13.6 Attributes

  • Any vector can contain arbitrary additional metadata through its attributes.
    • Can be thought as named list of vectors that can be attached to any object.
  • We can get and set individual attribute values with attr() or see them all at once with attributes().
x <- 1:10
attr(x, "greeting")
attr(x, "greeting") <- "Hi!"
attr(x, "farewell") <- "Bye!"
  • Three very important attributes that used to implement fundamental parts of R:
    • Names are used to name the elements of a vector.
    • Dimensions (dims, for short) make a vector behave like a matrix or array.
    • Class is used to implement the S3 object oriented system.

Note: We have learnt of the names, and we won’t discuss matrices in this discussion as matrices aren;t used in this book!

  • Class controls how generic functions work.
    • Generic functions are key to object programming since they make functions behave differently for different classes of input. The discussion of object programming is covered in details in Advanced R: http://adv-r.had.co.nz/OO-essentials.html#s3
  • An example of generic function:
  • The call to “UseMethod” means that this is a generic function, and it calls a specific method, a function, based on the class of the first argument.

Note: All methods are functions; not all functions are methods.

  • To list all the methods for a generic, use methods():
  • For example, if x is a character vector, as.Date() will call as.Date.character(); if it’s a factor, it’ll call as.Date.factor().
  • We can see the specific implementation of a method with getS3method():
getS3method("as.Date", "default")
getS3method("as.Date", "numeric")
  • The most important S3 generic is print() -> controls how the object is printed when we type its name at the console.
  • Subsetting functions: [, [[ and $ are other important generics.