Basic String Operations

This tutorial is based on the paper on stringi that was published in the Journal of Statistical Software; see [2]. To learn more about R, check out Marek’s open-access (free!) textbook Deep R Programming [3].

Computing Length and Width

First, we shall review the functions related to determining the number of entities in each string.

Let’s consider the following character vector:

x <- c("spam", "你好", "\u200b\u200b\u200b", NA_character_, "")

The x object consists of 5 character strings:

## [1] 5

stri_length() computes the length of each string. More precisely, the function gives the number of Unicode code points in each string, see Dealing with Unicode Code Points for more details.

## [1]  4  2  3 NA  0

The first string carries 4 ASCII (English) letters, the second consists of 2 Chinese characters (U+4F60, U+597D; a greeting), and the third one is comprised of 3 zero-width spaces (U+200B). Note that the 5th element in x is an empty string, "". Hence, its length is 0. Moreover, there is a missing (NA) value at index 4. Therefore, the corresponding length is undefined as well.

When formatting strings for display (e.g., in a report dynamically generated with Sweave() or knitr [13]), a string’s width estimate may be more informative – an approximate number of text columns it will occupy when printed using a monospaced font. In particular, many Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and most emoji characters take up two text cells. On the other hand, some code points might be of width 0 (e.g., the said ZERO WIDTH SPACE, U+200B).

## [1]  4  4  0 NA  0


Below we describe the functions that are related to string concatenation.

Operator %s+%

To join the corresponding strings in two character vectors, we may use the binary %s+% operator:

x <- c("tasty", "delicious", "yummy", NA)
x %s+% " " %s+% c("spam", "bacon")
## [1] "tasty spam"      "delicious bacon" "yummy spam"      NA


The elements in a character vector can be joined (“aggregated”) to form a single string via a call to stri_flatten():

stri_flatten(stri_omit_na(x), collapse=", ")
## [1] "tasty, delicious, yummy"

Note that the token separator, given by the collapse argument, defaults to the empty string.


Both the %s+% operator and the stri_flatten() function are generalised by stri_join() (alias: stri_paste(), stri_c()):

stri_join(c("X", "Y", "Z"), 1:6, "a")  # sep="", collapse=NULL
## [1] "X1a" "Y2a" "Z3a" "X4a" "Y5a" "Z6a"

By default, the sep argument, which controls how corresponding strings are delimited, is set to the empty string (like in the base paste0() but unlike in paste()). Moreover, collapse is NULL, which means that the resulting outputs will not be joined to form a single string. This can be changed if need be:

stri_join(c("X", "Y", "Z"), 1:6, "a", sep="_", collapse=", ")
## [1] "X_1_a, Y_2_a, Z_3_a, X_4_a, Y_5_a, Z_6_a"

Note how the two (1st, 3rd) shorter vectors were recycled to match the longest (2nd) vector’s length. The latter was of numeric type, but it was implicitly coerced via a call to as.character().

More examples:

pythons <- c("Graham Chapman", "John Cleese", "Terry Gilliam",
  "Eric Idle", "Terry Jones", "Michael Palin")
(pythons <- stri_split_fixed(pythons, " ", simplify=TRUE))
##      [,1]      [,2]     
## [1,] "Graham"  "Chapman"
## [2,] "John"    "Cleese" 
## [3,] "Terry"   "Gilliam"
## [4,] "Eric"    "Idle"   
## [5,] "Terry"   "Jones"  
## [6,] "Michael" "Palin"
stri_join(pythons[, 2], pythons[, 1], sep=", ")
## [1] "Chapman, Graham" "Cleese, John"    "Gilliam, Terry"  "Idle, Eric"     
## [5] "Jones, Terry"    "Palin, Michael"
outer(LETTERS[1:3], 1:5, stri_join, sep=".")  # outer product
##      [,1]  [,2]  [,3]  [,4]  [,5] 
## [1,] "A.1" "A.2" "A.3" "A.4" "A.5"
## [2,] "B.1" "B.2" "B.3" "B.4" "B.5"
## [3,] "C.1" "C.2" "C.3" "C.4" "C.5"


To duplicate given strings, we call stri_dup() or the %s*% operator:

stri_dup(letters[1:5], 1:5)
## [1] "a"     "bb"    "ccc"   "dddd"  "eeeee"

The above is synonymous with letters[1:5] %s*% 1:5.

Within-List Joining

There is also a convenience function that applies stri_flatten() on each character vector in a given list:

words <- list(c("spam", "bacon", "sausage", "spam"), c("eggs", "spam"))
stri_join_list(words, sep=", ")  # collapse=NULL
## [1] "spam, bacon, sausage, spam" "eggs, spam"
stri_join_list(words, sep=", ", collapse=";\n")
## [1] "spam, bacon, sausage, spam;\neggs, spam"

This way, a list of character vectors can be converted to a character vector. Such sequences of variable length sequences of strings are generated by, amongst others, stri_sub_all() and stri_extract_all().

Extracting and Replacing Substrings

The next group of functions deals with the extraction and replacement of particular sequences of code points in given strings.

Indexing Vectors

To select a subsequence from any R vector, we use the square-bracket operator[1] with an index vector consisting of either non-negative integers, negative integers, or logical values[2].

