knitr::opts_chunk$set(echo = TRUE)

There are two ways to group in dplyr:

This help page is dedicated to explaining where and why you might want to use the latter.

Depending on the dplyr verb, the per-operation grouping argument may be named .by or by. The Supported verbs section below outlines this on a case-by-case basis. The remainder of this page will refer to .by for simplicity.

Grouping radically affects the computation of the dplyr verb you use it with, and one of the goals of .by is to allow you to place that grouping specification alongside the code that actually uses it. As an added benefit, with .by you no longer need to remember to [ungroup()] after [summarise()], and summarise() won't ever message you about how it's handling the groups!

This idea comes from data.table, which allows you to specify by alongside modifications in j, like: dt[, .(x = mean(x)), by = g].

Supported verbs

Note that some dplyr verbs use by while others use .by. This is a purely technical difference.

Differences between .by and group_by()

| .by | group_by() | |---------------------------------------------------------|--------------------------------------------------------------------| | Grouping only affects a single verb | Grouping is persistent across multiple verbs | | Selects variables with [tidy-select][dplyr_tidy_select] | Computes expressions with [data-masking][rlang::args_data_masking] | | Summaries use existing order of group keys | Summaries sort group keys in ascending order |

Using .by

Let's take a look at the two grouping approaches using this expenses data set, which tracks costs accumulated across various ids and regions:

expenses <- tibble(
  id = c(1, 2, 1, 3, 1, 2, 3),
  region = c("A", "A", "A", "B", "B", "A", "A"),
  cost = c(25, 20, 19, 12, 9, 6, 6)

Imagine that you wanted to compute the average cost per region. You'd probably write something like this:

expenses %>%
  group_by(region) %>%
  summarise(cost = mean(cost))

Instead, you can now specify the grouping inline within the verb:

expenses %>%
  summarise(cost = mean(cost), .by = region)

.by applies to a single operation, meaning that since expenses was an ungrouped data frame, the result after applying .by will also always be an ungrouped data frame, regardless of the number of grouping columns.

expenses %>%
  summarise(cost = mean(cost), .by = c(id, region))

Compare that with group_by() %>% summarise(), where summarise() generally peels off 1 layer of grouping by default, typically with a message that it is doing so:

expenses %>%
  group_by(id, region) %>%
  summarise(cost = mean(cost))

Because .by grouping applies to a single operation, you don't need to worry about ungrouping, and it never needs to emit a message to remind you what it is doing with the groups.

Note that with .by we specified multiple columns to group by using the [tidy-select][dplyr_tidy_select] syntax c(id, region). If you have a character vector of column names you'd like to group by, you can do so with .by = all_of(my_cols). It will group by the columns in the order they were provided.

To prevent surprising results, you can't use .by on an existing grouped data frame:

expenses %>% 
  group_by(id) %>%
  summarise(cost = mean(cost), .by = c(id, region))

So far we've focused on the usage of .by with summarise(), but .by works with a number of other dplyr verbs. For example, you could append the mean cost per region onto the original data frame as a new column rather than computing a summary:

expenses %>%
  mutate(cost_by_region = mean(cost), .by = region)

Or you could slice out the maximum cost per combination of id and region:

# Note that the argument is named `by` in `slice_max()`
expenses %>%
  slice_max(cost, n = 1, by = c(id, region))

Result ordering

When used with .by, summarise(), reframe(), and slice() all maintain the ordering of the existing data. This is different from group_by(), which has always sorted the group keys in ascending order.

df <- tibble(
  month = c("jan", "jan", "feb", "feb", "mar"),
  temp = c(20, 25, 18, 20, 40)

# Uses ordering by "first appearance" in the original data
df %>%
  summarise(average_temp = mean(temp), .by = month)

# Sorts in ascending order
df %>%
  group_by(month) %>%
  summarise(average_temp = mean(temp))

If you need sorted group keys, we recommend that you explicitly use [arrange()] either before or after the call to summarise(), reframe(), or slice(). This also gives you full access to all of arrange()'s features, such as desc() and the .locale argument.

Verbs without .by support

If a dplyr verb doesn't support .by, then that typically means that the verb isn't inherently affected by grouping. For example, [pull()] and [rename()] don't support .by, because specifying columns to group by would not affect their implementations.

That said, there are a few exceptions to this where sometimes a dplyr verb doesn't support .by, but does have special support for grouped data frames created by [group_by()]. This is typically because the verbs are required to retain the grouping columns, for example:

If group_by() didn't exist, then these verbs would not have special support for grouped data frames.

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dplyr documentation built on Nov. 17, 2023, 5:08 p.m.