Introduction to R Programming


    For someone like me, who has only had some programming experience in Python, the syntax of R feels alienating initially. However, I believe it’s just a matter of time before adapting to the unique logicality of a new language. And indeed, the grammar of R flows more naturally to me after having to practice for a while, and I began to grasp its kind of remarkable beauty, that has captivated the heart of countless statisticians throughout the years.

    If you don’t know what R is, it’s basically a programming language created for statistician by statistician. Hence, it easily becomes one of the most fluid and powerful tools in the field of Data Science.

    Here I’d like to walk through my study notes with the most explicit step-by-step directions to introduce you to the world of R.

    Why Learn R for Data Science?

    Before diving in, you might want to know why should you learn R for Data Science. There are two major reasons:

    Powerful Analytic Packages for Data Science

    Firstly, R has an extremely vast package ecosystem. It provides robust tools to master all the core skill sets of Data Science, from data manipulation, data visualization, to machine learning. The vivid community keeps the R language’s functionalities growing and improving.

    High Industry Popularity and Demand

    With its great analytical power, R is becoming the lingua franca for data science. It is widely used in the industry and is in heavy use at several of the best companies who are hiring Data Scientists including Google and Facebook. It is one of the highly sought after skills for a Data Science job.

    Quickstart Installation Guide

    To start programming with R on your computer, you need two things: R and RStudio.

    Install R Language

    You have to first install the R language itself to your computer (It doesn’t come by default). To download R, go to CRAN, (the comprehensive R archive network). Choose your system and select the latest version to install.

    Install RStudio

    You also need a hefty tool to write and compile R codes. And RStudio is the most robust and popular IDE (integrated development environment) for R programming. It is available on (open source and for free!)

    Overview of RStudio

    Now you have everything ready. Let’s have a brief overview at RStudio. Fire up RStudio, the interface looks as such:

    RStudio interface

    Go to File > New File > R Script to open a new script file. You’ll see a new section appear at the top left side of your interface. A typical RStudio workspace composes of the 4 panels you’re seeing right now:

    RStudio interface with 4 panels annotated

    RStudio Interface

    Here’s a brief explanation of the use of the 4 panels in the RStudio interface:

    This is where your main R script located.

    This area shows the output of code you run from script. You can also directly write codes in the console.

    This space displays the set of external elements added, including dataset, variables, vectors, functions etc.

    This space displays the graphs created during exploratory data analysis. You can also seek help with embedded R’s documentation here.

    Running R Codes

    After knowing your IDE, the first thing you want to do is to write some codes.

    Using the Console Panel

    You can use the console panel directly to write your codes. Hit Enter, the output of your codes will be returned and displayed immediately after. However, codes entered in the console cannot be traced later. (i.e. you can’t save your codes) This is where script comes to use. But console is good for quick experiment before formatting your codes in script.

    RStudio console panel

    Using the Script Panel

    To write proper R codes, you start with a new script by going to File > New File > R Script, or hit Shift + Ctrl + N. You can then write your codes in the script panel. Select the line(s) to run and press Ctrl + Enter. The output will be shown in the console section beneath. You can also click on little Run button located at the top right corner of this panel. Codes written in script can be saved for later review (File > Save or Ctrl + S).

    RStudio script panel

    Basics of R Programming

    Finally, with all the set-ups, you can write your first piece of R script. The following paragraphs introduce you to the basics of R programming.

    A quick tip before going: all lines after the symbol # will be treated as a comment and will not be rendered in the output.


    Let’s start with some basic arithmetics. You can do some simple calculations with the arithmetic operators:

    Operator Function
    + Addition
    - Subtraction
    * Multiplication
    / Division
    ^ Exponentiation
    %% Modulo
    %/% Integer Division

    Addition +, subtraction -, multiplication *, division / should be intuitive.

    # Addition
    1 + 1
    #[1] 2
    # Subtraction
    2 - 2
    #[1] 0
    # Multiplication
    3 * 2
    #[1] 6
    # Division
    4 / 2
    #[1] 2

    The exponentiation operator ^ raises the number to its left to the power of the number to its right: for example 3 ^ 2 is 9.

    # Exponentiation
    2 ^ 4
    #[1] 16

    The modulo operator %% returns the remainder of the division of the number to the left by the number on its right, for example 5 modulo 3 or 5 %% 3 is 2.

    # Modulo
    5 %% 2
    #[1] 1

    Lastly, the integer division operator %/% returns the maximum times the number on the left can be divided by the number on its right, the fractional part is discarded, for example, 9 %/% 4 is 2.

    # Integer division
    5 %/% 2
    #[1] 2

    You can also add brackets () to change the order of operation. Order of operations is the same as in mathematics (from highest to lowest precedence):

    • Brackets
    • Exponentiation
    • Division
    • Multiplication
    • Addition
    • Subtraction
    # Brackets
    (3 + 5) * 2
    #[1] 16

    Variable Assignment

    A basic concept in (statistical) programming is called a variable.

