units: Handle measurement units

unitsR Documentation

Handle measurement units


A number of functions are provided for handling unit objects.

  • `units<-` and units are the basic functions to set and retrieve units.

  • as_units, a generic with methods for a character string and for quoted language. Note, direct usage of this function by users is typically not necessary, as coercion via as_units is automatically done with `units<-` and set_units.

  • make_units, constructs units from bare expressions. make_units(m/s) is equivalent to as_units(quote(m/s)).

  • set_units, a pipe-friendly version of `units<-`. By default it operates with bare expressions, but this behavior can be disabled by a specifying mode = "standard" or setting units_options(set_units_mode = "standard"). If value is missing or set to 1, the object becomes unitless.


## S3 replacement method for class 'numeric'
units(x) <- value

## S3 replacement method for class 'units'
units(x) <- value

## S3 replacement method for class 'logical'
units(x) <- value

## S3 method for class 'units'

## S3 method for class 'symbolic_units'

set_units(x, value, ..., mode = units_options("set_units_mode"))

make_units(bare_expression, check_is_valid = TRUE)

as_units(x, ...)

## Default S3 method:
as_units(x, value = unitless, ...)

## S3 method for class 'units'
as_units(x, value, ...)

## S3 method for class 'symbolic_units'
as_units(x, value, ...)

## S3 method for class 'difftime'
as_units(x, value, ...)

## S3 method for class 'character'
as_units(x, check_is_valid = TRUE,
  implicit_exponents = NULL, force_single_symbol = FALSE, ...)

## S3 method for class 'call'
as_units(x, check_is_valid = TRUE, ...)

## S3 method for class 'expression'
as_units(x, check_is_valid = TRUE, ...)

## S3 method for class 'name'
as_units(x, check_is_valid = TRUE, ...)

## S3 method for class 'POSIXt'
as_units(x, value, ...)

## S3 method for class 'Date'
as_units(x, value, ...)



numeric vector, or object of class units.


object of class units or symbolic_units, or in the case of set_units expression with symbols (see examples).


passed on to other methods.


if "symbols" (the default), then unit is constructed from the expression supplied. Otherwise, ifmode = "standard", standard evaluation is used for the supplied value This argument can be set via a global option units_options(set_units_mode = "standard")


a bare R expression describing units. Must be valid R syntax (reserved R syntax words like in must be backticked)


throw an error if all the unit symbols are not either recognized by udunits2 via ud_is_parseable(), or a custom user defined via install_unit(). If FALSE, no check for validity is performed.


If the unit string is in product power form (e.g. "km m-2 s-1"). Defaults to NULL, in which case a guess is made based on the supplied string. Set to TRUE or FALSE if the guess is incorrect.


Whether to perform no string parsing and force treatment of the string as a single symbol.


If value is of class units and has a value unequal to 1, this value is ignored unless units_options("simplifiy") is TRUE. If simplify is TRUE, x is multiplied by this value.


An object of class units.

The units method retrieves the units attribute, which is of class symbolic_units.

Character strings

Generally speaking, there are 3 types of unit strings are accepted in as_units (and by extension, `units<-`).

The first, and likely most common, is a "standard" format unit specification where the relationship between unit symbols or names is specified explicitly with arithmetic symbols for division /, multiplication * and power exponents ^, or other mathematical functions like log(). In this case, the string is parsed as an R expression via parse(text = ) after backticking all unit symbols and names, and then passed on to as_units.call(). A heuristic is used to perform backticking, such that any continuous set of characters uninterrupted by one of ()\*^- are backticked (unless the character sequence consists solely of numbers 0-9), with some care to not double up on pre-existing backticks. This heuristic appears to be quite robust, and works for units would otherwise not be valid R syntax. For example, percent ("%"), feet ("'"), inches ("in"), and Tesla ("T") are all backticked and parsed correctly.

Nevertheless, for certain complex unit expressions, this backticking heuristic may give incorrect results. If the string supplied fails to parse as an R expression, then the string is treated as a single symbolic unit and symbolic_unit(chr) is used as a fallback with a warning. In that case, automatic unit simplification may not work properly when performing operations on unit objects, but unit conversion and other Math operations should still give correct results so long as the unit string supplied returns TRUE for ud_is_parsable().

The second type of unit string accepted is one with implicit exponents. In this format, /, *, and ^, may not be present in the string, and unit symbol or names must be separated by a space. Each unit symbol may optionally be followed by a single number, specifying the power. For example "m2 s-2" is equivalent to "(m^2)*(s^-2)".

It must be noted that prepended numbers are supported too, but their interpretation slightly varies depending on whether they are separated from the unit string or not. E.g., "1000 m" is interpreted as magnitude and unit, but "1000m" is interpreted as a prefixed unit, and it is equivalent to "km" to all effects.

