gsub() Function in R

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The gsub() function is an essential tool in the R programming language, particularly for those working with text data. It stands for “global substitution,” and as its name suggests, it can be used to replace all instances of a certain pattern in a string or a vector of strings.

In this comprehensive article, we’ll be discussing how to use the gsub() function in R. We’ll begin by examining the function’s basic structure, then move on to explore several use cases and complex applications.

Basic Syntax of the gsub() Function

The basic syntax of the gsub() function in R is as follows:

gsub(pattern, replacement, x, = FALSE, perl = FALSE, fixed = FALSE, useBytes = FALSE)

Here’s a description of the parameters:

  1. pattern: The character string to be searched for within the primary string (x). This can be a regular expression.
  2. replacement: The character string to replace the pattern within the primary string.
  3. x: The primary input string or vector of strings in which the pattern-replacement operation will take place.
  4. If set to TRUE, the function will ignore the case while matching the pattern. The default is FALSE.
  5. perl: If set to TRUE, the function will use Perl-style regular expressions for the pattern. The default is FALSE.
  6. fixed: If set to TRUE, the function will disable the use of regular expressions and treat the pattern as a string. The default is FALSE.
  7. useBytes: If set to TRUE, the matching and substitution are done byte-by-byte rather than character-by-character. The default is FALSE.

Basic Usage of the gsub() Function

Now that we’ve covered the syntax, let’s move on to the basic usage of the gsub() function in R.

Example 1

text <- "Hello, World!"
gsub("World", "R", text)

In the code snippet above, we replace the word “World” with “R” in the “Hello, World!” string. The output would be: “Hello, R!”

Example 2

text_vector <- c("dog", "dogs", "Dog", "Dogs")
gsub("dog", "cat", text_vector, = TRUE)

In this example, we replace the word “dog” with “cat” in a vector of strings. By setting = TRUE, we ensure that the function will replace both “dog” and “Dog”. The output would be a vector: (“cat”, “cats”, “cat”, “Cats”).

Regular Expressions in gsub()

Regular expressions are a powerful tool that can be used within the gsub() function to find complex patterns within text. Regular expressions (or regex) are sequences of characters that form a search pattern. This pattern can be used to match, locate, and manage text.

Example 3

text <- "I have 100 apples and 200 oranges."
gsub("\\d+", "many", text)

In this example, we replace all digit sequences (represented by “\d+”) with the word “many”. The resulting output would be: “I have many apples and many oranges.”

Example 4

text <- "I love cats and dogs."
gsub("\\b[a-z]+\\b", "animals", text)

In this code snippet, we replace all standalone lower-case words (represented by the regular expression “\b[a-z]+\b”) with the word “animals”. The output would be: “I animals animals and animals.

“The \\b is a word boundary in regex. The [a-z]+ matches any lower-case word. By placing \\b on both sides, we ensure we’re looking for standalone words.

Advanced Usage of the gsub() Function

We can also use the gsub() function for more advanced text manipulations.

Example 5 – Removing Whitespace

text <- "   Too many   spaces.  "
gsub("\\s+", " ", text)

In the above example, we use a regular expression (“\s+”) to identify sequences of one or more spaces, and we replace them with a single space. The output would be: ” Too many spaces.

“Note: This doesn’t remove leading or trailing spaces. To remove them, use the trimws() function in R.

Example 6 – Extracting Text

While not typically its primary usage, gsub() can be leveraged to extract text by cleverly replacing unwanted text with nothing (“”).

text <- "Email: I love emails!"
gsub(".*Email: ([^ ]+).*", "\\1", text)

In this example, we extract the email address from a string of text. The regular expression “.Email: ([^ ]+).” is a bit more complex. The parentheses create a group that we can reference in the replacement. [^ ]+ matches one or more of any characters except space. .* matches any characters. So, the regular expression matches the whole string, but groups the email address. Then we use “\1” to replace the whole string with just the first group, which is the email address. The output would be: ““.


The gsub() function is a powerful function in R that allows for intricate text manipulation using both simple string replacements and complex regular expressions. Whether you’re working on data cleaning or advanced text analysis, it’s an important tool to have in your arsenal.

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