What I particularly like about the tidyverse is the pipe operator %>%. For me it is more than a convenient way of concatenating tasks, prettifying and/or reducing the amount of code. I intrinsically connect it to the first two principles of the UNIX philosophy:1

  1. Write programs that do one thing and do it well.
  2. Write programs to work together.

The philosophy tells us that, by focusing on smaller functions (or programs) addressing smaller problems, it is easier to find a solution to bigger problems; and, as an extra, we can simply reuse our "small" solutions in other circumstances to tackle other problems.2 A pipe operator eases running smaller functions one after the other by passing the output of the first function to the second to the third and so on. That is, the operator can serve as (the missing) link between your functions to quickly -- but comprehensibly -- solve a problem. Its mere existence makes following the UNIX philosophy attractive and serves as great motivation to pursue it.

On UNIX shells, such as sh or bash, the pipe operator is | and one of the most fundamental tools for everyone who works on the command line. For example, to find all R files underneath your local R library that include R's pipe operator execute the following:3

find ~/R -name '*.R' -print0 | xargs -0 grep '%>%' | head

In this case, the pipe operator helps us to combine the power of find, xargs and grep. In fact, these are independent programs but their developers have done there best to ensure that they work together. We can combine them in an arbitrary manner to solve problems nobody has thought of before, such as finding all R files underneath our local R library that include R's pipe operator %>%.

R's pipe operator is not part of base::. But by shipping it with the magrittr package,4 it has become a fundamental part of the tidyverse. The pipe reveals its power especially in conjunction with dplyr (and tidyr) -- but let's start small. What is it for exactly?

Let's say you have two functions f1 and f2, and some data x. If you were to apply the first and the second function to x one after the other you would probably do something like the following:

y <- f2(f1(x))

Or, something like this:

x <- f1(x)
y <- f2(x)

Using the pipe operator %>% you can simplify the code:

y <- x %>% f1 %>% f2

In this case, imagine x as a stream of data that flows through f1 and f2 following the direction %>% points to. Each time it reaches a function, the function is applied to the data, and passed further on along the stream. Once it reaches the end of the line, the result is stored in y. This way, reasoning about the code is much easier.

Take a more complex example with some example data from iris. Let's say you want to inspect species setosa and calculate the mean of Sepal.Length. Traditionally, you would do something like the following:

data(iris)
idx <- iris$Species == "setosa"
setosa <- iris[idx, ]
mean(setosa$Sepal.Length)

With the pipe operator you can simplify the task by combining dplyr's filter and summarize functions.

library(magrittr)
library(dplyr)
iris %>%
  filter(Species == "setosa") %>%
  summarize(mean =  mean(Sepal.Length)) %>%
  unlist(use.names = FALSE)

Once again, we can imagine a data stream that flows through filter and summarize. Each time it reaches a function, the function is applied to the stream. At the end the final output is printed. (In this example, you could omit the call to unlist at the end. It only serves the purpose to make the output look like the one of the first example.)

Arguably, it is much easier to reason about the second example using %>%. First, you can clearly see what data you are operating on because it's the very first word in the sequence of expressions. In the example above, this is more difficult to reason about because iris is spread throughout the code. Second, you can clearly identify that three functions are applied to the data. In the example showing the traditional approach, you do grasp that, in the end, a mean is calculated, but you must read the code backwards. You must find out what is stored in setosa and what idx is for.

Obviously, the pipe operator is only useful if functions exist that are compatible to piping. Compatibility is guaranteed by writing functions with the first argument being for data input, such as

pipe_function <- function(.data, ...) {
    # do something here

    .data_manipulated
}

So, why not always use piping? It makes debugging difficult. If an error occurs somewhere along the pipe, traceback() won't help you a lot because its output will be cluttered with %>%'s internals. Thus, it makes sense to split the pipe in reasonable sizes. This way you will be able to investigate each part of the pipe on its own and trace errors more easily.

setosa <- iris %>%
  filter(Species == "setosa")

setosa %>%
  filter(Sepal.Width > 3) %>%
  summarize(mean =  mean(Sepal.Length)) %>%
  unlist(use.names = FALSE)

To summarize, R's pipe operator enables us to follow a philosophy that has proven itself to be very useful. While it encourages programmers to build functions that obey a simple principle, it opens the doors for code that is easier comprehensible. By doing so, it is the "glue" that holds together an infrastructure that makes data analyses straightforward and fun: the tidyverse. Thus, to me, it's an element of R that I never want to miss.

4

magrittr also provides other interesting pipe operators such as %<>% and %$%. Take a look at the vignette to learn more about it.

2

It's not that software development is all about problems. Don't get me wrong here. Actually it's a lot about creative work -- and fun!

3

Be aware that I restrict the output to the first 10 files here by using find.

1

The Wikipedia article provides further information about the philosophy and its origin. There you can read more about the third principle too: 3. Write programs to handle text streams, because that is a universal interface.