Introduction

data.table, from its very first releases, enabled the usage of subset and with (or within) functions by defining the[.data.table method. subset and with are base R functions that are useful for reducing repetition in code, enhancing readability, and reducing number the total characters the user has to type. This functionality is possible in R because of a quite unique feature called lazy evaluation. This feature allows a function to catch its arguments, before they are evaluated, and to evaluate them in a different scope than the one in which they were called. Let’s recap usage of the subset function.

subset(iris, Species == "setosa")
#   Sepal.Length Sepal.Width Petal.Length Petal.Width Species
# 1          5.1         3.5          1.4         0.2  setosa
# 2          4.9         3.0          1.4         0.2  setosa
#  [ reached 'max' / getOption("max.print") -- omitted 48 rows ]

Here, subset takes the second argument and evaluates it within the scope of the data.frame given as its first argument. This removes the need for variable repetition, making it less prone to errors, and makes the code more readable.

Problem description

The problem with this kind of interface is that we cannot easily parameterize the code that uses it. This is because the expressions passed to those functions are substituted before being evaluated.

Example

my_subset = function(data, col, val) {
  subset(data, col == val)
}
my_subset(iris, Species, "setosa")
# Error in eval(e, x, parent.frame()): object 'Species' not found

Approaches to the problem

There are multiple ways to work around this problem.

Avoid lazy evaluation

The easiest workaround is to avoid lazy evaluation in the first place, and fall back to less intuitive, more error-prone approaches like df[["variable"]], etc.

my_subset = function(data, col, val) {
  data[data[[col]] == val, ]
}
my_subset(iris, col = "Species", val = "setosa")
#   Sepal.Length Sepal.Width Petal.Length Petal.Width Species
# 1          5.1         3.5          1.4         0.2  setosa
# 2          4.9         3.0          1.4         0.2  setosa
#  [ reached 'max' / getOption("max.print") -- omitted 48 rows ]

Here, we compute a logical vector of length nrow(iris), then this vector is supplied to the i argument of [.data.frame to perform ordinary logical vector subsetting. It works well for this simple example, but it lacks flexibility, introduces variable repetition, and requires user to change the function interface to pass the column name as a character rather than unquoted symbol. The more complex the expression we need to parameterize, the less practical this approach becomes.

Use of parse / eval

This method is usually preferred by newcomers to R as it is, perhaps, the most straightforward conceptually. This way requires producing the required expression using string concatenation, parsing it, and then evaluating it.

my_subset = function(data, col, val) {
  data = deparse(substitute(data))
  col  = deparse(substitute(col))
  val  = paste0("'", val, "'")
  text = paste0("subset(", data, ", ", col, " == ", val, ")")
  eval(parse(text = text)[[1L]])
}
my_subset(iris, Species, "setosa")
#   Sepal.Length Sepal.Width Petal.Length Petal.Width Species
# 1          5.1         3.5          1.4         0.2  setosa
# 2          4.9         3.0          1.4         0.2  setosa
#  [ reached 'max' / getOption("max.print") -- omitted 48 rows ]

We have to use deparse(substitute(...)) to catch the actual names of objects passed to function so we can construct the subset function call using those original names. Although ths provides unlimited flexibility with relatively low complexity, use of eval(parse(...)) should be avoided. The main reasons are:

Martin Machler, R Project Core Developer, once said:

Sorry but I don’t understand why too many people even think a string was something that could be evaluated. You must change your mindset, really. Forget all connections between strings on one side and expressions, calls, evaluation on the other side. The (possibly) only connection is via parse(text = ....) and all good R programmers should know that this is rarely an efficient or safe means to construct expressions (or calls). Rather learn more about substitute(), quote(), and possibly the power of using do.call(substitute, ......).

