If there is one piece of advice I would recommend keeping in your head when working with R, it is this:

Don’t Repeat Yourself

Many of the headaches that people end up having stem from repeating themselves. This basically mortgages your future time. It is common to see cases where people have copy-and-pasted some piece of code a bunch of times (changing one thing each time), then copy and pasted that a bunch of times, changing it a bit more. In the end, the script is very long, hard to read, really hard to understand, and full of bugs.

Believe me on the last case – you will write code that has bugs. The more code you write, the more bugs you will have. The good thing is that unlike Excel bugs, you can see and find them. The other good thing is that the less code you write, the more easily you will spot the bugs.

There are many ways of ensuring that you don’t repeat yourself. Mastering the different approaches can take many years. However, try to notice when you feel like you are battling against the language, and you’ll get a good hint for when you should be doing something differently.

Applying a function over and over and over and over

We’ll be using the data set again, with factors sorted alphabetically as discussed in the last section.

data <- read.csv("data/seed_root_herbivores.csv", stringsAsFactors=FALSE)
data$Plot <- factor(data$Plot, levels=unique(data$Plot))

There are a few data columns in the data set that we’ve been using.


No.stems, Height, Weight, Seed.heads, Seeds.in.25.heads.

What if we wanted to get the mean of each column?

mean.no.stems <- mean(data$No.stems)
mean.Height <- mean(data$Height)
mean.Weight <- mean(data$Weight)
mean.Seed.heads <- mean(data$Seed.heads)
mean.Seeds.in.25.heads <- mean(data$Seeds.in.25.heads)

What if we wanted to get the variance of all these? Copy and paste and change the function name? Very repetitive, hard to see intent, easy to make mistakes, and boring.

Notice the pattern though — we are taking each column in turn and applying the same function to it. Somebody else noticed this pattern too.

The function that we will use is sapply. It takes as its first argument a list, and applies a function to each element in turn.

As a simple example, here is a little list with toy data:

obj <- list(a=1:5, b=c(1,5, 6), c=c(pi, exp(1)))

This computes the length of each element in obj

sapply(obj, length)

This computes their sum

sapply(obj, sum)

This computes the variance

sapply(obj, var)

This works with any function you want to use as the second argument.

Here are our variables:

response.variables <- c("No.stems", "Height", "Weight", "Seed.heads", "Seeds.in.25.heads")

Remember when I said that a data.frame is like a list; this is one case where we take advantage of that.

sapply(data[response.variables], mean)

This does all of the repetitive hard work that we did before, but in one line. Read it as:

“Apply to each element in data (subset by my response variables) the function mean


The coefficient of variation is defined as the standard deviation (square root of the variance) divided by the mean:

Compute the coefficient of variation of these variables, and tell me which variable has the largest CV.


coef.variation <- function(x) {
  sqrt(var(x)) / mean(x)

Did you just do

sapply(data[response.variables], coef.variation)

and look for the largest variable?

did you do:

cvs <- sapply(data[response.variables], coef.variation)
which(cvs == max(cvs))

you can also do:


Similarly, for minimum



There is a function lapply works well when you are not expecting the same length output for the result of applying your function to each element in the list. It gives you the result back in a list, for example

lapply(obj, sum)

compared with:

sapply(obj, sum)

This is has its uses. For example, suppose we wanted to double all the elements in obj. We can’t just multiply this list by 2:

obj * 2 # causes error

However, we can do this with lapply, as long as we have a function that will double things:

double <- function(x) {
  2 * x

Apply the double function to each element in our list:

lapply(obj, double)

We have to use lapply rather than sapply because the result of the function on different elements is different lengths.

Note also that sapply actually does the same thing here. But if the elements of obj happened to have the same length they would give different answers.

sapply(obj, double)

obj2 <- list(a=1:3, b=c(1, 5, 6), c=c(pi, exp(1), log(10)))

Returns a list:

lapply(obj2, double)

Returns a matrix:

sapply(obj2, double)

This is probably more than you need to know right now, but it may stick around in your head until needed.

The split-apply-combine pattern

Fairly often, you’ll want to do something like compute means for each level of a treatment. To compute the mean height given the root herbivore treatment here we could do:

height.with    <- mean(data$Height[data$Root.herbivore])
height.without <- mean(data$Height[!data$Root.herbivore])

Remember read ! as “not”.

(notice that plant height is taller when herbivores are absent).

