Cell and Column Types


readxl::read_excel() will guess column types, by default, or you can provide them explicitly via the col_types argument. The col_types argument is more flexible than you might think; you can mix actual types in with "skip" and "guess" and a single type will be recycled to the necessary length.

Here are different ways this might look:

read_excel("yo.xlsx", col_types = "numeric")
read_excel("yo.xlsx", col_types = c("date", "skip", "guess", "numeric"))

Type guessing

If you use other packages in the tidyverse, you are probably familiar with readr, which reads data from flat files. Like readxl, readr also provides column type guessing, but readr and readxl are very different under the hood.

Each cell in an Excel spreadsheet has its own type. For all intents and purposes, they are:

       empty < boolean < numeric < text

with the wrinkle that datetimes are a very special flavor of numeric. A cell of any particular type can always be represented as one of any higher type and, possibly, as one of lower type. When guessing, read_excel() keeps a running “maximum” on the cell types it has seen in any given column. Once it has visited guess_max rows or run out of data, this is the guessed type for that column. There is a strong current towards “text”, the column type of last resort.

Here’s an example of column guessing with deaths.xlsx which ships with readxl.

read_excel(readxl_example("deaths.xlsx"), range = cell_rows(5:15))
#> # A tibble: 10 x 6
#>   Name          Profession   Age `Has kids` `Date of birth`    
#>   <chr>         <chr>      <dbl> <lgl>      <dttm>             
#> 1 David Bowie   musician     69. TRUE       1947-01-08 00:00:00
#> 2 Carrie Fisher actor        60. TRUE       1956-10-21 00:00:00
#> 3 Chuck Berry   musician     90. TRUE       1926-10-18 00:00:00
#> 4 Bill Paxton   actor        61. TRUE       1955-05-17 00:00:00
#> # ... with 6 more rows, and 1 more variable: `Date of death` <dttm>

Excel types, R types, col_types

Here’s how the Excel cell/column types are translated into R types and how to force the type explicitly in col_types:

How it is in Excel How it will be in R How to request in col_types
anything non-existent "skip"
empty logical, but all NA you cannot request this
boolean logical "logical"
numeric numeric "numeric"
datetime POSIXct "date"
text character "text"
anything list "list"

Some explanation about the weird cases in the first two rows:

Example of skipping and guessing:

  range = cell_rows(5:15),
  col_types = c("guess", "skip", "guess", "skip", "skip", "skip")
#> # A tibble: 10 x 2
#>   Name            Age
#>   <chr>         <dbl>
#> 1 David Bowie     69.
#> 2 Carrie Fisher   60.
#> 3 Chuck Berry     90.
#> 4 Bill Paxton     61.
#> # ... with 6 more rows

More about the "list" column type in the last row:

We demonstrate the "list" column type using the clippy.xlsx sheet that ship with Excel. Its second column holds information about Clippy that would be really hard to store with just one type.

(clippy <- 
   read_excel(readxl_example("clippy.xlsx"), col_types = c("text", "list")))
#> # A tibble: 4 x 2
#>   name                 value     
#>   <chr>                <list>    
#> 1 Name                 <chr [1]> 
#> 2 Species              <chr [1]> 
#> 3 Approx date of death <dttm [1]>
#> 4 Weight in grams      <dbl [1]>
#> $Name
#> [1] "Clippy"
#> $Species
#> [1] "paperclip"
#> $`Approx date of death`
#> [1] "2007-01-01 UTC"
#> $`Weight in grams`
#> [1] 0.9
sapply(clippy$value, class)
#> [[1]]
#> [1] "character"
#> [[2]]
#> [1] "character"
#> [[3]]
#> [1] "POSIXct" "POSIXt" 
#> [[4]]
#> [1] "numeric"

Final note: all datetimes are imported as having the UTC timezone, because, mercifully, Excel has no notion of timezones.

When column guessing goes wrong

It’s pretty common to expect a column to import as, say, numeric or datetime. And to then be sad when it imports as character instead. Two main causes:

Contamination by embedded missing or bad data of incompatible type. Example: missing data entered as ?? in a numeric column.

