Re: [Rd] S4 accessors

From: John Chambers <>
Date: Wed 27 Sep 2006 - 14:32:53 GMT

There is a point that needs to be remembered in discussions of accessor functions (and more generally).

We're working with a class/method mechanism in a _functional_ language. Simple analogies made from class-based languages such as Java are not always good guides.

In the example below, "a function foo that only operates on that class" is not usually a meaningful concept in R. Whereas in Java a method can only be invoked "on" an object, given the syntax of the Java language, R (that is, the S language) is different. You can intend a function to be used only on one class, but that isn't normally the way to think about R software.

Functions are first-class objects and in principle every function should have a "function", a purpose. Methods implement that purpose for particular combinations of arguments.

Accessor functions are therefore a bit anomalous. If they had a standard syntactic pattern, say get_foo(object), then it would be more reasonable to think that you're just defining a method for that function for a given class that happens to have a slot with the particular name, "foo".

Also, slot-setting functions will be different in R because we deal with objects, not object references as in Java. An R-like naming convention would be something along the lines of
  set_foo(object) <- value
but in any case one will need to use replacement functions to conform to the way assignments work.

Ross Boylan wrote:
> On Tue, 2006-09-26 at 10:43 -0700, Seth Falcon wrote:
>> Ross Boylan <> writes:
>>>> If anyone else is going to extend your classes, then you are doing
>>>> them a disservice by not making these proper methods. It means that
>>>> you can control what happens when they are called on a subclass.
>>> My style has been to define a function, and then use setMethod if I want
>>> to redefine it for an extension. That way the original version becomes
>>> the generic.
>>> So I don't see what I'm doing as being a barrier to adding methods. Am
>>> I missing something?
>> You are not, but someone else might be: suppose you release your code
>> and I would like to extend it. I am stuck until you decide to make
>> generics.
> This may be easier to do concretely.
> I have an S4 class A.
> I have defined a function foo that only operates on that class.
> You make a class B that extends A.
> You wish to give foo a different implementation for B.
> Does anything prevent you from doing
> setMethod("foo", "B", function(x) blah blah)
> (which is the same thing I do when I make a subclass)?
> This turns my original foo into the catchall method.
> Of course, foo is not appropriate for random objects, but that was true
> even when it was a regular function.
>>> Originally I tried defining the original using setMethod, but this
>>> generates a complaint about a missing function; that's one reason I fell
>>> into this style.
>> You have to create the generic first if it doesn't already exist:
>> setGeneric("foo", function(x) standardGeneric("foo"))
> I wonder if it might be worth changing setMethod so that it does this by
> default when no existing function exists. Personally, that would fit the
> style I'm using better.
>>>> For accessors, I like to document them in the methods section of the
>>>> class documentation.
>>> This is for accessors that really are methods, not my fake
>>> function-based accessors, right?
>> Which might be a further argument not to have the distinction in the
>> first place ;-)
>> To me, simple accessors are best documented with the class. If I have
>> an instance, I will read help on it and find out what I can do with
>> it.
>>> If you use foo as an accessor method, where do you define the associated
>>> function (i.e., \alias{foo})? I believe such a definition is expected by
>>> R CMD check and is desirable for users looking for help on foo (?foo)
>>> without paying attention to the fact it's a method.
>> Yes you need an alias for the _generic_ function. You can either add
>> the alias to the class man page where one of its methods is documented
>> or you can have separate man pages for the generics. This is
>> painful. S4 documentation, in general, is rather difficult and IMO
>> this is in part a consequence of the more general (read more powerful)
>> generic function based system.
> As my message indicates, I too am struggling with an appropriate
> documentation style for S4 classes and methods. Since "Writing R
> Extensions" has said "Structure of and special markup for documenting S4
> classes and methods are still under development." for as long as I cam
> remember, perhaps I'm not the only one.
> Some of the problem may reflect the tension between conventional OO and
> functional languages, since R remains the latter even under S4. I'm not
> sure if it's the tools or my approach that is making things awkward; it
> could be both!
> Ross
> ______________________________________________
> mailing list

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