[R] Variable scope in functions - best practices

Thomas Lumley tlumley at uw.edu
Sun Jul 24 23:11:14 CEST 2011

On Mon, Jul 25, 2011 at 4:14 AM, Noah Silverman <noahsilverman at ucla.edu> wrote:
> Hi,
> I'm working on coding some more complex things in R and have need to break much of the logic into functions.
> I have several "global" variables that I want to change with a given function.  (The variable has a different value after the function is called.)
> In other languages like C, this is simple.  However, in R, if a function changes a variable, that change only occurs in the frame of that function.  So, when the function returns, the old value is still there.
> Of course, I could just have the function return the value, but some functions change 5-6 variables.  So, I could have a function return a list, and then parse that list every time, but that seems like an excessive amount of overhead.  (Especially as some functions may be called many many times.)
> How have some of you handled this?  Is there a "best practices" way?

Usually I would handle this by returning a list.  It's not that much overhead.

If you have a set of functions that share variables (like a C static
variable) you can use lexical scope and <<- to make changes. The demos
in the tcltk package do this.

You can also use a scratchpad environment and pass it around.  Since
environments are passed by references, changes made to that
environment inside a function will stay changed.

f<-function(i, scratchpad){
g<-function(i, scratchpad){



Thomas Lumley
Professor of Biostatistics
University of Auckland

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