Computing on the language

The aforementioned functions, along with some others (including as.call, as.name/as.symbol, bquote, and eval), can be categorized as functions to compute on the language, as they operate on language objects (e.g. call, name/symbol).

my_subset = function(data, col, val) {
  eval(substitute(subset(data, col == val)))
}
my_subset(iris, Species, "setosa")
#   Sepal.Length Sepal.Width Petal.Length Petal.Width Species
# 1          5.1         3.5          1.4         0.2  setosa
# 2          4.9         3.0          1.4         0.2  setosa
#  [ reached 'max' / getOption("max.print") -- omitted 48 rows ]

Here, we used the base R substitute function to transform the call subset(data, col == val) into subset(iris, Species == "setosa") by substituting data, col, and val with their original names (or values) from their parent environment. The benefits of this approach to the previous ones should be clear. Note that because we operate at the level of language objects, and don’t have to resort to string manipulation, we refer to this as computing on the language. There is a dedicated chapter on Computing on the language in R language manual. Although it is not necessary for programming on data.table, we encourage readers to read this chapter for the sake of better understanding this powerful and unique feature.

Use third party packages

There are third party packages that can achieve what base R computing on the language routines do (pryr, lazyeval and rlang, to name a few).

Though these can be helpful, we will be discussing a data.table-unique approach here.

Programming on data.table

Now that we’ve established the proper way to parameterize code that uses lazy evaluation, we can move on to the main subject of this vignette, programming on data.table.

Starting from version 1.14.2, data.table provides a robust mechanism for parameterizing expressions passed to the i, j, and by (or keyby) arguments of [.data.table. It is built upon the base R substitute function, and mimics its interface. Here, we introduce substitute2 as a more robust and more user-friendly version of base R’s substitute. For a complete list of differences between base::substitute and data.table::substitute2 please read the substitute2 manual.

Substituting variables and names

Let’s say we want to have a general function that applies a function to sum of two arguments that has been applied another function. As a concrete example, below we have a function to compute the length of the hypotenuse in a right triangle, knowing length of its legs.

\({\displaystyle c = \sqrt{a^2 + b^2}}\)

square = function(x) x^2
quote(
  sqrt(square(a) + square(b))
)
# sqrt(square(a) + square(b))

The goal is the make every name in the above call able to be passed as a parameter.

substitute2(
  outer(inner(var1) + inner(var2)),
  env = list(
    outer = "sqrt",
    inner = "square",
    var1 = "a",
    var2 = "b"
  )
)
# sqrt(square(a) + square(b))

We can see in the output that both the functions names, as well as the names of the variables passed to those functions, have been replaced.. We used substitute2 for convenience. In this simple case, base R’s substitute could have been used as well, though it would’ve required usage of lapply(env, as.name).

Now, to use substitution inside [.data.table, we don’t need to call the substitute2 function. As it is now being used internally, all we have to do is to provide env argument, the same way as we’ve provided it to the substitute2 function in the example above. Substitution can be applied to the i, j and by (or keyby) arguments of the [.data.table method. Note that setting the verbose argument to TRUE can be used to print expressions after substitution is applied. This is very useful for debugging.

Let’s use the iris data set as a demonstration. Just as an example, let’s pretend we want to compute the Sepal.Hypotenuse, treating the sepal width and length as if they were legs of a right triangle.

DT = as.data.table(iris)

DT[, outer(inner(var1) + inner(var2)),
   env = list(
     outer = "sqrt",
     inner = "square",
     var1 = "Sepal.Length",
     var2 = "Sepal.Width"
  )]
# [1] 6.185467 5.745433 5.685948 5.547071 6.161169 6.661081 5.720140 6.046487
#  [ reached getOption("max.print") -- omitted 142 entries ]

# return as a data.table
DT[, .(Species, var1, var2, out = outer(inner(var1) + inner(var2))),
   env = list(
     outer = "sqrt",
     inner = "square",
     var1 = "Sepal.Length",
     var2 = "Sepal.Width",
     out = "Sepal.Hypotenuse"
  )]
#        Species Sepal.Length Sepal.Width Sepal.Hypotenuse
#         <fctr>        <num>       <num>            <num>
#   1:    setosa          5.1         3.5         6.185467
#  [ reached getOption("max.print") -- omitted 10 rows ]

In the last call, we added another parameter, out = "Sepal.Hypotenuse", that conveys the intended name of output column. Unlike base R’s substitute, substitute2 will handle the substitution of the names of call arguments, as well.

Substitution works on i and by (or keyby), as well.