For example, here is how to select specific elements in a vector:

x <- c("spam", "buckwheat", "", NA, "bacon")
x[1:3]                           # from 1st to 3rd string
## [1] "spam"      "buckwheat" ""
x[c(1, length(x))]               # 1st and last
## [1] "spam"  "bacon"

Exclusion of elements at specific positions can be performed like:

x[-1]                            # all but 1st
## [1] "buckwheat" ""          NA          "bacon"

Filtering based on a logical vector can be used to extract strings fulfilling desired criteria:

x[!stri_isempty(x) & !]
## [1] "spam"      "buckwheat" "bacon"

Extracting Substrings

A character vector is, in its very essence, a sequence of sequences of code points. To extract specific substrings from each string in a collection, we can use the stri_sub() function.

y <- "spam, egg, spam, spam, bacon, and spam"
stri_sub(y, 18)             # from 18th code point to end
## [1] "spam, bacon, and spam"
stri_sub(y, 12, to=15)      # from 12th to 15th code point (inclusive)
## [1] "spam"

Negative indices count from the end of a string.

stri_sub(y, -15, length=5)  # 5 code points from 15th last
## [1] "bacon"

stri_sub_all() Function

If some deeper vectorisation level is necessary, stri_sub_all() comes in handy. It extracts multiple (possibly different) substrings from all the strings provided:

(z <- stri_sub_all(
              c("spam",     "bacon", "sorghum"),
  from   = list(c(1, 3, 4), -3,      c(2, 4)),
  length = list(1,           3,      c(4, 3))))
## [[1]]
## [1] "s" "a" "m"
## [[2]]
## [1] "con"
## [[3]]
## [1] "orgh" "ghu"

As the number of substrings to extract from each string might vary, the result is a list of character strings. We have obtained: substrings of length 1 starting at positions 1, 3, and 4 in x[1], then a length-3 substring that starts at the 3rd code point from the end of x[2], and length-4 and -3 substrings starting at, respectively, the 2nd and 4th code point of x[3] (where x denotes the subsetted vector).

Recall that the strings may all be concatenated by means of the aforementioned stri_join_list() function.

stri_join_list(z, sep=", ")
## [1] "s, a, m"   "con"       "orgh, ghu"

There is also a more flexible version of the built-in simplify2array() function whose aim is to convert such lists to matrices.

stri_list2matrix(z, by_row=TRUE, fill="", n_min=5)
##      [,1]   [,2]  [,3] [,4] [,5]
## [1,] "s"    "a"   "m"  ""   ""  
## [2,] "con"  ""    ""   ""   ""  
## [3,] "orgh" "ghu" ""   ""   ""

“From–To” and “From–Length” Matrices

The second parameter of both stri_sub() and stri_sub_list() can also be fed with a two-column matrix of the form cbind(from, to). Here, the first column gives the start indices, and the second column defines the end ones. Such matrices are generated, amongst others, by the stri_locate_() functions (see below for details).

(from_to <- cbind(from=c(1, 12, 18), to=c(4, 15, 21))) # +optional labels
##      from to
## [1,]    1  4
## [2,]   12 15
## [3,]   18 21
stri_sub(y, from_to)
## [1] "spam" "spam" "spam"

Another example (the recycling rule):

(from_to <- matrix(1:8, ncol=2, byrow=TRUE))
##      [,1] [,2]
## [1,]    1    2
## [2,]    3    4
## [3,]    5    6
## [4,]    7    8
stri_sub(c("abcdefgh", "ijklmnop"), from_to)
## [1] "ab" "kl" "ef" "op"

Due to recycling, this has extracted elements at positions 1:2 from the 1st string, at 3:4 from the 2nd one, 5:6 from the 1st, and 7:8 from the 2nd again.

Note the difference between the above output and the following one:

stri_sub_all(c("abcdefgh", "ijklmnop"), from_to)
## [[1]]
## [1] "ab" "cd" "ef" "gh"
## [[2]]
## [1] "ij" "kl" "mn" "op"

This time, we extract four identical sections from the two inputs.

Moreover, if the second column of the index matrix is named "length" (and only if this is the case), i.e., the indexer is of the form cbind(from, length=length), extraction will be based on the extracted chunk size.

Permuting Code Points

Somewhat related to the above are different ways to construct various permutations (possibly with replacement) of code points in a string:

stri_join_list(stri_sub_all("spam", c(4, 3, 2, 3, 1), length=1))
## [1] "mapas"
stri_rand_shuffle("bacon")  # random order
## [1] "anobc"
stri_reverse("spam")        # reverse order
## [1] "maps"

Replacing Substrings

stri_sub_replace() returns a version of a character vector with some chunks replaced by other strings:

stri_sub_replace(c("abcde", "ABCDE"),
  from=c(2, 4), length=c(1, 2), replacement=c("X", "uvw"))
## [1] "aXcde"  "ABCuvw"

The above replaced “b” (the length-1 substring starting at index 2 of the 1st string) with “X” and “DE” (the length-2 substring at index 4 of the 2nd string) with “uvw”.

Similarly, stri_sub_replace_all() replaces multiple substrings within each string in a character vector:

                   c("abcde",  "ABCDE"),
  from        = list(c(2, 4),  c(0,    3,   6)),
  length      = list(  1,      c(0,    2,   0)),
  replacement = list(  "Z",    c("uu", "v", "wwww")))
## [1] "aZcZe"      "uuABvEwwww"

Note how we have obtained the insertion of new content at the start and the end of the 2nd input.

Replacing Substrings In-Place

The corresponding replacement functions modify a character vector in-place:

y <- "spam, egg, spam, spam, bacon, and spam"
stri_sub(y, 7, length=3) <- "spam"  # in-place replacement, egg → spam
print(y)                            # y has changed
## [1] "spam, spam, spam, spam, bacon, and spam"

Note that the state of y has changed so that the substring of length 3 starting at the 7th code point was replaced by a length-4 content.

Many replacements within a single string are also possible:

y <- "aa bb cc"
stri_sub_all(y, c(1, 4, 7), length=2) <- c("A", "BB", "CCC")
print(y)                            # y has changed
## [1] "A BB CCC"

This has replaced 3 length-2 chunks within y with new content.