How to Use the Tilde Operator (~) in R

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The tilde (~) operator in R programming language holds a unique and significant place. Unlike its usage in some other programming languages, where it often represents bitwise NOT operations or approximate equality checks, in R, it’s most commonly used to specify relationships between variables in models. In this article, we’ll explore the various contexts and advanced use-cases where the tilde operator comes into play.


The tilde operator is a shorthand symbol to define the formulae that specify statistical models in R. For example, it is commonly seen in functions like lm() for linear models, glm() for generalized linear models, and many others.

Basic Syntax

A basic usage of the tilde operator is specifying the relationship between dependent and independent variables in a model. The syntax generally looks like:

dependent_variable ~ independent_variable(s)

Linear Models

The most common use-case of the tilde operator is in linear models. When specifying a linear regression model, the tilde is used to separate the response variable from the predictor variables.

# Simple linear regression
model <- lm(mpg ~ wt, data = mtcars)

# Multiple linear regression
model <- lm(mpg ~ wt + hp + qsec, data = mtcars)

Generalized Linear Models

In generalized linear models (glm), the tilde operator works much the same way as in linear models.

# Logistic Regression
logit_model <- glm(Outcome ~ Age + Income, family = binomial(link = 'logit'), data = your_data)

Survival Analysis

In survival analysis, the tilde operator is used in defining the survival model with functions like survfit and coxph.

# Kaplan-Meier estimator
survival_model <- survfit(Surv(time, status) ~ group, data = your_data)

# Cox Proportional Hazards model
cox_model <- coxph(Surv(time, status) ~ age + sex, data = your_data)

ANOVA Models

In Analysis of Variance (ANOVA), the tilde operator separates the response variable from the categorical variables or factors.

# One-way ANOVA
aov_model <- aov(yield ~ block, data = your_data)

# Two-way ANOVA
aov_model <- aov(yield ~ block + treatment, data = your_data)

Mixed-Effects Models

Mixed-effects models can also be specified using the tilde operator, often using packages like lme4.

# Random effects model
random_model <- lmer(Yield ~ (1|Batch), data = your_data)

Specifying Interactions

The tilde operator can be combined with other operators to specify interactions between variables.

# Including interaction terms
model <- lm(mpg ~ wt * hp, data = mtcars)

In this example, wt * hp is shorthand for wt + hp + wt:hp, which includes main effects and interaction terms.

Polynomial Terms

Polynomial terms can be included in the model by encapsulating them within the I() function.

# Polynomial regression
model <- lm(y ~ x + I(x^2), data = your_data)


The tilde operator in R is a versatile and powerful tool for specifying statistical models. It provides a compact, intuitive way to define the relationships between variables across a wide array of statistical methods—from linear and generalized linear models to survival analysis and beyond. By understanding the nuances of how the tilde operator works in various contexts, one can write more effective and interpretable R code.

The applications listed in this article are just the tip of the iceberg, and the more you explore, the more use-cases you will discover for this unassuming yet powerful operator.

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