Skip to content

In rlang, an expression is the return type of parse_expr(), the set of objects that can be obtained from parsing R code. Under this definition expressions include numbers, strings, NULL, symbols, and function calls. These objects can be classified as:

  • Symbolic objects, i.e. symbols and function calls (for which is_symbolic() returns TRUE)

  • Syntactic literals, i.e. scalar atomic objects and NULL (testable with is_syntactic_literal())

is_expression() returns TRUE if the input is either a symbolic object or a syntactic literal. If a call, the elements of the call must all be expressions as well. Unparsable calls are not considered expressions in this narrow definition.

Note that in base R, there exists expression() vectors, a data type similar to a list that supports special attributes created by the parser called source references. This data type is not supported in rlang.







An object to test.


is_symbolic() returns TRUE for symbols and calls (objects with type language). Symbolic objects are replaced by their value during evaluation. Literals are the complement of symbolic objects. They are their own value and return themselves during evaluation.

is_syntactic_literal() is a predicate that returns TRUE for the subset of literals that are created by R when parsing text (see parse_expr()): numbers, strings and NULL. Along with symbols, these literals are the terminating nodes in an AST.

Note that in the most general sense, a literal is any R object that evaluates to itself and that can be evaluated in the empty environment. For instance, quote(c(1, 2)) is not a literal, it is a call. However, the result of evaluating it in base_env() is a literal(in this case an atomic vector).

As the data structure for function arguments, pairlists are also a kind of language objects. However, since they are mostly an internal data structure and can't be returned as is by the parser, is_expression() returns FALSE for pairlists.

See also

is_call() for a call predicate.


q1 <- quote(1)
#> [1] TRUE
#> [1] TRUE

q2 <- quote(x)
#> [1] TRUE
#> [1] TRUE

q3 <- quote(x + 1)
#> [1] TRUE
#> [1] TRUE

# Atomic expressions are the terminating nodes of a call tree:
# NULL or a scalar atomic vector:
#> [1] TRUE
#> [1] TRUE

#> [1] FALSE
#> [1] FALSE

# Parsable literals have the property of being self-quoting:
identical("foo", quote("foo"))
#> [1] TRUE
identical(1L, quote(1L))
#> [1] TRUE
identical(NULL, quote(NULL))
#> [1] TRUE

# Like any literals, they can be evaluated within the empty
# environment:
eval_bare(quote(1L), empty_env())
#> [1] 1

# Whereas it would fail for symbolic expressions:
# eval_bare(quote(c(1L, 2L)), empty_env())

# Pairlists are also language objects representing argument lists.
# You will usually encounter them with extracted formals:
fmls <- formals(is_expression)
#> [1] "pairlist"

# Since they are mostly an internal data structure, is_expression()
# returns FALSE for pairlists, so you will have to check explicitly
# for them:
#> [1] FALSE
#> [1] TRUE