7 Strings and Dates


Strings? Dates? In a statistical programming package?

As soon as you read files or print reports, you need strings. When you work with real-world problems, you need dates.

R has facilities for both strings and dates. They are clumsy compared to string-oriented languages such as Perl, but then it’s a matter of the right tool for the job. We wouldn’t want to perform logistic regression in Perl.

Some of this clunkyness with strings and dates has been improved through the tidyverse packages stringr and lubridate. As with other chapters in this book, the examples here will pull from both Base R as well as add-on packages that make life easier, faster, and more convenient.

Classes for Dates and Times

R has a variety of classes for working with dates and times, which is nice if you prefer having a choice but annoying if you prefer living simply. There is a critical distinction among the classes: some are date-only classes, some are datetime classes. All classes can handle calendar dates (e.g., March 15, 2019), but not all can represent a datetime (11:45 AM on March 1, 2019).

The following classes are included in the base distribution of R:


The Date class can represent a calendar date but not a clock time. It is a solid, general-purpose class for working with dates, including conversions, formatting, basic date arithmetic, and time-zone handling. Most of the date-related recipes in this book are built on the Date class.


This is a datetime class, and it can represent a moment in time with an accuracy of one second. Internally, the datetime is stored as the number of seconds since January 1, 1970, and so it’s a very compact representation. This class is recommended for storing datetime information (e.g., in data frames).


This is also a datetime class, but the representation is stored in a nine-element list that includes the year, month, day, hour, minute, and second. This representation makes it easy to extract date parts, such as the month or hour. Obviously, this is much less compact than the POSIXct class; hence, it is normally used for intermediate processing and not for storing data.

The base distribution also provides functions for easily converting between representations: as.Date, as.POSIXct, and as.POSIXlt.

The following helpful packages are available for downloading from CRAN:


The chron package can represent both dates and times but without the added complexities of handling time zones and Daylight Saving Time. It’s therefore easier to use than Date but less powerful than POSIXct and POSIXlt. It would be useful for work in econometrics or time series analysis.


This is a tidyverse package designed to make working with dates and times easier while keeping the important bells and whistles such as time zones. It’s especially clever regarding datetime arithmetic. This package introduces some helpful constructs like durations, periods, and intervals. lubridate is part of the tidyverse, so it is installed when you install.packages('tidyverse') but it is not part of “core tidyverse,” so it does not get loaded when you run library(tidyverse). This means you must explicitly load it by running library(lubridate).


This is a specialized package for handling dates in units of months in addition to days and years. It can be helpful in accounting and actuarial work, for example, where month-by-month calculations are needed.


This is a high-powered package with well-thought-out facilities for handling dates and times, including date arithmetic, business days, holidays, conversions, and generalized handling of time zones. It was originally part of the Rmetrics software for financial modeling, where precision in dates and times is critical. If you have a demanding need for date facilities, consider this package.

Which class should you select? The article “Date and Time Classes in R” by Gabor Grothendieck and Thomas Petzoldt offers this general advice:

When considering which class to use, always choose the least complex class that will support the application. That is, use Date if possible, otherwise use chron and otherwise use the POSIX classes. Such a strategy will greatly reduce the potential for error and increase the reliability of your application.

See Also

See help(DateTimeClasses) for more details regarding the built-in facilities. See the June 2004 article “Date and Time Classes in R” by Gabor Grothendieck and Thomas Petzoldt for a great introduction to the date and time facilities. The June 2001 article “Date-Time Classes” by Brian Ripley and Kurt Hornik discusses the two POSIX classes in particular. Chapter 16, “Dates and Times”, from the book R for Data Science by Garrett Grolemund and Hadley Wickham provides a great intro to lubridate.

7.1 Getting the Length of a String


You want to know the length of a string.


Use the nchar function, not the length function.


The nchar function takes a string and returns the number of characters in the string:

If you apply nchar to a vector of strings, it returns the length of each string:

You might think the length function returns the length of a string. Nope. It returns the length of a vector. When you apply the length function to a single string, R returns the value 1 because it views that string as a singleton vector—a vector with one element:

7.2 Concatenating Strings


You want to join together two or more strings into one string.


Use the paste function.


The paste function concatenates several strings together. In other words, it creates a new string by joining the given strings end to end:

By default, paste inserts a single space between pairs of strings, which is handy if that’s what you want and annoying otherwise. The sep argument lets you specify a different separator. Use an empty string ("") to run the strings together without separation:

It’s a common idiom to want to concatenate strings together with no separator at all. The function paste0 makes this very convenient:

The function is very forgiving about nonstring arguments. It tries to convert them to strings using the as.character function silently behind the scene:

If one or more arguments are vectors of strings, paste will generate all combinations of the arguments (because of recycling):

Sometimes you want to join even those combinations into one big string. The collapse parameter lets you define a top-level separator and instructs paste to concatenate the generated strings using that separator:

7.3 Extracting Substrings


You want to extract a portion of a string according to position.


