How to Rename Factor Levels in R

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Factor levels are a foundational concept in R, especially when working with categorical data. They are crucial in statistical modeling, data manipulation, and visualization. Despite their importance, the task of renaming factor levels can sometimes be misunderstood or overlooked. This article aims to provide a comprehensive guide on various approaches for renaming factor levels in R.

Understanding Factors in R

Factors are R’s data type for categorical variables. Factor levels are the unique categories or groups within a factor. For example, a factor column in a dataset about fruits may contain levels such as “Apple,” “Banana,” and “Cherry.”

Why Rename Factor Levels?

Renaming factor levels is often necessary for various reasons:

  • Clarification: Original levels might be coded or abbreviated, making them less interpretable.
  • Data Cleaning: Typos or inconsistent naming conventions may require corrections.
  • Analysis: Simplifying or standardizing factor levels can be essential for statistical modeling.
  • Visualization: Customizing labels can make graphs and plots more informative.

Techniques for Renaming Factor Levels

Base R Techniques

levels( )

The most straightforward way to rename factor levels in base R is by using the levels() function:

# Create a factor
fruits <- factor(c("Apple", "Banana", "Cherry"))

# Rename factor levels
levels(fruits)[levels(fruits) == "Apple"] <- "Apl"

# View the modified factor

relevel( )

If you want to change the base level of a factor and rename it, you can use relevel():

# Relevel and rename
fruits <- relevel(fruits, ref = "Apl")

# View the modified factor

Using dplyr

The dplyr package itself doesn’t provide specialized functions for renaming factor levels like forcats does, but you can use dplyr in combination with base R functions to achieve the same result. Specifically, you can use the mutate() function to change a column’s factor levels.

Here’s an example:

# Load the dplyr package

# Create a sample data frame with a factor column
df <- data.frame(fruit = factor(c("Apple", "Banana", "Cherry")))

# Rename factor levels using dplyr and base R's levels() function
df <- df %>% 
  mutate(fruit = factor(fruit, levels = levels(fruit),
                        labels = c("Apl", "Bnn", "Chr")))

# View the modified data frame

In this example, we first create a data frame df with a factor column named fruit. Then, we use dplyr‘s mutate() function to change the fruit column. Inside mutate(), we use the factor() function from base R to redefine the factor levels.

Using forcats

fct_recode( )

You can use the fct_recode function to rename factor levels.

# Load the forcats package

# Create a sample factor
fruits <- factor(c("Apple", "Banana", "Cherry"))

# Rename factor levels
fruits <- fct_recode(fruits, Apl = "Apple")

# View the modified factor

fct_relable( )

This function can apply any function to rename the levels. It is particularly useful when you have a renaming pattern:


# Rename levels using string manipulation
fruits <- fct_relabel(fruits, tolower)

# View the modified factor

Advanced Techniques

Batch Renaming

In cases where you have a large set of levels that need systematic renaming, you can use sapply() or lapply() along with levels():

# Batch renaming
levels(fruits) <- sapply(levels(fruits), function(x) paste0("Fruit: ", x))

Dynamic Renaming

When you don’t know the level names in advance or you’re working with dynamic data, you can use R’s programming features to rename levels dynamically:

# Dynamic renaming
rename_map <- setNames(c("Apple", "Banana"), c("Apl", "Bnn"))
levels(fruits) <- rename_map[levels(fruits)]

Best Practices

  1. Backup: Always keep a version of the original data or factor levels.
  2. Check Levels: Always double-check that the new names don’t already exist to avoid confusion.
  3. Validation: Validate that your renaming didn’t accidentally merge two levels unless that is intentional.
  4. Documentation: Document the reason for renaming, especially if the dataset will be used by others.

Pitfalls and Considerations

  1. Data Integrity: Ensure that renamed levels are still representative of the original data.
  2. Statistical Implications: Changing factor levels can affect statistical analyses that depend on the order or naming of these levels.
  3. Script Reusability: Be cautious when hardcoding names, as this may reduce the reusability of your script.


Renaming factor levels is an essential yet often overlooked aspect of data preparation in R. Whether you’re using base R or packages like dplyr and forcats, numerous effective methods can help you rename factor levels. Understanding these methods, their advantages, and their pitfalls can be a significant asset when preparing your data for analysis or visualization.

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