Contamination of the data rectangle by leading or trailing non-data rows. Example: the sheet contains a few lines of explanatory prose before the data table begins.

The deaths.xlsx sheet demonstrates this perfectly. Here’s how it imports if we don’t specify range as we did above:

deaths <- read_excel(readxl_example("deaths.xlsx"))
print(deaths, n = Inf)
#> # A tibble: 18 x 6
#>    `Lots of people`             X__1        X__2   X__3   X__4    X__5    
#>    <chr>                        <chr>       <chr>  <chr>  <chr>   <chr>   
#>  1 simply cannot resist writing <NA>        <NA>   <NA>   <NA>    some no…
#>  2 at                           the         top    <NA>   of      their s…
#>  3 or                           merging     <NA>   <NA>   <NA>    cells   
#>  4 Name                         Profession  Age    Has k… Date o… Date of…
#>  5 David Bowie                  musician    69     TRUE   17175   42379   
#>  6 Carrie Fisher                actor       60     TRUE   20749   42731   
#>  7 Chuck Berry                  musician    90     TRUE   9788    42812   
#>  8 Bill Paxton                  actor       61     TRUE   20226   42791   
#>  9 Prince                       musician    57     TRUE   21343   42481   
#> 10 Alan Rickman                 actor       69     FALSE  16854   42383   
#> 11 Florence Henderson           actor       82     TRUE   12464   42698   
#> 12 Harper Lee                   author      89     FALSE  9615    42419   
#> 13 Zsa Zsa Gábor                actor       99     TRUE   6247    42722   
#> 14 George Michael               musician    53     FALSE  23187   42729   
#> 15 Some                         <NA>        <NA>   <NA>   <NA>    <NA>    
#> 16 <NA>                         also like … <NA>   <NA>   <NA>    <NA>    
#> 17 <NA>                         <NA>        at the botto… <NA>    <NA>    
#> 18 <NA>                         <NA>        <NA>   <NA>   <NA>    too!

Non-data rows above and below the main data rectangle are causing all the columns to import as character.

If your column typing problem can’t be solved by specifying na or the data rectangle, request the "list" column type and handle missing data and coercion after import.

Peek at column names

Sometimes you aren’t completely sure of column count or order, and yet you need to provide some information via col_types. For example, you might know that the column named “foofy” should be text, but you’re not sure where it appears. Or maybe you want to ensure that lots of empty cells at the top of “foofy” don’t cause it to be guessed as logical.

Here’s an efficient trick to get the column names, so you can programmatically build the col_types vector you need for your main reading of the Excel file. Let’s imagine I want to force the columns whose names include “Petal” to be text, but leave everything else to be guessed.

Square pegs in round holes

You can force a column to have a specific type via col_types. So what happens to cells of another type? They will either be coerced to the requested type or to an NA of appropriate type.

For each column type, below we present a screen shot of a sheet from the built-in example type-me.xlsx. We force the first column to have a specific type and the second column explains what is in the first. You’ll see how mismatches between cell type and column type are resolved.

Logical column

A numeric cell is coerced to FALSE if it is zero and TRUE otherwise. A date cell becomes NA. Just like in R, the strings “T”, “TRUE”, “True”, and “true” are regarded as TRUE and “F”, “FALSE”, “False”, “false” as FALSE. Other strings import as NA.

Numeric column

A boolean cell is coerced to zero if FALSE and one if TRUE. A datetime comes in as the underlying serial date, which is the number of days, possibly fractional, since the date origin. For text, numeric conversion is attempted, to handle the “number as text” phenomenon. If unsuccessful, text cells import as NA.

Date column

A numeric cell is interpreted as a serial date (I’m questioning whether this is wise, but https://github.com/tidyverse/readxl/issues/266). Boolean or text cells become NA.

Text or character column

A boolean cell becomes either "TRUE" or "FALSE". A numeric cell is converted to character, much like as.character() in R. A date cell is handled like numeric, using the underlying serial value.