data.table (version 1.8.0)

setkey: Create key on a data table


Sorts a data.table and marks it as sorted. The sorted columns are the key. The key can be any columns in any order. The columns are sorted in ascending order always. The table is changed by reference. No copy is made at all, other than temporary working memory as large as one column.


setkey(x, ..., verbose=getOption("datatable.verbose"))
setkeyv(x, cols, verbose=getOption("datatable.verbose"))
set(x,i,j,value)   # should be documented in ?":=", perhaps.
key(x) <- value   # deprecated, please use setkey or setkeyv instead.


A data.table.
The columns to sort by. Do not quote the column names. If ... is missing (i.e. setkey(DT)), all the columns are used.
A character vector (only) of column names.
In (deprecated) key<-, a character vector (only) of column names. In setattr, the value to assign to the attribute or NULL removes the attribute, if present.
The character attribute name.
Output status and information.
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, the same length as old.
Character vector of the new column name ordering. May also be column numbers.
Integer row numbers to be assigned value.
Integer column number to be assigned value.


  • The data.table is modified by reference, and returned (invisibly) so it can be used in compound statements; e.g., setkey(DT,a)[J("foo")]. If you require a copy, take a copy first (using DT2=copy(DT)). copy() may also sometimes be useful before := is used to subassign to a column by reference. See ?copy.


The sort is attempted with the very fast "radix" method in sort.list. If that fails, the sort reverts to the default method in order. That logic is repeated column by column. The sort is stable; i.e., the order of ties (if any) is preserved. If v=NULL, the key is removed. In v1.7.8, the key<- syntax was deprecated. The <- method copies the whole table and we know of no way to avoid that copy without a change in Ritself. Please use the set* functions instead, which make no copy at all. setkey accepts unquoted column names for convenience, whilst setkeyv accepts one vector of column names. The problem (for data.table) with the copy by key<- (other than being slower) is that Rdoesn't maintain the over allocated truelength, but it looks as though it has. Adding a column by reference using := after a key<- was therefore a memory overwrite and eventually a seg fault; the over allocated memory wasn't really there after key<-'s copy. data.tables have a new attribute .internal.selfref to catch and warn about such copies in future. This attribute has been implemented in way that is friendly with identical() and object.size().

For the same reason, please use setattr() rather than attr(x,name)<-value, setnames() rather than names(x)<-value or colnames(x)<-value, and setcolorder() rather than DT<-DT[,neworder,with=FALSE]. It isn't good programming practice, in general, to use column numbers rather than names. This is why setkey and setkeyv only accept column names, and why old in setnames() is recommended to be names. If you use column numbers then bugs (possibly silent) can more easily creep into your code as time progresses if changes are made elsewhere in your code; e.g., if you add, remove or reorder columns in a few months time, a setkey by column number will then refer to a different column, possibly returning incorrect results with no warning. (A similar concept exists in SQL, where "select * from ..." is considered poor programming style when a robust, maintainable system is required.) If you wish to use column numbers, it's possible but a little harder; e.g., setkeyv(DT,colnames(DT)[1:2]).


See Also

data.table, tables, J, sort.list, copy, := html{}


Run this code
# Type 'example(setkey)' to run these at prompt and browse output
    DT = data.table(A=5:1,B=letters[5:1])
    DT # before
    setkey(DT,B)          # re-orders table and marks it sorted.
    DT # after
    tables()              # KEY column reports the key'd columns
    keycols = c("A","B")
    setkeyv(DT,keycols)    # rather than key(DT)<-keycols (which copies entire table)
    DT = data.table(A=5:1,B=letters[5:1])
    DT2 = DT              # does not copy
    setkey(DT2,B)         # does not copy-on-write to DT2
    identical(DT,DT2)     # TRUE. DT and DT2 are two names for the same keyed table
    DT = data.table(A=5:1,B=letters[5:1])
    DT2 = copy(DT)        # explicit copy() needed to copy a data.table
    setkey(DT2,B)         # now just changes DT2
    identical(DT,DT2)     # FALSE. DT and DT2 are now different tables
    DF = data.frame(a=1:2,b=3:4)       # base data.frame to demo copies
    try(tracemem(DF))                  # try() for non-Windows where R is faster without memory profiling
    colnames(DF)[1] <- "A"             # 4 copies of entire object
    names(DF)[1] <- "A"                # 3 copies of entire object
    `names<-`(DF,c("A","b"))           # 1 copy of entire object
    x=`names<-`(DF,c("A","b"))         # still 1 copy (so not print method)
    # What if DF is large, say 10GB in RAM. Copy 10GB just to change a column name?

    DT = data.table(a=1:2,b=3:4,c=5:6)
    setnames(DT,"b","B")               # by name; no match() needed
    setnames(DT,3,"C")                 # by position
    setnames(DT,2:3,c("D","E"))        # multiple
    setnames(DT,c("a","E"),c("A","F")) # multiple by name
    setnames(DT,c("X","Y","Z"))        # replace all
    # And, no copy of DT was made by setnames() at all

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