Learning R as a language

November 29, 2011
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(This article was first published on The Shape of Code » R, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

Books written to teach a general purpose programming language are usually organized according to the features of the language and examples often show how a particular language feature is interpreted by a compiler. Books about domain specific languages are usually organized in a way that makes sense in the corresponding application domain and examples usually illustrate how a particular domain problem can be solved using the language.

I have spent a lot of time using R over the last year and by dint of reading lots of R code and various introductions to the language I have managed to piece together a model of the language. I rarely have any trouble learning a general purpose language from its reference manual, but users of domain specific languages are rarely interested in language details and so these reference manuals are usually only intended to be read by people who know the language well (another learning problem is that domain specific languages often contain quirky features rarely seen in other languages; in the case of R I was not lucky enough to know enough other languages to cover all its quirky features).

I managed to one introduction to R written from the perspective of the programming language (and not the application domain): the original The Art of R Programming by Norman Matloff has been expanded and is now available as a book.

Summary. If you know another language and want to quickly learn about the languages features of R I recommend this book. I have not taught raw beginners for over 30 years and have no idea if this book would be of any use to them.

This book does not attempt to teach you to think ‘R’, it is not about the art of R programming. The value of this book is as a single source for a broad coverage of lots of language features explained using lots of examples. Yes, more time could have been spent on the organization and fixing inconsistencies in the layout; these are not show stoppers.

Some people might tell you to buy “Software for Data Analysis” by John Chambers. Don’t; if you are a fan of Finnegans Wake and are nostalgic for the mainframe world of the 1970s you might like to give it a go. (I think Bertrand Meyer’s “Object-oriented Software Construction” is still the best book about the design of a language).

Meanderings. What books are good examples of “The Art of …” writing for domain specific languages? Two that spring to mind are: “Algorithms in Snobol 4″ by James Gimpel (still spotted from time to time on second hand book sites) and more recently “SQL For Smarties: Advanced SQL Programming” by Joe Celko.

Yes, I know that R is not really a domain specific language but a language that is primarily used in one domain. Frink is an example of a language containing a major behavior feature that is specific to its intended application domain. I cannot think of any major language feature of R that is specific to statistics.

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