Three-Way Operator in R

May 8, 2020 00:00 · 1011 words · 5 minute read R

Is there a merit for a three-way operator in R?

Background

In C++20 revision added “spaceship operator”, which is defined as follows:

(a <=> b) < 0  # if lhs < rhs
(a <=> b) > 0  # if lhs > rhs
(a <=> b) == 0 # if lhs and rhs are equal/equivalent.

R implementation

The behaviour can be achieved in R in multiple ways. A one straightforward approach would involve making use of the ifelse statement

ifelse implementation

Basic approach would involve comparing the two figures and respectively returning -1 or 1 consistently with the definition above.

a <- 1
b <- 2
ifelse(a < b, -1, 1)
## [1] -1

The shortcoming of this approach is that adhering to (a <=> b) == 0 condition would require extra ifelse statement.

a <- 1
b <- 1
ifelse(a < b, -1, 1)
## [1] 1

The result above is wrong as consistently with the definition the operator should return zero. This can be achieved with the following solution.

a <- 1
b <- 1
ifelse(a == b, 0, ifelse(a < b, -1, 1))
## [1] 0
a <- 1
b <- 2
ifelse(a == b, 0, ifelse(a < b, -1, 1))
## [1] -1
a <- 2
b <- 1
ifelse(a == b, 0, ifelse(a < b, -1, 1))
## [1] 1

Challenges

There are few challenges pertaining to the implementation above. The one that is particularly stark pertains to type conversion. For a being "a" R returns TRUE.

a <- "a"
b <- 1
ifelse(a > b, TRUE, FALSE)
## [1] TRUE

This is due to the implementation of comparison on atomic vectors. As stated in ?Comparison documentation:

If the two arguments are atomic vectors of different types, one is coerced to the type of the other, the (decreasing) order of precedence being character, complex, numeric, integer, logical and raw.

This behaviour may be confusing, especially to those expecting to comparison operators to act as strict equality.1 Developers au fait with JavaScript may not be surprised by R’s behaviours as they will be familiar with == and === where former compares variables undertaking type conversation and latter checks type of the variable. In R === can be obtained with use of ?identical.

The other interesting challenge is concerned with vectorisation. For vectors of unequal sizes we get a warning but also an answer.

a <- c(2,2,2)
b <- c(1,1)
ifelse(a == b, 0, ifelse(a < b, -1, 1))
## Warning in a == b: longer object length is not a multiple of shorter object
## length
## Warning in a < b: longer object length is not a multiple of shorter object
## length
## [1] 1 1 1

Finally, the syntax of our nested ifelse statement is not useful. We could wrap the whole thing in a simple function

three_way <- function(a, b) {
    ifelse(a == b, 0, ifelse(a < b, -1, 1))
}

Still this is not as useful as calling this operator in-line lhs <=> rhs in C++ fashion.

Infix implementation

Fairly neat solution can be obtained with use of infix operator. Infix operators are common and frequently used in R. For instance

5 + 2
## [1] 7

statement is equivalent to

`+`(5,2)
## [1] 7

User-defined infix functions can be created by creating functions that start and end with %. Let’s assume that we want to achieve the following objectives:

  • Control for types of compared vectors
  • Control for size of compared vectors
  • Have control over the outcome:
    • Staying strict with the provided C++ implementation
    • Modifying this behaviour, by for instance, returning the bigger object

This can be quickly achieved using the following implementation.

`%<=>%` <- function(lhs, rhs) {

    if (typeof(lhs) != typeof(rhs)) {
        warning("Left and right hand operators are not of identical types.")
    }

    # Single comparison function
    f_check <- function(lhs, rhs) {
        if (lhs > rhs) {
            lhs
        } else if (lhs < rhs) {
            rhs
        } else if (lhs == rhs) {
            0
        }
    }

    # Run on each element of vector
    purrr::modify2(.x = lhs, .y = rhs, .f = f_check)
}

In effect, the results obtained through the first set of ifelse statements can be easily achieved using max. The only - albeit very minor - advantage of the implementation is that it would be easily to modify it to behave in a manner consistent with the original implementation. Instead of returning lhs or rhs we would look to return -1 and 1 as in the example below.

`%<=>%` <- function(lhs, rhs) {

    if (typeof(lhs) != typeof(rhs)) {
        warning("Left and right hand operators are not of identical types.")
    }

    # Single comparison function
    f_check <- function(lhs, rhs) {
        if (lhs > rhs) {
            1
        } else if (lhs < rhs) {
            -1
        } else if (lhs == rhs) {
            0
        }
    }

    # Run on each element of vector
    purrr::modify2(.x = lhs, .y = rhs, .f = f_check)
}

Vectorisation and type checking

I like purrr::modify2 due to consistent error messages it gives. Let’s say that we mistakenly compare vectors that are of different lengths. This would result in a following error message.

`%<=>%` <- function(lhs, rhs) {

    if (typeof(lhs) != typeof(rhs)) {
        warning("Left and right hand operators are not of identical types.")
    }

    # Single comparison function
    f_check <- function(lhs, rhs) {
        if (lhs > rhs) {
            1
        } else if (lhs < rhs) {
            -1
        } else if (lhs == rhs) {
            0
        }
    }

    # Run on each element of vector
    purrr::modify2(.x = lhs, .y = rhs, .f = f_check)
}

a <- c(1,2,3)
b <- c(1,2)
a %<=>% b
## Error in recycle_args(list(.x, .y)): all(lengths == 1L | lengths == n) is not TRUE

Summary

The need for the actual %<=>% is scant as ifelse and max efficiently fulfil that role. Nevertheless, creating spaceship operator in R is trivial and demonstrates flexibility of the language very well. I have a similar implementation in a package that I use to store KEmisc package that I use to store, trivial, handy functions.


  1. Relevant StackOverflow discussion on the subject.↩︎