weird behavior when merging one non-empty data.frame with an empty one

This is a complex one. The mis-step occurs in this line of base::merge:

y <- y[c(m$yi, if (all.x) rep.int(1L, nxx), if (all.y) m$y.alone), 
            -by.y, drop = FALSE]

When you pass df2.b as the y argument to merge, this line actually produces an invalid data frame, as you can see in the browser:

Browse[2]> y
#>        V4
#> NA   NULL
#> NA.1 <NA>
#> NA.2 <NA>
#> NA.3 <NA>
#> Warning message:
#> In format.data.frame(if (omit) x[seq_len(n0), , drop = FALSE] else x,  :
#>  corrupt data frame: columns will be truncated or padded with NAs

If we trace the logic through, we can see that we can reproduce the error outside the debugger by calling:

df2.b[c(1, 1, 1, 1), -c(1:2), drop = FALSE]
#>        V4
#> NA   NULL
#> NA.1 <NA>
#> NA.2 <NA>
#> NA.3 <NA>
#> Warning message:
#> In format.data.frame(if (omit) x[seq_len(n0), , drop = FALSE] else x,  :
#>  corrupt data frame: columns will be truncated or padded with NAs

Whereas, we don't get this problem for db2.a:

df2.a[c(1, 1, 1, 1), -c(1:2), drop = FALSE]
#>      V3 V4
#> NA   NA NA
#> NA.1 NA NA
#> NA.2 NA NA
#> NA.3 NA NA

So why is this? Even though df2.a and df2.b look the same when you print the data frame, they are not the same. An empty numeric vector isn't quite the same as NULL. The main difference (the one that causes the problem here) is that indexing an empty numeric vector gives you a non-zero length of NA values, whereas NULL gives you a single NULL value.

df2.a$V1[1:4]
#> [1] NA NA NA NA

df2.b$V1[1:4]
#> NULL

So I guess this is expected behaviour. The problem is that R allows NULL as a dataframe column at all. I'm surprised this kind of thing doesn't happen more often.


I tracked the cause of this issue and found that this mistake arises in the following section of merge.data.frame:

y <- y[c(m$yi, if (all.x) rep.int(1L, nxx), if (all.y) m$y.alone), 
            -by.y, drop = FALSE]

To show the problem, try the following code:

df2.b[rep(1, 4), -(1:2), drop = FALSE]
#        V4
# NA   NULL
# NA.1 <NA>
# NA.2 <NA>
# NA.3 <NA>
# Warning message:
# In format.data.frame(if (omit) x[seq_len(n0), , drop = FALSE] else x,  :
#   corrupt data frame: columns will be truncated or padded with NAs

df2.a[rep(1, 4), -(1:2), drop = FALSE]
#    V3 V4
# 1: NA NA
# 2: NA NA
# 3: NA NA
# 4: NA NA

Therefore, this issue is caused by [.data.frame. A section of the source code of [.data.frame is:

for (j in seq_along(x)) {
        xj <- xx[[sxx[j]]]
        x[[j]] <- if (length(dim(xj)) != 2L){
            xj[i]
        }else{ xj[i, , drop = FALSE]}
    }

here, x is the resulting data.frame to be returned. It now has columns V3 and V4 only. xx is a copy of the input data.frame (df2.b in our case). This for-loop will first assign NULL to column 1 of x. Thus, V3 is deleted at this step. Next, the for-loop assigns NULL to the column 2 of x. However, as V3 is gone, there is no column 2. Therefore, x will not be affected. That's why we get the unexpected results.

If we set df1 and df2.b to data.table, merging of them will throw an error. It seems that data.table::merge treats such cases more strictly. The error message will help us avoid getting unexpected results.


I'll try to provide an answer as complete as I can...

(When I posted the answer, I noticed I joint the party too late :D I'll leave the answer anyway as, I hope, it'll provide another interesting point of view)


DEBUG MERGE

Let's start by looking at the merge function. Specifically, the method that here gets called which is merge.data.frame (exported function of the base package).

If you debug merge.data.frame(df1,df2.b,all = TRUE), you'll see at line 124 that this gets called:

y <- y[c(m$yi, if (all.x) rep.int(1L, nxx), if (all.y) m$y.alone), 
   -by.y, drop = FALSE]

y is identical to df2.b.

