Methods_for_Nongenerics: Methods for Non-Generic Functions in Other Packages

Methods_for_NongenericsR Documentation

Methods for Non-Generic Functions in Other Packages


In writing methods for an R package, it's common for these methods to apply to a function (in another package) that is not generic in that package; that is, there are no formal methods for the function in its own package, although it may have S3 methods. The programming in this case involves one extra step, to call setGeneric() to declare that the function is generic in your package.

Calls to the function in your package will then use all methods defined there or in any other loaded package that creates the same generic function. Similarly, calls to the function in those packages will use your methods.

The original version, however, remains non-generic. Calls in that package or in other packages that use that version will not dispatch your methods except for special circumstances:

  1. If the function is one of the primitive functions that accept methods, the internal C implementation will dispatch methods if one of the arguments is an S4 object, as should be the case.

  2. If the other version of the function dispatches S3 methods and your methods are also registered as S3 methods, the method will usually be dispatched as that S3 method.

  3. Otherwise, you will need to ensure that all calls to the function come from a package in which the function is generic, perhaps by copying code to your package.

Details and the underlying reasons are discussed in the following sections.

Generic and Non-Generic Calls

Creating methods for a function (any function) in a package means that calls to the function in that package will select methods according to the actual arguments. However, if the function was originally a non-generic in another package, calls to the function from that package will not dispatch methods. In addition, calls from any third package that imports the non-generic version will also not dispatch methods. This section considers the reason and how one might deal with the consequences.

The reason is simply the R namespace mechanism and its role in evaluating function calls. When a name (such as the name of a function) needs to be evaluated in a call to a function from some package, the evaluator looks first in the frame of the call, then in the namespace of the package and then in the imports to that package.

Defining methods for a function in a package ensures that calls to the function in that package will select the methods, because a generic version of the function is created in the namespace. Similarly, calls from another package that has or imports the generic version will select methods. Because the generic versions are identical, all methods will be available in all these packages.

However, calls from any package that imports the old version or just selects it from the search list will usually not select methods.

A an example, consider the function data.frame() in the base package. This function takes any number of objects as arguments and attempts to combine them as variables into a data frame object. It does this by calling, also in the base package, for each of the objects.

A reasonable goal would be to extend the classes of objects that can be included in a data frame by defining methods for But calls to data.frame(), will still use the version of that function in the base package, which continues to call the non-generic in that package.

The details of what happens and options for dealing with it depend on the form of the function: a primitive function; a function that dispatches S3 methods; or an ordinary R function.

Primitive functions are not actual R function objects. They go directly to internal C code. Some of them, however, have been implemented to recognize methods. These functions dispatch both S4 and S3 methods from the internal C code. There is no explicit generic function, either S3 or S4. The internal code looks for S4 methods if the first argument, or either of the arguments in the case of a binary operator, is an S4 object. If no S4 method is found, a search is made for an S3 method. So defining methods for these functions works as long as the relevant classes have been defined, which should always be the case.

A function dispatches S3 methods by calling UseMethod(), which does not look for formal methods regardless of whether the first argument is an S4 object or not. This applies to the example above. To have methods called in this situation, your package must also define the method as an S3 method, if possible. See section ‘S3 “Generic” Functions’.

In the third possibility, the function is defined with no expectation of methods. For example, the base package has a number of functions that compute numerical decompositions of matrix arguments. Some, such as chol() and qr() are implemented to dispatch S3 methods; others, such as svd() are implemented directly as a specific computation. A generic version of the latter functions can be written and called directly to define formal methods, but no code in another package that does not import this generic version will dispatch such methods.

In this case, you need to have the generic version used in all the indirect calls to the function supplying arguments that should dispatch methods. This may require supplying new functions that dispatch methods and then call the function they replace. For example, if S3 methods did not work for, one could call a function that applied the generic version to all its arguments and then called data.frame() as a replacement for that function. If all else fails, it might be necessary to copy over the relevant functions so that they would find the generic versions.

S3 “Generic” Functions

S3 method dispatch looks at the class of the first argument. S3 methods are ordinary functions with the same arguments as the generic function. The “signature” of an S3 method is identified by the name to which the method is assigned, composed of the name of the generic function, followed by ".", followed by the name of the class. For details, see UseMethod.

To implement a method for one of these functions corresponding to S4 classes, there are two possibilities: either an S4 method or an S3 method with the S4 class name. The S3 method is only possible if the intended signature has the first argument and nothing else. In this case, the recommended approach is to define the S3 method and also supply the identical function as the definition of the S4 method. If the S3 generic function was f3(x, ...) and the S4 class for the new method was "myClass":

f3.myClass <- function(x, ...) { ..... }

setMethod("f3", "myClass", f3.myClass)

Defining both methods usually ensures that all calls to the original function will dispatch the intended method. The S4 method alone would not be called from other packages using the original version of the function. On the other hand, an S3 method alone will not be called if there is any eligible non-default S4 method.

