17 Big picture

17.1 Introduction

Metaprogramming is the hardest topic in this book because it brings together many formerly unrelated topics and forces you grapple with issues that you probably haven’t thought about before. You’ll also need to learn a lot of new vocabulary, and at first it will seem like every new term is defined by three other terms that you haven’t heard of. Even if you’re an experienced programmer in another language, your existing skills are unlikely to be much help as few modern popular languages expose the level of metaprogramming that R provides. So don’t be surprised if you’re frustrated or confused at first; this is a natural part of the process that happens to everyone!

But I think it’s easier to learn metaprogramming now than ever before. Over the last few years, the theory and practice have matured substantially, providing a strong foundation paired with tools that allow you to solve common problems. In this chapter, you’ll get the big picture of all the main pieces and how they fit together.


Each section in this chapter introduces one big new idea:

  • Section 17.2 shows that code is data and teaches you how to create and modify expressions by capturing code.

  • Section 17.3 describes the tree-like structure of code, called an abstract syntax tree.

  • Section 17.4 shows how to create new expressions programmatically.

  • Section 17.5 shows how to execute expressions by evaluating them in an environment.

  • Section 17.6 illustrates how to customise evaluation by supplying custom functions in a new environment.

  • Section 17.7 extends that customisation to data masks, which blur the line between environments and data frames.

  • Section 17.8 introduces a new data structure called the quosure that makes all this simpler and more correct.


This chapter introduces the big ideas using rlang; you’ll learn the base equivalents in later chapters. We’ll also use the lobstr package to explore the tree structure of code.

Make sure that you’re also familiar with the environment (Section 7.2) and data frame (Section 3.6) data structures.

17.2 Code is data

The first big idea is that code is data: you can capture code and compute on it as you can with any other type of data. The first way you can capture code is with rlang::expr(). You can think of expr() as returning exactly what you pass in:

expr(mean(x, na.rm = TRUE))
#> mean(x, na.rm = TRUE)
expr(10 + 100 + 1000)
#> 10 + 100 + 1000

More formally, captured code is called an expression. An expression isn’t a single type of object, but is a collective term for any of four types (call, symbol, constant, or pairlist), which you’ll learn more about in Chapter 18.

expr() lets you capture code that you’ve typed. You need a different tool to capture code passed to a function because expr() doesn’t work:

capture_it <- function(x) {
capture_it(a + b + c)
#> x

Here you need to use a function specifically designed to capture user input in a function argument: enexpr(). Think of the “en” in the context of “enrich”: enexpr() takes a lazily evaluated argument and turns it into an expression:

capture_it <- function(x) {
capture_it(a + b + c)
#> a + b + c

Because capture_it() uses enexpr() we say that it automatically quotes its first argument. You’ll learn more about this term in Section 19.2.1.

Once you have captured an expression, you can inspect and modify it. Complex expressions behave much like lists. That means you can modify them using [[ and $:

f <- expr(f(x = 1, y = 2))

# Add a new argument
f$z <- 3
#> f(x = 1, y = 2, z = 3)

# Or remove an argument:
f[[2]] <- NULL
#> f(y = 2, z = 3)

The first element of the call is the function to be called, which means the first argument is in the second position. You’ll learn the full details in Section 18.3.

17.3 Code is a tree

To do more complex manipulation with expressions, you need to fully understand their structure. Behind the scenes, almost every programming language represents code as a tree, often called the abstract syntax tree, or AST for short. R is unusual in that you can actually inspect and manipulate this tree.

A very convenient tool for understanding the tree-like structure is lobstr::ast(). Given some code, this function displays the underlying tree structure. Function calls form the branches of the tree, and are shown by rectangles. The leaves of the tree are symbols (like a) and constants (like "b").

lobstr::ast(f(a, "b"))
#> █─f 
#> ├─a 
#> └─"b"

Nested function calls create more deeply branching trees:

lobstr::ast(f1(f2(a, b), f3(1, f4(2))))
#> █─f1 
#> ├─█─f2 
#> │ ├─a 
#> │ └─b 
#> └─█─f3 
#>   ├─1 
#>   └─█─f4 
#>     └─2

Because all function forms can be written in prefix form (Section 6.8.2), every R expression can be displayed in this way:

lobstr::ast(1 + 2 * 3)
#> █─`+` 
#> ├─1 
#> └─█─`*` 
#>   ├─2 
#>   └─3

Displaying the AST in this way is a useful tool for exploring R’s grammar, the topic of Section 18.4.

17.4 Code can generate code

As well as seeing the tree from code typed by a human, you can also use code to create new trees. There are two main tools: call2() and unquoting.

rlang::call2() constructs a function call from its components: the function to call, and the arguments to call it with.

call2("f", 1, 2, 3)
#> f(1, 2, 3)
call2("+", 1, call2("*", 2, 3))
#> 1 + 2 * 3

call2() is often convenient to program with, but is a bit clunky for interactive use. An alternative technique is to build complex code trees by combining simpler code trees with a template. expr() and enexpr() have built-in support for this idea via !! (pronounced bang-bang), the unquote operator.

The precise details are the topic of Section 19.4, but basically !!x inserts the code tree stored in x into the expression. This makes it easy to build complex trees from simple fragments:

xx <- expr(x + x)
yy <- expr(y + y)

expr(!!xx / !!yy)
#> (x + x)/(y + y)

Notice that the output preserves the operator precedence so we get (x + x) / (y + y) not x + x / y + y (i.e. x + (x / y) + y). This is important, particularly if you’ve been wondering if it wouldn’t be easier to just paste strings together.

