The S3 and S4 software in R are two generations implementing functional object-oriented programming. S3 is the original, simpler for initial programming but less general, less formal and less open to validation. The S4 formal methods and classes provide these features but require more programming.
In modern R, the two versions attempt to work together. This documentation outlines how to write methods for both systems by defining an S4 method for a function that dispatches S3 methods.
The systems can also be combined by using an S3 class with S4 method
dispatch or in S4 class definitions. See
The R evaluator will ‘dispatch’ a method from a function call
either when the body of the function calls the special primitive
UseMethod or when the call is to one of the builtin
primitives such as the
math functions or the binary operators.
S3 method dispatch looks at the class of the first
argument or the class of either
argument in a call to one of the primitive binary operators.
In pure S3 situations, ‘class’ in this context means the class
attribute or the implied class for a basic data type such as
The first S3 method that matches a name in the class is called and the
value of that call is the value of the original function call.
For details, see S3Methods.
In modern R, a function
meth in a package is registered as an S3 method
fun and class
including in the package's
NAMESPACE file the directive
S3method(fun, Class, meth)
By default (and traditionally), the third argument is taken to be the
fun.Class; that is,
the name of the
generic function, followed by
".", followed by the name of the
As with S4 methods, a method that has been registered will be added to a table of methods for this function when the corresponding package is loaded into the session. Older versions of R, copying the mechanism in S, looked for the method in the current search list, but packages should now always register S3 methods rather than requiring the package to be attached.
Two possible mechanisms for implementing a method corresponding to an S4 class, there are two possibilities are to register it as an S3 method with the S4 class name or to define and set an S4 method, which will have the side effect of creating an S4 generic version of this function.
For most situations either works, but the recommended approach is to do both: register the S3 method and supply the identical function as the definition of the S4 method. This ensures that the proposed method will be dispatched for any applicable call to the function.
As an example, suppose an S4 class
"uncased" is defined,
"character" and intending to ignore upper- and
The base function
unique dispatches S3 methods.
To define the class and a method for this function:
setClass("uncased", contains = "character")
unique.uncased <- function(x, incomparables = FALSE, ...)
setMethod("unique", "uncased", unique.uncased)
In addition, the
NAMESPACE for the package should contain:
The result is to define identical S3 and S4 methods and ensure that all
unique will dispatch that method when appropriate.
The reasons for defining both S3 and S4 methods are as follows:
An S4 method alone will not be seen if the S3 generic function
is called directly. This will be the case, for example, if some
unique() from a package that does not make
that function an S4 generic.
However, primitive functions and operators are exceptions: The internal C code will look for S4 methods if and only if the object is an S4 object. S4 method dispatch would be used to dispatch any binary operator calls where either of the operands was an S4 object, for example.
An S3 method alone will not be called if there is any eligible non-default S4 method.
So if a package defined an S3
unique for an S4 class but another package
defined an S4 method for a superclass of that class, the
superclass method would be chosen, probably not what was
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
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).
For the details of S4 and S3 dispatch see Methods_Details and S3Methods.
Chambers, John M. (2016) Extending R, Chapman & Hall. (Chapters 9 and 10.)