How to Use strsplit() with Multiple Delimiters in R

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When working with text data in R, one of the common tasks is to split strings into smaller chunks based on certain characters or delimiters. The strsplit() function in R is a powerful tool to achieve this task. However, it becomes a bit tricky when we have to split strings using multiple delimiters. This article aims to shed light on the subject by discussing various methods to use strsplit() with multiple delimiters in R.

The Basic strsplit( ) Function

Before diving into the complexities of multiple delimiters, it’s important to understand how strsplit() works with a single delimiter. The function splits elements of a character vector into sub-strings based on a specified delimiter.

single_delimiter_example <- strsplit("this,is,a,sample", ",")

# Output: [["this" "is" "a" "sample"]]

Multiple Delimiters: The Challenge

Consider a string like “Hello, world! How are you?” where you’d like to split the string by spaces, commas, and exclamation marks. Using the default strsplit() function with a single delimiter will not work here.

This limitation calls for alternative solutions to handle multiple delimiters. There are several approaches to this problem:

  1. Using Regular Expressions
  2. Nesting strsplit() Calls
  3. Utilizing External Packages
  4. Custom Function Implementation

Let’s delve into each one.

1. Using Regular Expressions

In R, strsplit() allows you to use regular expressions for splitting strings, which comes handy when dealing with multiple delimiters. You can use the | symbol in the regular expression to indicate an OR condition between multiple delimiters.

multi_delimiter_example <- strsplit("Hello, world! How are you?", "[, !]+")

# Output: ["Hello" "world" "How" "are" "you"]

In this example, the regular expression [ ,!]+ will match any of the characters (space, comma, or exclamation mark) one or more times.

2. Nesting strsplit( ) Calls

Another approach to handle multiple delimiters is to split the string sequentially by each delimiter. While less elegant and efficient than regular expressions, this method can be useful for straightforward tasks.

Here is a simple example:

initial_split <- strsplit("Hello, world! How are you?", ",")
second_split <- lapply(initial_split, function(x) strsplit(x, " "))
final_split <- lapply(second_split, function(x) strsplit(unlist(x), "!"))

# Flattening the list
final_result <- unlist(unlist(final_split))

# Output: ["Hello" " world" " How are you"]

3. Utilizing External Packages

Some external packages in R like stringr and tidyverse offer functions to handle string manipulation more conveniently. For example, the str_split() function in stringr allows more flexible splitting options.

To use str_split(), you need to install the stringr package first:


Then you can perform the splitting like so:


result <- str_split("Hello, world! How are you?", "[, !]+")

# Output: ["Hello" "world" "How" "are" "you"]

4. Custom Function Implementation

If the available solutions do not meet your requirements, you can implement a custom function to split strings using multiple delimiters.

Here’s a simple example:

custom_strsplit <- function(input_string, delimiters) {
  split_string <- input_string
  for (delimiter in delimiters) {
    split_string <- unlist(lapply(split_string, function(x) strsplit(x, delimiter)))

result <- custom_strsplit("Hello, world! How are you?", c(",", " ", "!"))

# Output: ["Hello" "world" "How" "are" "you"]


In R, while the native strsplit() function does not directly allow splitting by multiple delimiters, several workarounds make this possible. Whether you choose to use regular expressions, nested function calls, external libraries, or custom functions depends on your specific needs and the complexity of your data.

By understanding the core principles behind these methods, you can manipulate text data in R with greater flexibility and control.

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