Observe the following example:

x <- c("Hello world", "#SUSA magic", "#careerexploration", "no hashtags here", "#hashtag"); x
str_detect(x, pattern = "#")
str_replace, str_replace_all

You can replace all the matches to a particular pattern with a replacement pattern using str_replace_all. In contrast, str_replace will only replace the first instance of a pattern per string. Observe the following example:

x <- c("susa", "pythons suck", "r > python > stata")
str_replace(x, pattern = "py", replacement = "mara")
str_replace_all(x, pattern = "s", replacement = "S")

This concludes our brief overview of stringr. stringr includes many other very useful functions, so consult the Additional Reading section below if you wish to learn more.

Sneakpeet at r2

Next week, we will be covering data cleaning and other data science tools in R. You will learn how to tidy your data using the tidyverse, a set of packages designed to make data wrangling in R as rapid and painless as possible. tidyverse actually contains stringr, so you're already on your way in learning these tools in R! You will also learn a little bit on how to scrape data from the web.

Additional Reading