Since m$yi is equal to integer(0), all.x is TRUE, and all.y is FALSE, this can be simplified to:

y[rep.int(1L, nxx), -by.y, drop = FALSE]

The output of it is:

       V2   V4
NA   NULL NULL
NA.1 <NA> <NA>
NA.2 <NA> <NA>
NA.3 <NA> <NA>
Warning message:
In format.data.frame(if (omit) x[seq_len(n0), , drop = FALSE] else x,  :
   corrupt data frame: columns will be truncated or padded with NAs

So this is the behind-the-scene "problem" that merge tells us nothing about.

Let's dig into it.

First of all the actual output is not that, that's just the default print.data.frame method that tricks our eyes.

The output of

unclass(y[rep.int(1L, nxx), -by.y, drop = FALSE])

is

$V4
NULL

attr(,"row.names")
[1] "NA"   "NA.1" "NA.2" "NA.3"

NULL doesn't get duplicated, which makes sense since you can't do a vector with two NULL

identical(c(NULL, NULL), NULL)
#> TRUE

As the warning says, the data.frame is corrupted and the printing may be faulty (which it is!).

That's because the data.frame was created in a tricky way with structure() instead of data.frame() or as.data.frame() which wouldn't have led you to that structure.

So this is the story of how you get to one column only.

The question is why?

For that we need to go look at the function [.data.frame.


DEBUG [.data.frame

Let's observe some behaviors first.

> df2.b[1,]
     V2   V4
NA NULL NULL
> df2.b[,1]
NULL
> df2.b[,1, drop = FALSE]
[1] V1
<0 rows> (or 0-length row.names)
> df2.b[1,1]
NULL
> df2.b[1,1, drop = FALSE]
data frame with 0 columns and 1 row
> df2.b[1,1:2]
     V2
NA NULL
> df2.b[c(1,1),1:2]
       V2
NA   NULL
NA.1 <NA>
Warning message:
In format.data.frame(if (omit) x[seq_len(n0), , drop = FALSE] else x,  :
   corrupt data frame: columns will be truncated or padded with NAs

The last three look pretty unexpected. In particular the last one is our case. The same we saw before.

if you try to debug:

debugonce(base:::[.data.frame)
df2.b[c(1,1),1:2]

you'll find at line 109 this code:

 for (j in seq_along(x)) {
  xj <- xx[[sxx[j]]]
  x[[j]] <- if (length(dim(xj)) != 2L) 
   xj[i]
  else xj[i, , drop = FALSE]
 }

More readable:

 for (j in seq_along(x)) {
  xj <- xx[[sxx[j]]]
  x[[j]] <- if (length(dim(xj)) != 2L) xj[i] else xj[i, , drop = FALSE]
 }

At that point, the variable are as follow:

x = list(V1 = NULL, V2 = NULL)
xx = df2.b
sxx = 1:2
i = 1:2

If you run the for loop with those variables you will get that x is:

> x
$V2
NULL

Looks like we found the source of the disappearing column.

Now, where is exactly the problem?

When j == 1, x[[j]] <- ... is equal to x$V1 <- NULL which in R allows you to delete the element V1 from a list. Therefore x becomes a list with only one element, this:

> x
$V2
NULL

When j == 2, x[[j]] doesn't exist anymore because at the first loop the first item was deleted and now only one is available. Therefore R is trying to assign a new second item, but since you can't assign a NULL as item [like this: x[[2]] <- NULL], x will not change.

Therefore you have only one column.


SUM UP

The reason why merge has a weird behavior is because you created your dataframe in an improper manner.

merge doesn't tell you that the dataframe is actually corrupted and it does stuff even when it wouldn't be supposed to.

Ultimately, it's [ and its way to deal with subsetting that defines the final loss of one of the columns.


DPLYR

Honestly, just use dplyr::full_join(df1, df2.b). It gives nothing for granted and it actually results in the error you would have expected from the beginning:

> dplyr::full_join(df1, df2.b)
Joining, by = c("V1", "V2")
Error: All columns in a tibble must be vectors.
x Column `V1` is NULL.
x Column `V2` is NULL.
x Column `V3` is NULL.
x Column `V4` is NULL.

Tags:

Merge

R

Dataframe