Making Sense of dplyr 0.6

May 18, 2017

Non-standard evaluation is one of R’s best features, and also one of it’s most perplexing. Recently I have been making good use of wrapr::let to allow me to write reusable functions without a lot of assumptions about my data. For example, let’s say I always want to group_by schools when adding up dollars spent, but that sometimes my data calls what is conceptually a school schools, school, location, cost_center, Loc.Name, etc. What I have been doing is storing a set of parameters in a list that mapped the actual names in my data to consistent names I want to use in my code. Sometimes that comes from using params in an Rmd file. So the top of my file may say something like:

    school: "locations"
    amount: "dollars"
    enrollment: n

In my code, I may want to write a chain like

create_per_pupil <- . %>%
                    group_by(school) %>%
                    summarize(per_pupil = sum(amount) / n)
pp <- district_data %>%

Only my problem is that school isn’t always school. In this toy case, you could use group_by_(params$school), but it’s pretty easy to run into limitations with the _ functions in dplyr when writing functions.

Using wrapr::let, I can easily use the code above:

let(alias = params, {
    create_per_pupil <- . %>%
                        group_by(school) %>%
                        summarize(per_pupil = sum(amount)/n)

pp <- district_data %>%

The core of wrapr::let is really scary.

body <- strexpr
for (ni in names(alias)) {
    value <- as.character(alias[[ni]])
    if (ni != value) {
        pattern <- paste0("\\b", ni, "\\b")
        body <- gsub(pattern, value, body)
parse(text = body)

Basically let is holidng onto the code block contained within it, iterating over the list of key-value pairs that are provided, and then runs a gsub on word boundaries to replace all instances of the list names with their values. Yikes.

This works, I use it all over, but I have never felt confident about it.

The New World of tidyeval

The release of dplyr 0.6 along with tidyeval brings wtih it a ton of features to making programming over dplyr functions far better supported. I am going to read this page by Hadley Wickham at least 100 times. There are all kinds of new goodies (!!! looks amazing).

So how would I re-write the chain above sans let?

create_per_pupil <- . %>%
                    group_by(!!sym(school)) %>%
                    summarize(per_pupil = sum(amount)/n)

If I understand tidyeval, then this is what’s going on.

  • sym evaluates school and makes the result a symbol
  • and !! says, roughly “evaluate that symbol now”.

This way with params$school having the value "school_name", sym(school) creates evaulates that to "school_name" and then makes it an unquoted symbol school_name. Then !! tells R “You can evaluate this next thing in place as it is.”

I originally wrote this post trying to understand enquo, but I never got it to work right and it makes no sense to me yet. What’s great is that rlang::sym and rlang::syms with !! and !!! respectively work really well so far. There is definitely less flexibility– with the full on quosure stuff you can have very complex evaluations. But I’m mostly worried about having very generic names for my data so sym and syms seems to work great.