Use substr(*string*,*start*,*end*) to extract the substring that begins at *start* and ends at *end*.


The substr function takes a string, a starting point, and an ending point. It returns the substring between the starting and ending points:

Just like many R functions, substr lets the first argument be a vector of strings. In that case, it applies itself to every string and returns a vector of substrings:

In fact, all the arguments can be vectors, in which case substr will treat them as parallel vectors. From each string, it extracts the substring delimited by the corresponding entries in the starting and ending points. This can facilitate some useful tricks. For example, the following code snippet extracts the last two characters from each string; each substring starts on the penultimate character of the original string and ends on the final character:

You can extend this trick into mind-numbing territory by exploiting the Recycling Rule, but we suggest you avoid the temptation.

7.4 Splitting a String According to a Delimiter


You want to split a string into substrings. The substrings are separated by a delimiter.


Use strsplit, which takes two arguments: the string and the delimiter of the substrings:

The delimiter can be either a simple string or a regular expression.


It is common for a string to contain multiple substrings separated by the same delimiter. One example is a filepath, whose components are separated by slashes (/):

We can split that path into its components by using strsplit with a delimiter of /:

Notice that the first “component” is actually an empty string because nothing preceded the first slash.

Also notice that strsplit returns a list and that each element of the list is a vector of substrings. This two-level structure is necessary because the first argument can be a vector of strings. Each string is split into its substrings (a vector), and then those vectors are returned in a list.

If you are operating only on a single string, you can pop out the first element like this:

This example splits three filepaths and returns a three-element list:

The second argument of strsplit (the delimiter argument) is actually much more powerful than these examples indicate. It can be a regular expression, letting you match patterns far more complicated than a simple string. In fact, to turn off the regular expression feature (and its interpretation of special characters), you must include the fixed=TRUE argument.

See Also

To learn more about regular expressions in R, see the help page for regexp. See O’Reilly’s Mastering Regular Expressions, by Jeffrey E.F. Friedl, to learn more about regular expressions in general.

7.5 Replacing Substrings


Within a string, you want to replace one substring with another.


Use sub to replace the first instance of a substring:

Use gsub to replace all instances of a substring:


The sub function finds the first instance of the old substring within string and replaces it with the new substring:

gsub does the same thing, but it replaces all instances of the substring (a global replace), not just the first:

To remove a substring altogether, simply set the new substring to be empty:

The old argument can be regular expression, which allows you to match patterns much more complicated than a simple string. This is actually assumed by default, so you must set the fixed=TRUE argument if you don’t want sub and gsub to interpret old as a regular expression.

See Also

To learn more about regular expressions in R, see the help page for regexp. See Mastering Regular Expressions to learn more about regular expressions in general.

7.6 Generating All Pairwise Combinations of Strings


You have two sets of strings, and you want to generate all combinations from those two sets (their Cartesian product).


Use the outer and paste functions together to generate the matrix of all possible combinations:


The outer function is intended to form the outer product. However, it allows a third argument to replace simple multiplication with any function. In this recipe we replace multiplication with string concatenation (paste), and the result is all combinations of strings.

Suppose you have four test sites and three treatments:

We can apply outer and paste to generate all combinations of test sites and treatments like so:

The fourth argument of outer is passed to paste. In this case, we passed sep="-" in order to define a hyphen as the separator between the strings.

The result of outer is a matrix. If you want the combinations in a vector instead, flatten the matrix using the as.vector function.

In the special case when you are combining a set with itself and order does not matter, the result will be duplicate combinations:

Or we can use expand.grid to get a pair of vectors representing all combinations:

But suppose we want all unique pairwise combinations of treatments. We can eliminate the duplicates by removing the lower triangle (or upper triangle). The lower.tri function identifies that triangle, so inverting it identifies all elements outside the lower triangle:

See Also

See Recipe 13.3, “Concatenating Strings”, for using paste to generate combinations of strings. The gtools package on CRAN has the functions combinations and permutation, which may be of help with related tasks.

7.7 Getting the Current Date


You need to know today’s date.


