demystifying the coalesce function

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What does coalesce mean? In the English language, it is generally used to convey a coming together, or creating one whole body, mass or system. How does that help us when working with data? We spend a lot of time cleaning our data, surely the last thing we want to do is lump it all together?

In dplyr, coalesce takes after SQL’s coalesce.

Any idea what this does?

SELECT COALESCE(colA, colB, colC) AS my_col
FROM my_table

It will find the first non NULL value in the 3 columns, and return it. If colA is NULL, but colB is populated, then colB is returned. if both colA and colB are NULL, and colC isn’t, then colC is returned.

It’s the same for R, but instead of NULL values, it is skipping over NA

The setup is simple:


Here is some nice easy dummy data (don’t ask about the names):

alpha <- c('a', NA, NA)
bravo <- c(NA, 'b', NA)
cedric <- c(NA, NA, 'c')
dave <-  c(NA, 'dave', 'charlie')  

data <- tibble(alpha, bravo, cedric, dave)  

Which returns this tibble:

  alpha bravo cedric dave   
  <chr> <chr> <chr>  <chr>  
1 a     NA    NA     NA     
2 NA    b     NA     dave   
3 NA    NA    c      charlie

OK , let’s see what coalesce does.

In an earlier version, I started off with passing in one vector to the function, but that’s not very useful as an example, so we will start by passing in two vectors / columns

coalesce(alpha, bravo)  

So we are passing in :

  alpha bravo   
  <chr> <chr>  
1 a     NA     
2 NA    b     
3 NA    NA   

And we get back

[1] "a" "b" NA  

In the first row, alpha has a value, so that is returned, in the second row, only bravo is populated, so that is returned.
The third row has 2 NA’s, so NA is returned.

Remember, the output might look like a row (for now) but it represents 1 result, per row, from 2 vectors, which have 3 rows.

We can replace the NA, by supplying an alternative value:

coalesce(alpha, bravo, 'replace')
[1] "a"       "b"       "replace"

You’ll see the NA has gone, and our chosen value is in place.

Let ‘s now pass in 3 vectors:

coalesce(alpha, bravo, cedric)

We pass in this:

#alpha bravo cedric
#  <chr> <chr> <chr> 
#1 a     NA    NA    
#2 NA    b     NA    
#3 NA    NA    c 

And we get back this:

[1] "a" "b" "c"

As expected, we get ‘a’ from the first column (alpha), ‘b’ from the second column (bravo), and ‘c’ from the third (cedric).

What happens if we provide all 4 columns. Dave has values in both the second and third rows, so will any of them be returned?

coalesce(alpha, bravo, cedric, dave)

Can you guess the outputs?

[1] "a" "b" "c"

Remember, coalesce returns the first non NA value in each row, so in row 2, bravo supercedes dave, as does cedric in row 3.

If we change the order of the input vectors, and put dave first, then we get different results

coalesce(dave, bravo, cedric, alpha)
[1] "a"       "dave"    "charlie"

Why would you use this? Well, you might currently by doing a lot of case_when() statements, which you can avoid with this simple one liner. It’s another little tool in the arsenal, and is truly one of the tidyverse’s less glamourous, but no less useful functions.

Some more examples :

Here, we mutate a new column by coalescing three of our existing ones.

data %>% 
  mutate(newcol = coalesce(alpha, bravo, dave))  

  alpha bravo cedric dave    newcol  
  <chr> <chr> <chr>  <chr>   <chr>   
1 a     NA    NA     NA      a       
2 NA    b     NA     dave    b       
3 NA    NA    c      charlie charlie  

You might think this would work :

data %>% 
  mutate(newcol = coalesce(alpha:dave))

It doesn’t , you’ll get errors.

However , this does the job:

data %>% 
  mutate(newcol = coalesce(!!!.))

 alpha bravo cedric dave    newcol
  <chr> <chr> <chr>  <chr>   <chr> 
1 a     NA    NA     NA      a     
2 NA    b     NA     dave    b     
3 NA    NA    c      charlie c     

I’m not sure how safe and reliable that is, so you are better to explicitly pass the column names: As a shorthand, you might try this:

data %>% 
  select(alpha:cedric) %>% 
  mutate(newcol = coalesce(.))

  alpha bravo cedric newcol$alpha $bravo $cedric
  <chr> <chr> <chr>  <chr>        <chr>  <chr>  
1 a     NA    NA     a            NA     NA     
2 NA    b     NA     NA           b      NA     
3 NA    NA    c      NA           NA     c     

This is not what we intended.
How about this?

data %>% 
  select(alpha:cedric) %>% 
  mutate(newcol = coalesce(alpha, bravo, cedric))
alpha bravo cedric newcol
  <chr> <chr> <chr>  <chr> 
1 a     NA    NA     a     
2 NA    b     NA     b     
3 NA    NA    c      c    

Yes, that works, and more importantly, future you will know what to expect.

To summarise, coalesce lets you

  • select the first non NA value across two or more vectors / columns, returning one value per row
  • provide a value to replace any NA’s, if you don’t want NA in your final results
  • skip having to write complicated case_when() statements to try and find the first non null value.


Thanks to Peter Higgins (@ibddoctor) and Fran Barton (@ludictech) for their feedback on my initial post, which prompted me to go into more detail, and which hopefully, has led to a more informative post.

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