Fast row reordering of a data.table by reference

In data.table parlance, 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 data.table provides.

setorder (and setorderv) reorders the rows of a data.table based on the columns (and column order) provided. It reorders the table by reference and is therefore very memory efficient.

Also x[order(.)] is now optimised internally to use data.table's fast order. data.table always reorders in "C-locale" (see Details). To sort by session locale, use x[base::order(.)].

bit64::integer64 type is also supported for reordering rows of a data.table.

setorder(x, …, na.last=FALSE)
setorderv(x, cols = colnames(x), order=1L, na.last=FALSE)
# optimised to use data.table's internal fast order
# x[order(., na.last=TRUE)]

A data.table.

The columns to sort by. Do not quote column names. If is missing (ex: setorder(x)), x is rearranged based on all columns in ascending order by default. To sort by a column in descending order prefix a "-", i.e., setorder(x, a, -b, c). The -b works when b is of type character as well.


A character vector of column names of x by which to order. By default, sorts over all columns; cols = NULL will return x untouched. Do not add "-" here. Use order argument instead.


An integer vector with only possible values of 1 and -1, corresponding to ascending and descending order. The length of order must be either 1 or equal to that of cols. If length(order) == 1, it is recycled to length(cols).


logical. If TRUE, missing values in the data are placed last; if FALSE, they are placed first; if NA they are removed. na.last=NA is valid only for x[order(., na.last)] and its default is TRUE. setorder and setorderv only accept TRUE/FALSE with default FALSE.


data.table implements fast radix based ordering. In versions <= 1.9.2, it was only capable of increasing order (ascending). From 1.9.4 on, the functionality has been extended to decreasing order (descending) as well.

setorder accepts unquoted column names (with names preceded with a - sign for descending order) and reorders data.table rows by reference, for e.g., setorder(x, a, -b, c). Note that -b also works with columns of type character unlike base::order, which requires -xtfrm(y) instead (which is slow). setorderv in turn accepts a character vector of column names and an integer vector of column order separately.

Note that setkey still requires and will always sort only in ascending order, and is different from setorder in that it additionally sets the sorted attribute.

na.last argument, by default, is FALSE for setorder and setorderv to be consistent with data.table's setkey and is TRUE for x[order(.)] to be consistent with base::order. Only x[order(.)] can have na.last = NA as it is a subset operation as opposed to setorder or setorderv which reorders the data.table by reference.

data.table always reorders in "C-locale". As a consequence, the ordering may be different to that obtained by base::order. In English locales, for example, sorting is case-sensitive in C-locale. Thus, sorting c("c", "a", "B") returns c("B", "a", "c") in data.table but c("a", "B", "c") in base::order. Note this makes no difference in most cases of data; both return identical results on ids where only upper-case or lower-case letters are present ("AB123" < "AC234" is true in both), or on country names and other proper nouns which are consistently capitalized. For example, neither "America" < "Brazil" nor "america" < "brazil" are affected since the first letter is consistently capitalized.

Using C-locale makes the behaviour of sorting in data.table more consistent across sessions and locales. The behaviour of base::order depends on assumptions about the locale of the R session. In English locales, "america" < "BRAZIL" is true by default but false if you either type Sys.setlocale(locale="C") or the R session has been started in a C locale for you -- which can happen on servers/services since the locale comes from the environment the R session was started in. By contrast, "america" < "BRAZIL" is always false in data.table regardless of the way your R session was started.

If setorder results in reordering of the rows of a keyed data.table, then its key will be set to NULL.


The input is modified by reference, and returned (invisibly) so it can be used in compound statements; e.g., setorder(DT,a,-b)[, cumsum(c), by=list(a,b)]. If you require a copy, take a copy first (using DT2 = copy(DT)). See ?copy.

See Also

setkey, setcolorder, setattr, setnames, set, :=, setDT, setDF, copy, setNumericRounding

  • setorder
  • setorderv
  • order
  • fastorder
  • forder
DT = data.table(A=sample(3, 10, TRUE),
         B=sample(letters[1:3], 10, TRUE), C=sample(10))

# setorder
setorder(DT, A, -B)

# same as above, but using setorderv
setorderv(DT, c("A", "B"), c(1, -1))
# }
Documentation reproduced from package data.table, version 1.12.0, License: MPL-2.0 | file LICENSE

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