The Sys.Date function returns the current date:


The Sys.Date function returns a Date object. In the preceding example it seems to return a string because the result is printed inside double quotes. What really happened, however, is that Sys.Date returned a Date object and then R converted that object into a string for printing purposes. You can see this by checking the class of the result from Sys.Date:

7.8 Converting a String into a Date


You have the string representation of a date, such as "2018-12-31", and you want to convert that into a Date object.


You can use as.Date, but you must know the format of the string. By default, as.Date assumes the string looks like yyyy-mm-dd. To handle other formats, you must specify the format parameter of as.Date. Use format="%m/%d/%Y" if the date is in American style, for instance.


This example shows the default format assumed by as.Date, which is the ISO 8601 standard format of yyyy-mm-dd:

The as.Date function returns a Date object that (as in the prior recipe) is being converted here back to a string for printing; this explains the double quotes around the output.

The string can be in other formats, but you must provide a format argument so that as.Date can interpret your string. See the help page for the stftime function for details about allowed formats.

Being simple Americans, we often mistakenly try to convert the usual American date format (mm/dd/yyyy) into a Date object, with these unhappy results:

Here is the correct way to convert an American-style date:

Observe that the Y in the format string is capitalized to indicate a four-digit year. If you’re using two-digit years, specify a lowercase y.

7.9 Converting a Date into a String


You want to convert a Date object into a character string, usually because you want to print the date.


Use either format or as.character:

Both functions allow a format argument that controls the formatting. Use format="%m/%d/%Y" to get American-style dates, for example:


The format argument defines the appearance of the resulting string. Normal characters, such as slash (/) or hyphen (-) are simply copied to the output string. Each two-letter combination of a percent sign (%) followed by another character has special meaning. Some common ones are:


Abbreviated month name (“Jan”)


Full month name (“January”)


Day as a two-digit number


Month as a two-digit number


Year without century (00–99)


Year with century

See the help page for the strftime function for a complete list of formatting codes.

7.10 Converting Year, Month, and Day into a Date


You have a date represented by its year, month, and day in different variables. You want to merge these elements into a single Date object representation.


Use the ISOdate function:

The result is a POSIXct object that you can convert into a Date object:


It is common for input data to contain dates encoded as three numbers: year, month, and day. The ISOdate function can combine them into a POSIXct object:

You can keep your date in the POSIXct format. However, when working with pure dates (not dates and times), we often convert to a Date object and truncate the unused time information:

Trying to convert an invalid date results in NA:

ISOdate can process entire vectors of years, months, and days, which is quite handy for mass conversion of input data. The following example starts with the year/month/day numbers for the third Wednesday in January of several years and then combines them all into Date objects:

Purists will note that the vector of months is redundant and that the last expression can therefore be further simplified by invoking the Recycling Rule:

You can also extend this recipe to handle year, month, day, hour, minute, and second data by using the ISOdatetime function (see the help page for details):

7.11 Getting the Julian Date


Given a Date object, you want to extract the Julian date—which is, in R, the number of days since January 1, 1970.


A Julian “date” is simply the number of days since a more-or-less arbitrary starting point. In the case of R, that starting point is January 1, 1970, the same starting point as Unix systems. So the Julian date for January 1, 1970 is zero, as shown here:

7.12 Extracting the Parts of a Date


Given a Date object, you want to extract a date part such as the day of the week, the day of the year, the calendar day, the calendar month, or the calendar year.


Convert the Date object to a POSIXlt object, which is a list of date parts. Then extract the desired part from that list:


The POSIXlt object represents a date as a list of date parts. Convert your Date object to POSIXlt by using the as.POSIXlt function, which will give you a list with these members:


Seconds (0–61)


Minutes (0–59)


Hours (0–23)


Day of the month (1–31)


Month (0–11)


Years since 1900


Day of the week (0–6, 0 = Sunday)


Day of the year (0–365)


Daylight Saving Time flag

Using these date parts, we can learn that April 2, 2020, is a Thursday (wday = 4) and the 93rd day of the year (because yday = 0 on January 1):

A common mistake is failing to add 1900 to the year, giving the impression you are living a long, long time ago:

7.13 Creating a Sequence of Dates


You want to create a sequence of dates, such as a sequence of daily, monthly, or annual dates.


The seq function is a generic function that has a version for Date objects. It can create a Date sequence similarly to the way it creates a sequence of numbers.


A typical use of seq specifies a starting date (from), ending date (to), and increment (by). An increment of 1 indicates daily dates:

Another typical use specifies a starting date (from), increment (by), and number of dates (length.out):

The increment (by) is flexible and can be specified in days, weeks, months, or years:

Be careful with by="month" near month-end. In this example, the end of February overflows into March, which is probably not what you wanted: