data.table (version 1.11.4)

setattr: Set attributes of objects by reference


In data.table, all set* functions change their input by reference. That is, no copy is made at all, other than temporary working memory which is as large as one column. The only other data.table operator that modifies input by reference is :=. Check out the See Also section below for other set* function that data.table provides.





setnames accepts data.frame and data.table. setattr accepts any input; e.g, list, columns of a data.frame or data.table.


The character attribute name.


The value to assign to the attribute or NULL removes the attribute, if present.


When new is provided, character names or numeric positions of column names to change. When new is not provided, the new column names, which must be the same length as the number of columns. See examples.


Optional. New column names, must be the same length as columns provided to old argument.


The input is modified by reference, and returned (invisibly) so it can be used in compound statements; e.g., setnames(DT,"V1", "Y")[, .N, by=Y]. If you require a copy, take a copy first (using DT2=copy(DT)). See ?copy.

Note that setattr is also in package bit. Both packages merely expose R's internal setAttrib function at C level but differ in return value. bit::setattr returns NULL (invisibly) to remind you the function is used for its side effect. data.table::setattr returns the changed object (invisibly) for use in compound statements.


setnames operates on data.table and data.frame not other types like list and vector. It can be used to change names by name with built-in checks and warnings (e.g., if any old names are missing or appear more than once).

setattr is a more general function that allows setting of any attribute to an object by reference.

A very welcome change in R 3.1+ was that `names<-` and `colnames<-` no longer copy the entire object as they used to (up to 4 times), see examples below. They now take a shallow copy. The `set*` functions in data.table are still useful because they don't even take a shallow copy. This allows changing names and attributes of a (usually very large) data.table in the global environment from within functions. Like a database.

See Also

data.table, setkey, setorder, setcolorder, set, :=, setDT, setDF, copy


Run this code
DF = data.frame(a=1:2,b=3:4)       # base data.frame to demo copies and syntax
if (capabilities()["profmem"])     # usually memory profiling is available but just in case
colnames(DF)[1] <- "A"             # 4 shallow copies (R >= 3.1, was 4 deep copies before)
names(DF)[1] <- "A"                # 3 shallow copies
names(DF) <- c("A", "b")           # 1 shallow copy
`names<-`(DF,c("A","b"))           # 1 shallow copy

DT = data.table(a=1:2,b=3:4,c=5:6) # compare to data.table
if (capabilities()["profmem"])
  tracemem(DT)                     # by reference, no deep or shallow copies
setnames(DT,"b","B")               # by name, no match() needed (warning if "b" is missing)
setnames(DT,3,"C")                 # by position with warning if 3 > ncol(DT)
setnames(DT,2:3,c("D","E"))        # multiple
setnames(DT,c("a","E"),c("A","F")) # multiple by name (warning if either "a" or "E" is missing)
setnames(DT,c("X","Y","Z"))        # replace all (length of names must be == ncol(DT))

DT <- data.table(x = 1:3, y = 4:6, z = 7:9)
setnames(DT, -2, c("a", "b"))      # NEW FR #1443, allows -ve indices in 'old' argument

DT = data.table(a=1:3, b=4:6)
f = function(...) {
    # ...
    setattr(DT,"myFlag",TRUE)  # by reference
    # ...
    localDT = copy(DT)
    # ...
attr(DT,"myFlag")   # TRUE
attr(DT,"myFlag2")  # NULL

# }

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