However, suppose that we want to get mean height by plot:

height.2 <- mean(data$Height[data$Plot == "plot-2"])
height.4 <- mean(data$Height[data$Plot == "plot-4"])
height.6 <- mean(data$Height[data$Plot == "plot-6"])

and so on until we go out of our minds.

There is a function tapply that automates this. It’s arguments are


The first argument, X is our data variable; the thing that we want the means of.

The second argument, INDEX is the grouping variable; the thing that we want means at each distinct value/level of.

The third argument, FUN is the function that you want to apply; in our case mean.

So we have:

tapply(data$Height, data$Plot, mean)

For the first example (present/absent) we have:

tapply(data$Height, data$Root.herbivore, mean)

Notice that there was no more work going from 2 levels to 30 levels!

Also notice that it’s really easy to change variables (as above) or change functions:

tapply(data$Height, data$Root.herbivore, var)

This approach has been called the “split–apply-combine” pattern. There is a package plyr that a lot of people like that can make this easier.

Two factors at once

The experiment here is a 2×2 factorial design (though imbalanced as all ecological data end up being after they’ve been left in the field for a while).

You can do that with tapply above, but it gets quite hard. The aggregate function can do this nicely though.

There are two interfaces to this (see the help page ?aggregate). In the first, you supply the response variable as the first argument, the grouping variables as the second, and the function as the third (just like tapply).

aggregate(data$Height, data[c("Root.herbivore", "Seed.herbivore")], mean)

or similarly, take a 1 column data frame:

aggregate(data["Height"], data[c("Root.herbivore", "Seed.herbivore")], mean)

The other interface uses R’s formula interface, which can be a lot shorter and easier to read.

aggregate(Height ~ Root.herbivore + Seed.herbivore, data=data, mean)

This is why I think it is important to get used to writing functions:

standard.error <- function(x) {
  sqrt(var(x) / length(x))

Because your own functions work just as well with these tools:

aggregate(Height ~ Root.herbivore + Seed.herbivore, data=data, standard.error)

(now you have everything for an interaction plot to start seeing how the different herbivores interact to effect plant growth).

Explicit loops

In contrast with most programming languages, we have not covered a basic loop yet. You may be familiar with these if you’ve written basic, python, perl, etc.

The idea is the same as the first section in this page. You want to apply a function (or do some calculation) over a series of elements in a list.

For example, the print function prints a representation of an object to the screen. Suppose we wanted to print all the elements of our list obj.

This is confusing!

sapply(obj, print)

This is because we want to just print the result to the screen and we don’t actually want to do anything with the result (it turns out that print silently returns what is passed into it.

for (el in obj) {

The element i is created at the beginning of the loop, and set to the first element in obj. Each time “around” the loop it is set to the next element (so on the second iteration it will be the second element, and so on).

Note that in contrast with functions, the variables created by loops do actually replace things in the global environment:


Strictly, in the enclosing environment, so a loop within a function leaves the global environment unaffected.

If you want to do something with the results of the loop, you need more scaffolding. Let’s do the mean example again and get the mean of each element in the list.

First, we need somewhere to put the output. The function numeric creates a numeric vector of the requested length.

n <- length(obj)
out <- numeric(n)

You could use rep here if you’d rather.

Then, rather than loop over the elements directly as above, we loop over their indices:

for ( i in 1:n ) {
  out[i] <- mean(obj[[i]])

Read the line within the loop as “into the i’th element of output (out) save the result of running the function on the i’th element if the input (obj)”. The double square brackets are needed (Why? Because out[i] would be a list with one element while out[[i]] is the ith element itself.).


This does not have names like the sapply version did. If we want names, add them back with names.

names(out) <- names(obj)

There are times where loops are absolutely the best (or the only way) of doing something.

For example, if you want a cumulative sum over list elements (so that out[[i]] contains the sum of obj[[1]], obj[[2]], …, obj[[i]]), you might do that with a loop:
n <- length(obj)

out <- numeric(n)
total <- 0.0 # running total
for ( i in 1:n ) {
  total <- total + sum(obj[[i]])
  out[[i]] <- total
names(out) <- names(obj)

Although we can actually do that with the built-in function cumsum and sapplying over the list to get the sums.

cumsum(sapply(obj, sum))

Next lesson: Missing data

This material was adapted from Rich FitzJohn’s 2013 Intro to R module.