    A variable allows you to store a value (e.g. 4) or an object (e.g. a function description) in R. You can then later use this variable’s name to easily access the value or the object that is stored within this variable.

    Create New Variables

    Create a new object with the assignment operator <-. All R statements where you create objects and assignment statements have the same form: object_name <- value.

    num_var <- 10
    chr_var <- "Ten"

    To access the value of the variable, simply type the name of the variable in the console.

    #[1] 10
    #[1] "Ten"

    You can access the value of the variable anywhere you call it in the R script, and perform further operations on them.

    first_var <- 1
    second_var <- 2
    first_var + second_var
    #[1] 3
    sum_var <- first_var + second_var
    #[1] 3

    Naming Variables

    Not all kinds of names are accepted in R. Variable names must start with a letter, and can only contain letters, numbers, . and _. Also, bear in mind that R is case-sensitive, i.e. Cat would not be identical to cat.

    Your object names should be descriptive, so you’ll need a convention for multiple words. It is recommended to snake_case where you separate lowercase words with _.


    Assignment Operators

    If you’ve been programming in other languages before, you’ll notice that the assignment operator in R is quite strange as it uses <- instead of the commonly used equal sign = to assign objects.

    Indeed, using = will still work in R, but it will cause confusion later. So you should always follow the convention and use <- for assignment.

    <- is a pain to type as you’ll have to make lots of assignments. To make life easier, you should remember RStudio’s awesome keyboard shortcut Alt + - (the minus sign) and incorporate it in your regular workflow.


    Look at the environment panel at the upper right corner, you’ll find all of the objects that you’ve created.


    Basic Data Types

    You’ll work with numerous data types in R. Here are some of the most basic ones:

    Data Type Explanation
    Numerics Decimals values like 4.5 are called numerics.
    Integers Natural numbers like 4 are called integers. Integers are also numerics.
    Logical Boolean values (TRUE or FALSE) are called logical.
    Characters Text (or string) values like 'Dog' are called characters.

    Knowing the data type of an object is important, as different data types work with different functions, and you perform different operations on them. For example, adding a numeric and a character together will throw an error.

    To check an object’s data type, you can use the class() function.

    # usage
    # description
    Prints the vector of names of classes an object inherits from.
    # arguments
    x : An R object.

    Here is an example:

    int_var <- 10
    #[1] "numeric"
    dbl_var <- 10.11
    #[1] "numeric"
    lgl_var <- TRUE
    #[1] "logical"
    chr_var <- "Hello"
    #[1] "character"


    Functions are the fundamental building blocks of R. In programming, a named section of a program that performs a specific task is a function. In this sense, a function is a type of procedure or routine.

    R comes with a prewritten set of functions that are kept in a library. (class() as demonstrated in the previous section is a built-in function.) You can use additional functions in other libraries by installing packages. You can also write your own functions to perform specialized tasks.

    Here is the typical form of an R function:

    function_name(arg1 = val1, arg2 = val2, ...)

    function_name is the name of the function. arg1 and arg2 are arguments. They’re variables to be passed into the function. The type and number of arguments depend on the definition of the function. val1 and val2 are values of the arguments correspondingly.

    Passing Arguments

    R can match arguments both by position and by name. So you don’t necessarily have to supply the names of the arguments if you have the positions of the arguments placed correctly.

    class(x = 1)
    #[1] "numeric"
    #[1] "numeric"

    Functions are always accompanied with loads of arguments for configurations. However, you don’t have to supply all of the arguments for a function to work.

    Here is the documentation of the sum() function:

    # usage
    sum(..., na.rm = FALSE)
    # description
    Returns the sum of all the values present in its arguments.
    # arguments
    ... : Numeric or complex or logical vectors.
    na.rm : Logical. Should missing values (including NaN) be removed?

    From the documentation, we learned that there’re two arguments for the sum() function: ... and na.rm. Notice that na.rm contains a default value FALSE. This makes it an optional argument. If you don’t supply any values to the optional arguments, the function will automatically fill in the default value to proceed.

    sum(2, 10)
    #[1] 12
    sum(2, 10, NaN)
    #[1] NaN
    sum(2, 10, NaN, na.rm = TRUE)
    #[1] 12

    Getting Help

    There is a large collection of functions in R and you’ll never remember all of them. Hence, knowing how to get help is important.

    RStudio has a handy tool ? to help you in recalling the use of the functions:


    Look how magical it is to show the R documentation directly at the output panel for quick reference:

    RStudio documentation

    Last but not least, if you get stuck, Google it! For beginners like us, our confusions must have been gone through by numerous R learners before and there will always be something helpful and insightful on the web.

    Happy learning!