How to use sapply() function in R

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R, a language built for statistical computing and data visualization, offers a family of “apply” functions for performing repetitive tasks across lists, vectors, and arrays. Among these, sapply is perhaps one of the most commonly used. It is similar to lapply, but with an added feature: it tries to simplify the output to the most basic data structure possible. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the anatomy of the sapply function, its basic to advanced applications, performance considerations, and how it stacks up against other apply functions.

Basic Syntax

The basic syntax of sapply is similar to that of lapply:

sapply(X, FUN, ..., simplify = TRUE, USE.NAMES = TRUE)
  • X: List, vector, or data frame to apply the function over
  • FUN: Function to be applied
  • ...: Additional arguments for FUN
  • simplify: A logical or character string; should we simplify the result?
  • USE.NAMES: Use names when simplifying to arrays?

Understanding the Arguments


X is the input list or vector over which the function FUN will be applied. Unlike apply, which works on arrays and matrices, sapply works seamlessly on lists and vectors.


This is the function that will be applied to each element in X.

Additional Arguments (…)

You can pass additional arguments to the function you’re applying via ....


This argument controls the output’s structure. If TRUE, sapply will try to simplify the list into an array or vector.


If TRUE, the function will use names if X is a named list or vector.

Simplified Outputs

Unlike lapply, which always returns a list, sapply will try to simplify the output to a vector or matrix if possible.

Practical Examples

Working with a Vector

nums <- c(1, 4, 9)
sapply(nums, sqrt)

In this case, the output will be a vector, not a list.

Working with a List

list_data <- list(a = 1:3, b = 4:6)
sapply(list_data, sum)

Here, the output will be a named vector with the sums of the individual vectors inside list_data.

Advanced Use-Cases

Functions with Multiple Arguments

You can pass more than one argument to the applied function:

sapply(nums, '^', 2)

Conditional Operations

You can use conditional statements within the applied function:

sapply(nums, function(x) if (x > 5) return(NA) else return(sqrt(x)))

Working with Strings

sapply is not limited to numerical operations:

words <- c("apple", "banana", "cherry")
sapply(words, nchar)

Performance Tips

While sapply is generally faster than explicit loops, for large data sets, vectorized operations or specialized packages like data.table or dplyr may offer better performance.

Comparing with Other Apply Functions

  1. lapply: Always returns a list, works similarly but without the simplifying behavior.
  2. apply: Works on matrices and arrays, not lists or vectors.
  3. mapply: A multivariate version of sapply.
  4. vapply: Similar to sapply, but you can specify the type of output, making it safer and sometimes faster.


The sapply function in R is a versatile tool that can save you time, make your code more readable, and perform complex operations with ease. Its ability to simplify outputs automatically makes it a go-to function for many data manipulation tasks. However, understanding when and how to use it effectively requires a nuanced understanding of its arguments and behavior. By mastering sapply, you can significantly improve your data manipulation and analytical skills in R.

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