Classes {methods}R Documentation

Class Definitions


Class definitions are objects that contain the formal definition of a class of R objects, usually referred to as an S4 class, to distinguish them from the informal S3 classes. This document gives an overview of S4 classes; for details of the class representation objects themselves, see class?classRepresentation (classRepresentation-class).


When a class is defined, an object is stored that contains the information about that class, including:


The data contained in an object from an S4 class is defined by the slots in the class definition.

Each slot in an object is a component of the object; like components (that is, elements) of a list, these may be extracted and set, using the function slot() or more often the operator "@". However, they differ from list components in important ways. First, slots can only be referred to by name, not by position, and there is no partial matching of names as with list elements.

All the objects from a particular class have the same set of slot names; specifically, the slot names that are contained in the class definition. Each slot in each object always has the same class; again, this is defined by the overall class definition. The phrase “has the same class” means that the class of the object in the slot must be the same as the class specified in the definition, or some class that extends the one in the definition.

One class name is special, .Data. This stands for the “data part” of the object. Any class that contains one of the basic data types in R{}, has implicitly a corresponding .Data slot of that type, allowing computations to extract or replace the data part while leaving other slots unchanged. The .Data slot also determines the type of the object; if x has a .Data slot, the type of the slot is the type of the object (that is, the value of typeof(x). Otherwise the type of the object is "S4". Extending a basic type this way allows objects to use old-style code for the corresponding type as well as S4 methods. Any basic type can be used for .Data, with the exception of a few that do not behave like ordinary objects; namely, "NULL", environments, and external pointers.

Classes exist for which there are no actual objects, the virtual classes, in fact a very important programming tool. They are used to group together ordinary classes that want to share some programming behavior, without necessarily restricting how the behavior is implemented. Virtual class definitions may if you want include slots (to provide some common behavior without fully defining the object—see traceable-class for an example).

A simple and useful form of virtual class is the class union, a virtual class that is defined in a call to setClassUnion by listing one or more of subclasses (classes that extend the class union). Class unions can include as subclasses basic data types (whose definition is otherwise sealed).


The definition of a class includes the superclasses —the classes that this class extends. A class Fancy, say, extends a class Simple if an object from the Fancy class has all the capabilities of the Simple class (and probably some more as well). In particular, and very usefully, any method defined to work for a Simple object can be applied to a Fancy object as well.

This relationship is expressed equivalently by saying that Simple is a superclass of Fancy, or that Fancy is a subclass of Simple.

The direct superclasses of a class are those superclasses explicitly defined. Direct superclasses can be defined in three ways. Most commonly, the superclasses are listed in the contains= argument in the call to setClass that creates the subclass. In this case the subclass will contain all the slots of the superclass, and the relation between the class is called simple, as it in fact is. Superclasses can also be defined explicitly by a call to setIs; in this case, the relation requires methods to be specified to go from subclass to superclass. Thirdly, a class union is a superclass of all the members of the union. In this case too the relation is simple, but notice that the relation is defined when the superclass is created, not when the subclass is created as with the contains= mechanism.

The definition of a superclass will also potentially contain its own direct superclasses. These are considered (and shown) as superclasses at distance 2 from the original class; their direct superclasses are at distance 3, and so on. All these are legitimate superclasses for purposes such as method selection.

When superclasses are defined by including the names of superclasses in the contains= argument to setClass, an object from the class will have all the slots defined for its own class and all the slots defined for all its superclasses as well.

The information about the relation between a class and a particular superclass is encoded as an object of class "SClassExtension" (see SClassExtension-class). A list of such objects for the superclasses (and sometimes for the subclasses) is included in the metadata object defining the class. If you need to compute with these objects (for example, to compare the distances), call the function extends with argument fullInfo=TRUE.


The objects from a class, typically created by a call to new or by assigning another object from the class, are defined by the prototype object for the class and by additional arguments in the call to new, which are passed to a method for that class for the function initialize.

Each class definition contains a prototype object for the class. This must have values for all the slots defined by the class definition. By default, these are the prototypes of all the slot classes, if those are not virtual classes. However, the definition of the class can specify any valid object for any of the slots.

There are a number of “basic” classes, corresponding to the ordinary kinds of data occurring in R. For example, "numeric" is a class corresponding to numeric vectors. There are also basic classes corresponding to objects in the language, such as "function" and "call", and for specialized objects, such as "environment" These classes are predefined and can then be used as slots or as superclasses for any other class definitions. The prototypes for the vector classes are vectors of length 0 of the corresponding type. Notice that basic classes are unusual in that the prototype object is from the class itself.

There are also a few basic virtual classes, the most important being "vector", grouping together all the vector classes; and "language", grouping together all the types of objects making up the R language.


The functions in this package emulate the facility for classes and methods described in Programming with Data (John M. Chambers, Springer, 1998). See this book for further details and examples.

See Also

Methods, setClass, is, as, new, slot

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