by Guangming Lang
2 min read


  • r

Functions play a quintessential role in R. John Chambers said that “in R: everything that happens is a function call.” Before diving into R functions, I want to explain the mathematical concept of “function” because it will help us understand R functions.

A mathematical function is made of input variables and a body of mathematical statements operating on the input variables. Once defined, it can be used again and again, taking on different input values and returning some values as output.
But for the same inputs, a math function always outputs the same answer. For example, consider the identity function f(x) = x defined over the real numbers. We have

  • the value of f(1) is always 1,
  • the value of f(-100.1) is always -100.1, and
  • in general, the value of f(x) is always x for any real number x.

A pure function in programming is analogous to a math function. A pure function never changes the input data, and always makes a new copy and modifies the copy. Functional programming (FP) encourages the usage of pure functions because they make it easier to reason about what’s going on. In R, if you want to write pure functions (and most of the time you want to do that), avoid the <<- assignment operator1.

Similar to a math function, a R function also has a list of input arguments and a body. The following code chunck presents a example template for defining a function in R. The keyword function tells R that we’re defining a function. Its input arguments are x1, x2 = 5 and ..., with 5 being the default value of x2. The ... argument is special and can contain any number of arguments. It is used when the number of arguments are unknown or when the unknown arguments will be passed on to another function inside the function. The braces {} sourounds the function body, which is just a bunch of R statements and expressions involving the input variables (x1, x2, ...). The function body can be long or short.

foo = function(x1, x2 = 5, ...) {
        # body content

However, R functions have something that math functions don’t have: an environment that was active when the function was created. Anything bound in this environment are available to the function. So everytime we create a R function, what we see are the code we write down. When we send the code of the function to R for evaluation, R attaches an environment to the function. This is something we don’t see but happens under the hood nonetheless. The combination of the code of the function and the bindings in its environment is called a “function closure.” The word “closure” emphasizes the attached environment.

After a R function is created, we want to use it by calling it over some input values. When a R function is called, a new environment (named the calling or evaluation environment) is created, whose parent environment (also called enclosure) is the environment from the function closure. The calling environment is initially populated with the unevaluated arguments of the function. As evaluation proceeds, symbols are searched from the calling environment first and then from its parent, and local variables are created inside the calling environment.

The above explanation is a little abstract. Read the following post for a example that will help contextualizing things:

Understand R Environments

  1. This article explains how <<- works.