Improve the readability of R code with the pipe
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The magrittr package offers a set of operators which make your code more readable by:

  • structuring sequences of data operations left-to-right (as opposed to from the inside and out),
  • avoiding nested function calls,
  • minimizing the need for local variables and function definitions, and
  • making it easy to add steps anywhere in the sequence of operations.

The operators pipe their left-hand side values forward into expressions that appear on the right-hand side, i.e. one can replace f(x) with x %>% f(), where %>% is the (main) pipe-operator. When coupling several function calls with the pipe-operator, the benefit will become more apparent. Consider this pseudo example:

the_data <-
  read.csv('/path/to/data/file.csv') %>%
  subset(variable_a > x) %>%
  transform(variable_c = variable_a/variable_b) %>%

Four operations are performed to arrive at the desired data set, and they are written in a natural order: the same as the order of execution. Also, no temporary variables are needed. If yet another operation is required, it is straight-forward to add to the sequence of operations wherever it may be needed.

If you are new to magrittr, the best place to start is the pipes chapter in R for data science.


# The easiest way to get magrittr is to install the whole tidyverse:

# Alternatively, install just magrittr:

# Or the the development version from GitHub:
# install.packages("devtools")


Basic piping

  • x %>% f is equivalent to f(x)
  • x %>% f(y) is equivalent to f(x, y)
  • x %>% f %>% g %>% h is equivalent to h(g(f(x)))

Here, “equivalent” is not technically exact: evaluation is non-standard, and the left-hand side is evaluated before passed on to the right-hand side expression. However, in most cases this has no practical implication.

The argument placeholder

  • x %>% f(y, .) is equivalent to f(y, x)
  • x %>% f(y, z = .) is equivalent to f(y, z = x)

Re-using the placeholder for attributes

It is straight-forward to use the placeholder several times in a right-hand side expression. However, when the placeholder only appears in a nested expressions magrittr will still apply the first-argument rule. The reason is that in most cases this results more clean code.

x %>% f(y = nrow(.), z = ncol(.)) is equivalent to f(x, y = nrow(x), z = ncol(x))

The behavior can be overruled by enclosing the right-hand side in braces:

x %>% {f(y = nrow(.), z = ncol(.))} is equivalent to f(y = nrow(x), z = ncol(x))

Building (unary) functions

Any pipeline starting with the . will return a function which can later be used to apply the pipeline to values. Building functions in magrittr is therefore similar to building other values.

f <- . %>% cos %>% sin 
# is equivalent to 
f <- function(.) sin(cos(.)) 

Pipe with exposition of variables

Many functions accept a data argument, e.g. lm and aggregate, which is very useful in a pipeline where data is first processed and then passed into such a function. There are also functions that do not have a data argument, for which it is useful to expose the variables in the data. This is done with the %$% operator:

iris %>%
  subset(Sepal.Length > mean(Sepal.Length)) %$%
  cor(Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width)
#> [1] 0.3361992

data.frame(z = rnorm(100)) %$%