DT[filter_col %in% filter_val,
   .(var1, var2, out = outer(inner(var1) + inner(var2))),
   by = by_col,
   env = list(
     outer = "sqrt",
     inner = "square",
     var1 = "Sepal.Length",
     var2 = "Sepal.Width",
     out = "Sepal.Hypotenuse",
     filter_col = "Species",
     filter_val = I(c("versicolor", "virginica")),
     by_col =  "Species"
  )]
#         Species Sepal.Length Sepal.Width Sepal.Hypotenuse
#          <fctr>        <num>       <num>            <num>
#   1: versicolor          7.0         3.2         7.696753
#  [ reached getOption("max.print") -- omitted 100 rows ]

Substitute variables and character values

In the above example, we have seen a convenient feature of substitute2: automatic conversion from strings into names/symbols. An obvious question arises: what if we actually want to substitute a parameter with a character value, so as to have base R substitute behaviour. We provide a mechanism to escape automatic conversion by wrapping the elements into base R I() call. The I function marks an object as AsIs, preventing its arguments from substitution. (Read the ?AsIs documentation for more details.) If base R behaviour is desired for the whole env argument, then it’s best to wrap the whole argument in I(). Alternatively, each list element can be wrapped in I() individually. Let’s explore both cases below.

substitute(    # base R behaviour
  rank(input, ties.method = ties),
  env = list(input = as.name("Sepal.Width"), ties = "first")
)
# rank(Sepal.Width, ties.method = "first")

substitute2(   # mimicking base R's "substitute" using "I"
  rank(input, ties.method = ties),
  env = I(list(input = as.name("Sepal.Width"), ties = "first"))
)
# rank(Sepal.Width, ties.method = "first")

substitute2(   # only particular elements of env are used "AsIs"
  rank(input, ties.method = ties),
  env = list(input = "Sepal.Width", ties = I("first"))
)
# rank(Sepal.Width, ties.method = "first")

Note that conversion works recursively on each list element, including the escape mechanism of course.

substitute2(   # all are symbols
  f(v1, v2),
  list(v1 = "a", v2 = list("b", list("c", "d")))
)
# f(a, list(b, list(c, d)))
substitute2(   # 'a' and 'd' should stay as character
  f(v1, v2),
  list(v1 = I("a"), v2 = list("b", list("c", I("d"))))
)
# f("a", list(b, list(c, "d")))

Substituting lists of arbitrary length

The example presented above illustrates a neat and powerful way to make your code more dynamic. However, there are many other much more complex cases that a developer might have to deal with. One common problem handling a list of arguments of arbitrary length.

An obvious use case could be to mimic .SD functionality by injecting a list call into the j argument.

cols = c("Sepal.Length", "Sepal.Width")
DT[, .SD, .SDcols = cols]
#      Sepal.Length Sepal.Width
#             <num>       <num>
#   1:          5.1         3.5
#  [ reached getOption("max.print") -- omitted 10 rows ]

Having cols parameter, we’d want to splice it into a list call, making j argument look like in the code below.

DT[, list(Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width)]
#      Sepal.Length Sepal.Width
#             <num>       <num>
#   1:          5.1         3.5
#  [ reached getOption("max.print") -- omitted 10 rows ]

Splicing is an operation where a list of objects have to be inlined into an expression as a sequence of arguments to call. In base R, splicing cols into a list can be achieved using as.call(c(quote(list), cols)). Additionally, starting from R 4.0.0, there is new interface for such an operation in the bquote function.

In data.table, we make it easier by automatically enlist-ing a list of objects into a list call with those objects. This means that any list object inside the env list argument will be turned into list call, making the API for that use case as simple as presented below.

# this works
DT[, j,
   env = list(j = as.list(cols)),
   verbose = TRUE]
# Argument 'j'  after substitute: list(Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width)
# Detected that j uses these columns: [Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width]
#      Sepal.Length Sepal.Width
#             <num>       <num>
#   1:          5.1         3.5
#  [ reached getOption("max.print") -- omitted 10 rows ]

# this will not work
#DT[, list(cols),
#   env = list(cols = cols)]

It is important to provide a call to as.list, rather than simply a list, inside the env list argument, as is shown in the above example.

Let’s explore enlist-ing in more detail.

