assign() Function in R

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assign() is a function in R that allows us to create a new variable and assign it a value or assign a new value to an existing variable. While this might seem straightforward and similar to the traditional assignment operator <- or =, assign() is more flexible as it allows dynamic assignment of variable names.In this article, we will explore the assign() function in depth, discussing its syntax, parameters, usage, and illustrating how to use it in different scenarios.

Understanding the assign() Function

The basic syntax for the assign() function is as follows:

assign(x, value, pos = -1, envir = as.environment(pos), inherits = FALSE, immediate = TRUE)

The function includes the following parameters:

  • x: This is a character vector of length one specifying the name of the variable to which we assign a value.
  • value: The value to be assigned.
  • pos: The search path position to use, defaults to -1.
  • envir: An alternative way to specify an environment, but usually not used because pos = -1 refers to the current environment.
  • inherits: Should the assignment be made in the parent environment if an existing variable with the name x is found there? The default is FALSE.
  • immediate: Should the assignment be made immediately? If FALSE, the variable x will be watched and assigned the value only when it is evaluated. This parameter is rarely used and typically left to the default of TRUE.

The most commonly used parameters are x and value. The others are less commonly used and, in many situations, can be left to their default values.

Using the assign() Function

The most basic use of the assign() function involves assigning a value to a new variable. Here’s an example:

assign("x", 10)

In this code snippet, assign("x", 10) creates a new variable x and assigns it the value 10. When we print(x), the output will be 10.You can check that x has indeed been assigned to your environment using the ls() function:

assign("x", 10)

This will print all the variables in your current environment, including x.

Using assign() in Different Scenarios

Dynamic Variable Names

One of the significant advantages of assign() is the ability to create dynamic variable names. For instance, suppose you’re running a simulation and need to store the results of each iteration in a separately named variable. Here’s how you can do this using assign():

# Running a simulation and storing results in separate variables
for(i in 1:5) {
  assign(paste("result", i, sep = "_"), rnorm(100))

# Check the variables in the environment

In this example, we create five variables (result_1 through result_5), each storing 100 random numbers from a standard normal distribution.

Working with Data Frames

assign() can be particularly useful when working with data frames. For example, suppose you have a list of data frames and you want to assign each data frame to a separate variable. Here’s how you can do it:

# Create a list of data frames
df_list <- list(data.frame(a = 1:5, b = 6:10), data.frame(c = 11:15, d = 16:20))

# Assign each data frame to a separate variable
for(i in 1:length(df_list)) {
  assign(paste("df", i, sep = "_"), df_list[[i]])

# Check the variables in the environment

In this example, we create two variables (df_1 and df_2), each storing a separate data frame from df_list.

Within Functions

The assign() function can be particularly useful when used within other functions. For instance, you might want to write a function that creates new variables based on its input:

create_var <- function(var_name, value) {
  assign(var_name, value, envir = .GlobalEnv)

# Use the function to create a new variable
create_var("new_var", 100)

# Check the variables in the environment

In this example, create_var() is a function that takes a variable name and a value, and it creates a new variable with that name and value in the global environment. This demonstrates how assign() can be used to modify the global environment from within a function.


While assign() can be handy, it’s important to use it carefully and sparingly. Because it allows the creation of variables with dynamic names, it can make code harder to debug and understand, as the variables in your environment can change unexpectedly. In most cases, standard assignment (<- or =) or working with lists or data frames will be clearer and more straightforward.


The assign() function in R is a powerful tool for creating and assigning variables, especially when you need to create variables with dynamic names or from within functions. However, because of its power and flexibility, it should be used with care and only when necessary to keep your code easy to understand and debug.

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