Unquoting gets even more useful when you wrap it up into a function, first using enexpr() to capture the user’s expression, then expr() and !! to create a new expression using a template. The example below shows how you can generate an expression that computes the coefficient of variation:

cv <- function(var) {
  var <- enexpr(var)
  expr(sd(!!var) / mean(!!var))

#> sd(x)/mean(x)
cv(x + y)
#> sd(x + y)/mean(x + y)

(This isn’t very useful here, but being able to create this sort of building block is very useful when solving more complex problems.)

Importantly, this works even when given weird variable names:

#> sd(`)`)/mean(`)`)

Dealing with weird names86 is another good reason to avoid paste() when generating R code. You might think this is an esoteric concern, but not worrying about it when generating SQL code in web applications led to SQL injection attacks that have collectively cost billions of dollars.

17.5 Evaluation runs code

Inspecting and modifying code gives you one set of powerful tools. You get another set of powerful tools when you evaluate, i.e. execute or run, an expression. Evaluating an expression requires an environment, which tells R what the symbols in the expression mean. You’ll learn the details of evaluation in Chapter 20.

The primary tool for evaluating expressions is base::eval(), which takes an expression and an environment:

eval(expr(x + y), env(x = 1, y = 10))
#> [1] 11
eval(expr(x + y), env(x = 2, y = 100))
#> [1] 102

If you omit the environment, eval uses the current environment:

x <- 10
y <- 100
eval(expr(x + y))
#> [1] 110

One of the big advantages of evaluating code manually is that you can tweak the environment. There are two main reasons to do this:

  • To temporarily override functions to implement a domain specific language.
  • To add a data mask so you can refer to variables in a data frame as if they are variables in an environment.

17.6 Customising evaluation with functions

The above example used an environment that bound x and y to vectors. It’s less obvious that you also bind names to functions, allowing you to override the behaviour of existing functions. This is a big idea that we’ll come back to in Chapter 21 where I explore generating HTML and LaTeX from R. The example below gives you a taste of the power. Here I evaluate code in a special environment where * and + have been overridden to work with strings instead of numbers:

string_math <- function(x) {
  e <- env(
    `+` = function(x, y) paste0(x, y),
    `*` = function(x, y) strrep(x, y)

  eval(enexpr(x), e)

name <- "Hadley"
string_math("Hello " + name)
#> [1] "Hello Hadley"
string_math(("x" * 2 + "-y") * 3)
#> [1] "xx-yxx-yxx-y"

dplyr takes this idea to the extreme, running code in an environment that generates SQL for execution in a remote database:

#> Attaching package: 'dplyr'
#> The following objects are masked from 'package:stats':
#>     filter, lag
#> The following objects are masked from 'package:base':
#>     intersect, setdiff, setequal, union

con <- DBI::dbConnect(RSQLite::SQLite(), filename = ":memory:")
mtcars_db <- copy_to(con, mtcars)

mtcars_db %>%
  filter(cyl > 2) %>%
  select(mpg:hp) %>%
  head(10) %>%
#> <SQL>
#> SELECT `mpg`, `cyl`, `disp`, `hp`
#> FROM `mtcars`
#> WHERE (`cyl` > 2.0)
#> LIMIT 10


17.7 Customising evaluation with data

Rebinding functions is an extremely powerful technique, but it tends to require a lot of investment. A more immediately practical application is modifying evaluation to look for variables in a data frame instead of an environment. This idea powers the base subset() and transform() functions, as well as many tidyverse functions like ggplot2::aes() and dplyr::mutate(). It’s possible to use eval() for this, but there are a few potential pitfalls (Section 20.6), so we’ll switch to rlang::eval_tidy() instead.

As well as expression and environment, eval_tidy() also takes a data mask, which is typically a data frame:

df <- data.frame(x = 1:5, y = sample(5))
eval_tidy(expr(x + y), df)
#> [1] 6 6 4 6 8

Evaluating with a data mask is a useful technique for interactive analysis because it allows you to write x + y rather than df$x + df$y. However, that convenience comes at a cost: ambiguity. In Section 20.4 you’ll learn how to deal with ambiguity using special .data and .env pronouns.

We can wrap this pattern up into a function by using enexpr(). This gives us a function very similar to base::with():

with2 <- function(df, expr) {
  eval_tidy(enexpr(expr), df)

with2(df, x + y)
#> [1] 6 6 4 6 8

Unfortunately, this function has a subtle bug and we need a new data structure to help deal with it.

17.8 Quosures

To make the problem more obvious, I’m going to modify with2(). The basic problem still occurs without this modification but it’s much harder to see.

with2 <- function(df, expr) {
  a <- 1000
  eval_tidy(enexpr(expr), df)

We can see the problem when we use with2() to refer to a variable called a. We want the value of a to come from the binding we can see (10), not the binding internal to the function (1000):

df <- data.frame(x = 1:3)
a <- 10
with2(df, x + a)
#> [1] 1001 1002 1003

The problem arises because we need to evaluate the captured expression in the environment where it was written (where a is 10), not the environment inside of with2() (where a is 1000).

Fortunately we can solve this problem by using a new data structure: the quosure which bundles an expression with an environment. eval_tidy() knows how to work with quosures so all we need to do is switch out enexpr() for enquo():

with2 <- function(df, expr) {
  a <- 1000
  eval_tidy(enquo(expr), df)

with2(df, x + a)
#> [1] 11 12 13

Whenever you use a data mask, you must always use enquo() instead of enexpr(). This is the topic of Chapter 20.