The advantages of using count() to get N-way frequency tables as data frames in R


I recently introduced how to use the count() function in the “plyr” package in R to produce 1-way frequency tables in R.  Several commenters provided alternative ways of doing so, and they are all appreciated.  Today, I want to extend that tutorial by demonstrating how count() can be used to produce N-way frequency tables in the list format – this will magnify the superiority of this function over other functions like table() and xtabs().


2-Way Frequencies: The Cross-Tabulated Format vs. The List-Format

To get a 2-way frequency table (i.e. a frequency table of the counts of a data set as divided by 2 categorical variables), you can display it in a cross-tabulated format or in a list format.

In R, the xtabs() function is good for cross-tabulation.  Let’s use the “mtcars” data set again; recall that it is a built-in data set in Base R.

> y = xtabs(~ cyl + gear, mtcars)
> y
 cyl      3     4     5
 4        1     8     2
 6        2     4     1
 8        12    0     2

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How to Get the Frequency Table of a Categorical Variable as a Data Frame in R


One feature that I like about R is the ability to access and manipulate the outputs of many functions.  For example, you can extract the kernel density estimates from density() and scale them to ensure that the resulting density integrates to 1 over its support set.

I recently needed to get a frequency table of a categorical variable in R, and I wanted the output as a data table that I can access and manipulate.  This is a fairly simple and common task in statistics and data analysis, so I thought that there must be a function in Base R that can easily generate this.  Sadly, I could not find such a function.  In this post, I will explain why the seemingly obvious table() function does not work, and I will demonstrate how the count() function in the ‘plyr’ package can achieve this goal.

The Example Data Set – mtcars

Let’s use the mtcars data set that is built into R as an example.  The categorical variable that I want to explore is “gear” – this denotes the number of forward gears in the car – so let’s view the first 6 observations of just the car model and the gear.  We can use the subset() function to restrict the data set to show just the row names and “gear”.

> head(subset(mtcars, select = 'gear'))
Mazda RX4            4
Mazda RX4 Wag        4
Datsun 710           4
Hornet 4 Drive       3
Hornet Sportabout    3
Valiant              3

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Exploratory Data Analysis – All Blog Posts on The Chemical Statistician

This series of posts introduced various methods of exploratory data analysis, providing theoretical backgrounds and practical examples.  Fully commented and readily usable R scripts are available for all topics for you to copy and paste for your own analysis!  Most of these posts involve data visualization and plotting, and I include a lot of detail and comments on how to invoke specific plotting commands in R in these examples.

I will return to this blog post to add new links as I write more tutorials.

Useful R Functions for Exploring a Data Frame

The 5-Number Summary – Two Different Methods in R

Combining Histograms and Density Plots to Examine the Distribution of the Ozone Pollution Data from New York in R

Conceptual Foundations of Histograms – Illustrated with New York’s Ozone Pollution Data

Quantile-Quantile Plots for New York’s Ozone Pollution Data

Kernel Density Estimation and Rug Plots in R on Ozone Data in New York and Ozonopolis

2 Ways of Plotting Empirical Cumulative Distribution Functions in R

Conceptual Foundations of Empirical Cumulative Distribution Functions

Combining Box Plots and Kernel Density Plots into Violin Plots for Ozone Pollution Data

Kernel Density Estimation – Conceptual Foundations

Variations of Box Plots in R for Ozone Concentrations in New York City and Ozonopolis

Computing Descriptive Statistics in R for Data on Ozone Pollution in New York City

How to Get the Frequency Table of a Categorical Variable as a Data Frame in R

The advantages of using count() to get N-way frequency tables as data frames in R