DT[, j,  # data.table automatically enlists nested lists into list calls
   env = list(j = as.list(cols)),
   verbose = TRUE]
# Argument 'j'  after substitute: list(Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width)
# Detected that j uses these columns: [Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width]
#      Sepal.Length Sepal.Width
#             <num>       <num>
#   1:          5.1         3.5
#  [ reached getOption("max.print") -- omitted 10 rows ]

DT[, j,  # turning the above 'j' list into a list call
   env = list(j = quote(list(Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width))),
   verbose = TRUE]
# Argument 'j'  after substitute: list(Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width)
# Detected that j uses these columns: [Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width]
#      Sepal.Length Sepal.Width
#             <num>       <num>
#   1:          5.1         3.5
#  [ reached getOption("max.print") -- omitted 10 rows ]

DT[, j,  # the same as above but accepts character vector
   env = list(j = as.call(c(quote(list), lapply(cols, as.name)))),
   verbose = TRUE]
# Argument 'j'  after substitute: list(Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width)
# Detected that j uses these columns: [Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width]
#      Sepal.Length Sepal.Width
#             <num>       <num>
#   1:          5.1         3.5
#  [ reached getOption("max.print") -- omitted 10 rows ]

Now let’s try to pass a list of symbols, rather than list call to those symbols. We’ll use I() to escape automatic enlist-ing but, as this will also turn off character to symbol conversion, we also have to use as.name.

DT[, j,  # list of symbols
   env = I(list(j = lapply(cols, as.name))),
   verbose = TRUE]
# Argument 'j'  after substitute: list(Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width)
# Error in `[.data.table`(DT, , j, env = I(list(j = lapply(cols, as.name))), : When with=FALSE, j-argument should be of type logical/character/integer indicating the columns to select.

DT[, j,  # again the proper way, enlist list to list call automatically
   env = list(j = as.list(cols)),
   verbose = TRUE]
# Argument 'j'  after substitute: list(Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width)
# Detected that j uses these columns: [Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width]
#      Sepal.Length Sepal.Width
#             <num>       <num>
#   1:          5.1         3.5
#  [ reached getOption("max.print") -- omitted 10 rows ]

Note that both expressions, although visually appearing to be the same, are not identical.

str(substitute2(j, env = I(list(j = lapply(cols, as.name)))))
# List of 2
#  $ : symbol Sepal.Length
#  $ : symbol Sepal.Width

str(substitute2(j, env = list(j = as.list(cols))))
#  language list(Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width)

For more detailed explanation on that matter, please see the examples in the substitute2 documentation.

Substitution of a complex query

Let’s take, as an example of a more complex function, calculating root mean square.

\({\displaystyle x_{\text{RMS}}={\sqrt{{\frac{1}{n}}\left(x_{1}^{2}+x_{2}^{2}+\cdots +x_{n}^{2}\right)}}}\)

It takes arbitrary number of variables on input, but now we cannot just splice a list of arguments into a list call because each of those arguments have to be wrapped in a square call. In this case, we have to splice by hand rather than relying on data.table’s automatic enlist.

First, we have to construct calls to the square function for each of the variables (see inner_calls). Then, we have to reduce the list of calls into a single call, having a nested sequence of + calls (see add_calls). Lastly, we have to substitute the constructed call into the surrounding expression (see rms).

outer = "sqrt"
inner = "square"
vars = c("Sepal.Length", "Sepal.Width", "Petal.Length", "Petal.Width")

syms = lapply(vars, as.name)
to_inner_call = function(var, fun) call(fun, var)
inner_calls = lapply(syms, to_inner_call, inner)
print(inner_calls)
# [[1]]
# square(Sepal.Length)
# 
# [[2]]
# square(Sepal.Width)
# 
# [[3]]
# square(Petal.Length)
# 
# [[4]]
# square(Petal.Width)

to_add_call = function(x, y) call("+", x, y)
add_calls = Reduce(to_add_call, inner_calls)
print(add_calls)
# square(Sepal.Length) + square(Sepal.Width) + square(Petal.Length) + 
#     square(Petal.Width)

rms = substitute2(
  expr = outer((add_calls) / len),
  env = list(
    outer = outer,
    add_calls = add_calls,
    len = length(vars)
  )
)
print(rms)
# sqrt((square(Sepal.Length) + square(Sepal.Width) + square(Petal.Length) + 
#     square(Petal.Width))/4L)

