How to Use the apply Function in R

Spread the love

The apply function in R is a critical tool for data manipulation and transformation. It provides a way to apply a function to rows or columns of a matrix, simplifying data analysis tasks and making code more efficient. It is part of the family of “apply functions,” which also includes lapply, sapply, mapply, and others. This article aims to provide an in-depth understanding of how to use the apply function effectively in R.

Basic Syntax

The basic syntax of the apply function is:

apply(X, MARGIN, FUN, ...)
  • X: an array or matrix
  • MARGIN: an integer indicating whether the function is applied over rows (MARGIN=1) or columns (MARGIN=2)
  • FUN: the function to be applied
  • ...: additional arguments to FUN

Understanding the Arguments


X is the data object, usually a matrix or an array, over which we want to apply a function. apply isn’t generally used with data frames because it coerces them to matrices, which can lead to unwanted results if the data frame contains different types of variables.


MARGIN is an integer that specifies how the function should be applied:

  • MARGIN=1: Apply function over rows
  • MARGIN=2: Apply function over columns


FUN stands for the function that will be applied to the data object. This could be a built-in function like sum, mean, or a user-defined function.

Additional Arguments (…)

Additional arguments to FUN can be passed after the FUN argument.

Applying Functions to Rows and Columns

Apply Over Rows

When MARGIN=1, the function is applied over rows. Here’s an example:

mat <- matrix(1:12, nrow = 3)
apply(mat, 1, sum)

This will return the sum of each row.

Apply Over Columns

When MARGIN=2, the function is applied over columns. Example:

apply(mat, 2, sum)

This will return the sum of each column.

Common Use-cases

Basic Statistics

Calculate basic statistics for each row or column:

apply(mat, 2, mean)  # Mean of each column
apply(mat, 2, sd)    # Standard deviation of each column

Data Normalization

Normalize the data to have zero mean:

apply(mat, 2, function(x) x - mean(x))

Complex Operations

You can use custom functions to perform complex operations:

apply(mat, 1, function(x) sqrt(sum(x^2)))

Advanced Use-cases

Using Additional Arguments

You can pass additional arguments to the function you’re applying. For instance, if you want to scale the data:

apply(mat, 2, function(x, scale) x / scale, scale = 2)

Using apply with Multi-dimensional Arrays

apply can also work with arrays that have more than two dimensions:

arr <- array(1:24, dim = c(3, 4, 2))
apply(arr, c(1, 2), sum)

Optimizing Performance

The apply function is faster than traditional loops but may not always be the most efficient way to perform operations, especially for very large data sets. If performance is a concern, consider vectorized operations or other optimized functions and packages like data.table.

Comparison with Other Apply Functions

  1. lapply: Works on lists and data frames, always returns a list
  2. sapply: Simplified version of lapply, tries to simplify the final object into an array or vector
  3. mapply: Multivariate version of sapply


The apply function is a versatile and powerful tool for applying functions to rows or columns of a matrix in R. It offers a more efficient alternative to loops and can make your code cleaner and easier to understand. However, it’s important to be cautious when using apply with data frames or very large data sets. By understanding its syntax, options, and alternatives, you can make full use of this function in your data analysis tasks.

Posted in RTagged

Leave a Reply