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A function is an operator that takes some input and gives an output based on the input. For example, let’s say that have a number and we want to determine its absolute value. R has a function called
abs() that takes in a number and outputs its absolute value:
> x <- -3 > abs(x)  3
Most functions take an input like the
abs() function (which we call an argument), but some also have special keywords that can be used to change how the function works. For example, the
rnorm() function generates random numbers from a normal distribution (which we will learn more about later). Have a look at the help page for this function by typing
help(rnorm) in the console, which will cause a help page to appear below. The section of the help page for the
rnorm() function shows the following:
rnorm(n, mean = 0, sd = 1) Arguments n number of observations. mean vector of means. sd vector of standard deviations.
You can also obtain some examples of how the function is used by typing
example(rnorm) in the console.
We can see that the rnorm function has two arguments, mean and sd, that are shown to be equal to specific values. This means that those values are the default settings, so that if you don’t do anything, then the function will return random numbers with a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1. The other argument, n, does not have a default value. Try typing in the function
rnorm() with no arguments and see what happens — it will return an error telling you that the argument “n” is missing and does not have a default value.
If we wanted to create random numbers with a different mean and standard deviation (say mean == 100 and standard deviation == 15), then we could simply set those values in the function call. Let’s say that we would like 5 random numbers from this distribution:
> my_random_numbers <- rnorm(5, mean=100, sd=15) > my_random_numbers  104 115 101 97 115
You will see that I set the variable to the name
my_random_numbers. In general, it’s always good to be as descriptive as possible when creating variables; rather than calling them x or y, use names that describe the actual contents. This will make it much easier to understand what’s going on once things get more complicated.