DT[, j, env = list(j = rms)]
#  [1] 3.172538 2.958462 2.918047 2.874891 3.160696 3.443109 2.948305 3.116488
#  [9] 2.728095 2.994996 3.359315 3.049590
#  [ reached getOption("max.print") -- omitted 138 entries ]

# same, but skipping last substitute2 call and using add_calls directly
DT[, outer((add_calls) / len),
   env = list(
     outer = outer,
     add_calls = add_calls,
     len = length(vars)
  )]
#  [1] 3.172538 2.958462 2.918047 2.874891 3.160696 3.443109 2.948305 3.116488
#  [9] 2.728095 2.994996 3.359315 3.049590
#  [ reached getOption("max.print") -- omitted 138 entries ]

# return as data.table
j = substitute2(j, list(j = as.list(setNames(nm = c(vars, "Species", "rms")))))
j[["rms"]] = rms
print(j)
# list(Sepal.Length = Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width = Sepal.Width, 
#     Petal.Length = Petal.Length, Petal.Width = Petal.Width, Species = Species, 
#     rms = sqrt((square(Sepal.Length) + square(Sepal.Width) + 
#         square(Petal.Length) + square(Petal.Width))/4L))
DT[, j, env = list(j = j)]
#      Sepal.Length Sepal.Width Petal.Length Petal.Width   Species      rms
#             <num>       <num>        <num>       <num>    <fctr>    <num>
#   1:          5.1         3.5          1.4         0.2    setosa 3.172538
#  [ reached getOption("max.print") -- omitted 10 rows ]

# alternatively
j = as.call(c(
  quote(list),
  lapply(setNames(nm = vars), as.name),
  list(Species = as.name("Species")),
  list(rms = rms)
))
print(j)
# list(Sepal.Length = Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width = Sepal.Width, 
#     Petal.Length = Petal.Length, Petal.Width = Petal.Width, Species = Species, 
#     rms = sqrt((square(Sepal.Length) + square(Sepal.Width) + 
#         square(Petal.Length) + square(Petal.Width))/4L))
DT[, j, env = list(j = j)]
#      Sepal.Length Sepal.Width Petal.Length Petal.Width   Species      rms
#             <num>       <num>        <num>       <num>    <fctr>    <num>
#   1:          5.1         3.5          1.4         0.2    setosa 3.172538
#  [ reached getOption("max.print") -- omitted 10 rows ]

Retired interfaces

In [.data.table, it is also possible to use other mechanisms for variable substitution or for passing quoted expressions. These include get and mget for inline injection of variables by providing their names as strings, and eval that tells [.data.table that the expression we passed into an argument is a quoted expression and that it should be handled differently. Those interfaces should now be considered retired and we recommend using the new env argument, instead.

get

v1 = "Petal.Width"
v2 = "Sepal.Width"

DT[, .(total = sum(get(v1), get(v2)))]
#    total
#    <num>
# 1: 638.5

DT[, .(total = sum(v1, v2)),
   env = list(v1 = v1, v2 = v2)]
#    total
#    <num>
# 1: 638.5

mget

v = c("Petal.Width", "Sepal.Width")

DT[, lapply(mget(v), mean)]
#    Petal.Width Sepal.Width
#          <num>       <num>
# 1:    1.199333    3.057333

DT[, lapply(v, mean),
   env = list(v = as.list(v))]
#          V1       V2
#       <num>    <num>
# 1: 1.199333 3.057333

DT[, lapply(v, mean),
   env = list(v = as.list(setNames(nm = v)))]
#    Petal.Width Sepal.Width
#          <num>       <num>
# 1:    1.199333    3.057333

eval

Instead of using eval function we can provide quoted expression into the element of env argument, no extra eval call is needed then.

cl = quote(
  .(Petal.Width = mean(Petal.Width), Sepal.Width = mean(Sepal.Width))
)

DT[, eval(cl)]
#    Petal.Width Sepal.Width
#          <num>       <num>
# 1:    1.199333    3.057333

DT[, cl, env = list(cl = cl)]
#    Petal.Width Sepal.Width
#          <num>       <num>
# 1:    1.199333    3.057333