Understandable and reusable code

  • Write code in understandable chunks.
  • Write reusable code.
  • Who has copy-pasted code a bunch of times to do different versions of the same thing?
  • Who forgot to change something in one of them?
  • Who had to make the same change to all of the copies?
  • Functions are a chunk of code written to be reusable while changing the details

Function basics

function_name <- function(inputs) {
  output_value <- do_something(inputs)
  • The braces indicate that the lines of code are a group that gets run together
{a = 2
b = 3
a + b}
  • Pressing run anywhere in this group runs all the lines in that group
  • A function runs all of the lines of code in the braces
  • Using the arguments provided
  • And then returns the output
calc_shrub_vol <- function(length, width, height) {
  area <- length * width
  volume <- area * height
  • Creating a function doesn’t run it.
  • Call the function with some arguments.
calc_shrub_vol(0.8, 1.6, 2.0)
  • Store the output to use it later in the program
shrub_vol <- calc_shrub_vol(0.8, 1.6, 2.0)

Do Writing Functions

  • Treat functions like a black box
    • Draw a box on board showing inputs->function->outputs
    • The only things the function knows about are the inputs we pass it
    • The only thing the program knows about the function is the output it produces
  • Walk through function execution (using debugger)
    • Call function
    • Assign 0.8 to length, 1.6 to width, and 2.0 to height inside function
    • Calculate the area and assign it to area
    • Calculate volume and assign it to volume
    • Send volume back as output
    • Store it in shrub_vol
  • Treat functions like a black box.
    • Can’t access a variable that was created in a function
      • > volume
      • Error: object 'width' not found
    • Or an argument by name
      • > width
      • Error: object 'width' not found
    • ‘Global’ variables can influence function, but should not.
      • Very confusing and error prone to use a variable that isn’t passed in as an argument

Do Use and Modify. End of 1 hour class

Default arguments

  • Defaults can be set for common inputs.
  • For example, many of our shrubs are the same height so for those shrubs we only measure the length and width.
  • So we want a default value for the height for cases where we don’t measure it
calc_shrub_vol <- function(length, width, height = 1) {
  area <- length * width
  volume <- area * height

calc_shrub_vol(0.8, 1.6)
calc_shrub_vol(0.8, 1.6, 2.0)
calc_shrub_vol(length = 0.8, width = 1.6, height = 2.0)

Do Default Arguments.

Discuss why passing a and b in is more useful than having them fixed

Named vs unnamed arguments

  • When to use or not use argument names
calc_shrub_vol(length = 0.8, width = 1.6, height = 2.0)


calc_shrub_vol(0.8, 1.6, 2.0)
  • You can always use names
    • Value gets assigned to variable of that name
  • If not using names then order determines naming
    • First value is length, second value is width, third value is height
    • If order is hard to remember use names
  • In many cases there are a lot of optional arguments
    • Convention to always name optional argument
  • So, in our case, the most common approach would be
calc_shrub_vol(0.8, 1.6, height = 2.0)

Combining Functions

  • Each function should be single conceptual chunk of code
  • Functions can be combined to do larger tasks in two ways

  • Calling multiple functions in a row
est_shrub_mass <- function(volume){
  mass <- 2.65 * volume^0.9

shrub_volume <- calc_shrub_vol(0.8, 1.6, 2.0)
shrub_mass <- est_shrub_mass(shrub_volume)
  • We can also use pipes with our own functions
  • The output from the first function becomes the first argument for the second function
shrub_mass <- calc_shrub_vol(0.8, 1.6, 2.0) |>

Do Combining Functions.

  • Can also call functions from inside other functions
  • Allows organizing function calls into logical groups
est_shrub_mass_dim <- function(length, width, height){
  volume = calc_shrub_vol(length, width, height)
  mass <- est_shrub_mass(volume)

est_shrub_mass_dim(0.8, 1.6, 2.0)
  • We don’t need to pass the function name into the function
  • That’s the one violation of the black box rule

Using dplyr & ggplot in functions

  • There is an extra step we need to take when working with functions from dplyr and ggplot that work with “data variables”, i.e., names of columns that are not in quotes
  • These functions use tidy evaluation, a special type of non-standard evaluation
  • This basically means they do fancy things under the surface to make them easier to work with
  • But it means they don’t work if we just pass things to functions in the most natural way

make_plot <- function(df, column, label) {
  ggplot(data = df, mapping = aes(x = column)) +
    geom_histogram() +

surveys <- read.csv("surveys.csv")
make_plot(surveys, hindfoot_length, "Hindfoot Length [mm]")
  • To fix this we have to tell our code which inputs/arguments are this special type of data variable
  • We do this by “embracing” them in double braces

make_plot <- function(df, column, label) {
ggplot(data = df, mapping = aes(x = {{ column }})) +
    geom_histogram() +

surveys <- read.csv("surveys.csv")
make_plot(surveys, hindfoot_length, "Hindfoot Length [mm]")
make_plot(surveys, weight, "Weight [g]")

Code design with functions

  • Functions let us break code up into logical chunks that can be understood in isolation
  • Write functions at the top of your code then call them at the bottom
  • The functions hold the details
  • The function calls show you the outline of the code execution
clean_data <- function(data){

process_data <- function(cleaned_data){

make_graph <- function(processed_data){

raw_data <- read.csv('mydata.csv')
cleaned_data <- clean_data(raw_data)
processed_data <- process_data(cleaned_data)

Documentation & Comments

  • Documentation
    • How to use code
    • Use Roxygen comments for functions
  • Comments
    • Why & how code works
    • Only if it code is confusing to read

Working with functions in RStudio

  • It is possible to find and jump between functions
  • Click on list of functions at bottom of editor and select

  • Can be helpful to clearly see what is a function
  • Can have RStudio highlight them
  • Global Options -> Code -> Display -> Highlight R function calls