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Beginner's guide to R: Easy ways to do basic data analysis

Sharon Machlis | June 7, 2013
So you've read your data into an R object. Now what?


More broadly, then, the format for accessing a column by name would be:


That will give you a 1-dimensional vector of numbers like this:

[1] 21.0 21.0 22.8 21.4 18.7 18.1 14.3 24.4 22.8 19.2 17.8

[12] 16.4 17.3 15.2 10.4 10.4 14.7 32.4 30.4 33.9 21.5 15.5

[23] 15.2 13.3 19.2 27.3 26.0 30.4 15.8 19.7 15.0 21.4

The numbers in brackets are not part of your data, by the way. They indicate what item number each line is starting with. If you've only got one line of data, you'll just see [1]. If there's more than one line of data and only the first 11 entries can fit on the first line, your second line will start with [12], and so on.

Sometimes a vector of numbers is exactly what you want -- if, for example, you want to quickly plot mtcars$mpg and don't need item labels, or you're looking for statistical info such as variance and mean.

Chances are, though, you'll want to subset your data by more than one column at a time. That's when you'll want to use bracket notation, what I think of as rows-comma-columns. Basically, you take the name of your data frame and follow it by [rows,columns]. The rows you want come first, followed by a comma, followed by the columns you want. So, if you want all rows but just columns 2 through 4 of mtcars, you can use:


Do you see that comma before the 2:4? That's leaving a blank space where the "which rows do you want?" portion of the bracket notation goes, and it means "I'm not asking for any subset, so return all." Although it's not always required, it's not a bad practice to get into the habit of using a comma in bracket notation so that you remember whether you were slicing by columns or rows.

If you want multiple columns that aren't contiguous, such as columns 2 AND 4 but not 3, you can use the notation:


A couple of syntax notes here:

  • R indexes from 1, not 0. So your first column is at [1] and not [0].
  • R is case sensitive everywhere. mtcars$mpg is not the same as mtcars$MPG.
  • mtcars[,-1] will not get you the last column of a data frame, the way negative indexing works in many other languages. Instead, negative indexing in R means exclude that item. So, mtcars[,-1] will return every column except the first one.
  • To create a vector of items that are not contiguous, you need to use the combine function c(). Typing mtcars[,(2,4)] without the c will not work. You need that c in there: mtcars[,c(2,4)]


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