The third type of unit string format accepted is the special case of udunits time duration with a reference origin, for example "hours since 1970-01-01 00:00:00". Note, that the handling of time and calendar operations via the udunits library is subtly different from the way R handles date and time operations. This functionality is mostly exported for users that work with udunits time data, e.g., with NetCDF files. Users are otherwise encouraged to use R's date and time functionality provided by Date and POSIXt classes.


In as_units(), each of the symbols in the unit expression is treated individually, such that each symbol must be recognized by the udunits database (checked by ud_is_parseable(), or be a custom, user-defined unit symbol that was defined by install_unit(). To see which symbols and names are currently recognized by the udunits database, see valid_udunits().


By default, unit names are automatically substituted with unit names (e.g., kilogram –> kg). To turn off this behavior, set units_options(auto_convert_names_to_symbols = FALSE)

See Also

install_unit, valid_udunits


x = 1:3
units(x) <- as_units("m/s")
y = 2:5
a <- set_units(1:3, m/s)
units(a) <- make_units(km/h)
# convert to a mixed_units object:
units(a) <- c("m/s", "km/h", "km/h")
# The easiest way to assign units to a numeric vector is like this:
x <- y <- 1:4
units(x) <- "m/s"  # meters / second

# Alternatively, the easiest pipe-friendly way to set units:
if(requireNamespace("magrittr", quietly = TRUE)) {
  y %>% set_units(m/s)

# these are different ways of creating the same unit:
# meters per second squared, i.e, acceleration
x1 <- make_units(m/s^2)
x2 <- as_units(quote(m/s^2))
x2 <- as_units("m/s^2")
x3 <- as_units("m s-2") # in product power form, i.e., implicit exponents = T
x4 <- set_units(1,  m/s^2) # by default, mode = "symbols"
x5 <- set_units(1, "m/s^2",   mode = "standard")
x6 <- set_units(1, x1,        mode = "standard")
x7 <- set_units(1, units(x1), mode = "standard")
x8 <- as_units("m") / as_units("s")^2

all_identical <- function(...) {
  l <- list(...)
  for(i in seq_along(l)[-1])
    if(!identical(l[[1]], l[[i]]))
all_identical(x1, x2, x3, x4, x5, x6, x7, x8)

# Note, direct usage of these unit creation functions is typically not
# necessary, since coercion is automatically done via as_units(). Again,
# these are all equivalent ways to generate the same result.

x1 <- x2 <- x3 <- x4 <- x5 <- x6 <- x7 <- x8 <- 1:4
units(x1) <- "m/s^2"
units(x2) <- "m s-2"
units(x3) <- quote(m/s^2)
units(x4) <- make_units(m/s^2)
units(x5) <- as_units(quote(m/s^2))
x6 <- set_units(x6, m/s^2)
x7 <- set_units(x7, "m/s^2", mode = "standard")
x8 <- set_units(x8, units(x1), mode = "standard")

all_identical(x1, x2, x3, x4, x5, x6, x7, x8)

# Both unit names or symbols can be used. By default, unit names are
# automatically converted to unit symbols.

## Arithmetic operations and units
# conversion between unit objects that were defined as symbols and names will
# work correctly, although unit simplification in printing may not always occur.
x <- 500 * make_units(micrograms/liter)
y <- set_units(200, ug/l)
x + y
x * y # numeric result is correct, but units not simplified completely

# note, plural form of unit name accepted too ('liters' vs 'liter'), and
# denominator simplification can be performed correctly
x * set_units(5, liters)

# unit conversion works too
set_units(x, grams/gallon)

## Creating custom, user defined units
# For example, a microbiologist might work with counts of bacterial cells
# make_units(cells/ml) # by default, throws an ERROR
# First define the unit, then the newly defined unit is accepted.

# Note that install_unit() adds support for defining relationships between
# the newly created symbols or names and existing units.

## set_units()
# set_units is a pipe friendly version of `units<-`.
if(requireNamespace("magrittr", quietly = TRUE)) {
  1:5 %>% set_units(N/m^2)
  # first sets to m, then converts to km
  1:5 %>% set_units(m) %>% set_units(km)

# set_units has two modes of operation. By default, it operates with
# bare symbols to define the units.
set_units(1:5, m/s)

# use `mode = "standard"` to use the value of supplied argument, rather than
# the bare symbols of the expression. In this mode, set_units() can be
# thought of as a simple alias for `units<-` that is pipe friendly.
set_units(1:5, "m/s", mode = "standard")
set_units(1:5, make_units(m/s), mode = "standard")

# the mode of set_units() can be controlled via a global option
# units_options(set_units_mode = "standard")

# To remove units use
units(x) <- NULL
# or
set_units(x, NULL)
# or
s = Sys.time()
d  = s - (s+1)

units documentation built on Sept. 14, 2023, 1:06 a.m.