S4 and S3 method selection are designed to follow compatible rules of inheritance, as far as possible. S3 classes can be used for any S4 method selection, provided that the S3 classes have been registered by a call to setOldClass, with that call specifying the correct S3 inheritance pattern. S4 classes can be used for any S3 method selection; when an S4 object is detected, S3 method selection uses the contents of extends(class(x)) as the equivalent of the S3 inheritance (the inheritance is cached after the first call).

An existing S3 method may not behave as desired for an S4 subclass, in which case utilities such as asS3 and S3Part may be useful. If the S3 method fails on the S4 object, asS3(x) may be passed instead; if the object returned by the S3 method needs to be incorporated in the S4 object, the replacement function for S3Part may be useful.


Chambers, John M. (2016) Extending R, Chapman & Hall. (Chapters 9 and 10.)

See Also

Methods_for_S3 for suggested implementation of methods that work for both S3 and S4 dispatch.


## A class that extends a registered S3 class inherits that class' S3
## methods.

setClass("myFrame", contains = "data.frame",
         slots = c(timestamps = "POSIXt"))
df1 <- data.frame(x = 1:10, y = rnorm(10), z = sample(letters,10))
mydf1 <- new("myFrame", df1, timestamps = Sys.time())

## "myFrame" objects inherit "data.frame" S3 methods; e.g., for `[`

mydf1[1:2, ] # a data frame object (with extra attributes)

## a method explicitly for "myFrame" class

    signature(x = "myFrame"),
    function (x, i, j, ..., drop = TRUE)
        S3Part(x) <- callNextMethod()
        x@timestamps <- c(Sys.time(), as.POSIXct(x@timestamps))

mydf1[1:2, ]

setClass("myDateTime", contains = "POSIXt")

now <- Sys.time() # class(now) is c("POSIXct", "POSIXt")
nowLt <- as.POSIXlt(now)# class(nowLt) is c("POSIXlt", "POSIXt")

mCt <- new("myDateTime", now)
mLt <- new("myDateTime", nowLt)

## S3 methods for an S4 object will be selected using S4 inheritance
## Objects mCt and mLt have different S3Class() values, but this is
## not used.
f3 <- function(x)UseMethod("f3") # an S3 generic to illustrate inheritance

f3.POSIXct <- function(x) "The POSIXct result"
f3.POSIXlt <- function(x) "The POSIXlt result"
f3.POSIXt <- function(x) "The POSIXt result"

stopifnot(identical(f3(mCt), f3.POSIXt(mCt)))
stopifnot(identical(f3(mLt), f3.POSIXt(mLt)))

## An S4 object selects S3 methods according to its S4 "inheritance"

setClass("classA", contains = "numeric",
         slots = c(realData = "numeric"))

Math.classA <- function(x) { (getFunction(.Generic))(x@realData) }
setMethod("Math", "classA", Math.classA)

x <- new("classA", log(1:10), realData = 1:10)

stopifnot(identical(abs(x), 1:10))

setClass("classB", contains = "classA")

y <- new("classB", x)

stopifnot(identical(abs(y), abs(x))) # (version 2.9.0 or earlier fails here)

## an S3 generic: just for demonstration purposes
f3 <- function(x, ...) UseMethod("f3")

f3.default <- function(x, ...) "Default f3"

## S3 method (only) for classA
f3.classA <- function(x, ...) "Class classA for f3"

## S3 and S4 method for numeric
f3.numeric <- function(x, ...) "Class numeric for f3"
setMethod("f3", "numeric", f3.numeric)

## The S3 method for classA and the closest inherited S3 method for classB
## are not found.

f3(x); f3(y) # both choose "numeric" method

## to obtain the natural inheritance, set identical S3 and S4 methods
setMethod("f3", "classA", f3.classA)

f3(x); f3(y) # now both choose "classA" method

## Need to define an S3 as well as S4 method to use on an S3 object
## or if called from a package without the S4 generic

MathFun <- function(x) { # a smarter "data.frame" method for Math group
  for (i in seq_len(ncol(x))[sapply(x, is.numeric)])
    x[, i] <- (getFunction(.Generic))(x[, i])
setMethod("Math", "data.frame", MathFun)

## S4 method works for an S4 class containing data.frame,
## but not for data.frame objects (not S4 objects)

try(logIris <- log(iris)) #gets an error from the old method

## Define an S3 method with the same computation <- MathFun

logIris <- log(iris)