For developers: Extending emmeans

emmeans package, Version 1.5.3


This vignette explains how developers may incorporate emmeans support in their packages. If you are a user looking for a quick way to obtain results for an unsupported model, you are probably better off trying to use the qdrg() function.

  1. Introduction
  2. Data example
  3. Supporting rlm objects
  4. Supporting lqs objects
  5. Communication between methods
  6. Hook functions
  7. Exported methods from emmeans
  8. Existing support for rsm objects
  9. Dispatching and restrictions
  10. Exporting and registering your methods
  11. Conclusions

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Suppose you want to use emmeans for some type of model that it doesn’t (yet) support. Or, suppose you have developed a new package with a fancy model-fitting function, and you’d like it to work with emmeans. What can you do? Well, there is hope because emmeans is designed to be extended.

The first thing to do is to look at the help page for extending the package:

help("extending-emmeans", package="emmeans")

It gives details about the fact that you need to write two S3 methods, recover_data and emm_basis, for the class of object that your model-fitting function returns. The recover_data method is needed to recreate the dataset so that the reference grid can be identified. The emm_basis method then determines the linear functions needed to evaluate each point in the reference grid and to obtain associated information—such as the variance-covariance matrix—needed to do estimation and testing.

These methods must also be exported from your package so that they are available to users. See the section on exporting the methods for details and suggestions.

This vignette presents an example where suitable methods are developed, and discusses a few issues that arise.

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Data example

The MASS package contains various functions that do robust or outlier-resistant model fitting. We will cobble together some emmeans support for these. But first, let’s create a suitable dataset (a simulated two-factor experiment) for testing.

fake = expand.grid(rep = 1:5, A = c("a1","a2"), B = c("b1","b2","b3"))
fake$y = c(11.46,12.93,11.87,11.01,11.92,17.80,13.41,13.96,14.27,15.82,

The y values were generated using predetermined means and Cauchy-distributed errors. There are some serious outliers in these data.

Supporting rlm

The MASS package provides an rlm function that fits robust-regression models using M estimation. We’ll fit a model using the default settings for all tuning parameters:

fake.rlm = rlm(y ~ A * B, data = fake)

emmeans(fake.rlm, ~ B | A)
## A = a1:
##  B  emmean    SE df asymp.LCL asymp.UCL
##  b1   11.8 0.477 NA      10.9      12.8
##  b2   23.3 0.477 NA      22.4      24.2
##  b3   17.8 0.477 NA      16.9      18.7
## A = a2:
##  B  emmean    SE df asymp.LCL asymp.UCL
##  b1   14.7 0.477 NA      13.7      15.6
##  b2   24.7 0.477 NA      23.8      25.6
##  b3   20.6 0.477 NA      19.7      21.6
## Confidence level used: 0.95

The first lesson to learn about extending emmeans is that sometimes, it already works! It works here because rlm objects inherit from lm, which is supported by the emmeans package, and rlm objects aren’t enough different to create any problems.

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Supporting lqs objects

The MASS resistant-regression functions lqs, lmsreg, and ltsreg are another story, however. They create lqs objects that are not extensions of any other class, and have other issues, including not even having a vcov method. So for these, we really do need to write new methods for lqs objects. First, let’s fit a model.

fake.lts = ltsreg(y ~ A * B, data = fake)

The recover_data method

It is usually an easy matter to write a recover_data method. Look at the one for lm objects:

## function (object, ...) 
## {
##     fcall = object$call
##     recover_data(fcall, delete.response(terms(object)), object$na.action, 
##         frame = object$model, ...)
## }
## <bytecode: 0x000000001f9f22e8>
## <environment: namespace:emmeans>

Note that all it does is obtain the call component and call the method for class call, with additional arguments for its terms component and na.action. It happens that we can access these attributes in exactly the same way as for lm objects; so:

recover_data.lqs = emmeans:::recover_data.lm

Let’s test it:

rec.fake = recover_data(fake.lts)
##    A  B
## 1 a1 b1
## 2 a1 b1
## 3 a1 b1
## 4 a1 b1
## 5 a1 b1
## 6 a2 b1

Our recovered data excludes the response variable y (owing to the delete.response call), and this is fine.

Special arguments

By the way, there are two special arguments data and params that may be handed to recover_data via ref_grid or emmeans or a related function; and you may need to provide for if you don’t use the function. The data argument is needed to cover a desperate situation that occurs with certain kinds of models where the underlying data information is not saved with the object—e.g., models that are fitted by iteratively modifying the data. In those cases, the only way to recover the data is to for the user to give it explicitly, and recover_data just adds a few needed attributes to it.

The params argument is needed when the model formula refers to variables besides predictors. For example, a model may include a spline term, and the knots are saved in the user’s environment as a vector and referred to in the call to fit the model. In trying to recover the data, we try to construct a data frame containing all the variables present on the right-hand side of the model, but if some of those are scalars or of different lengths than the number of observations, an error occurs. So you need to exclude any names in params when reconstructing the data.

Many model objects contain the model frame as a slot; for example, a model fitted with lm(..., model = TRUE) has a member $model containing the model frame. This can be useful for recovering the data, provided none of the predictors are transformed (when predictors are transformed, the original predictor values are not in the model frame so it’s harder to recover them). Therefore, when the model frame is available in the model object, it should be provided in the frame argument of; then when data = NULL, a check is made on trms, and if it has no function calls, then data is set to frame. Of course, in the rarer case where the original data are available in the model object, specify that as data.

Error handling

If you check for any error conditions in recover_data, simply have it return a character string with the desired message, rather than invoking stop. This provides a cleaner exit. The reason is that whenever recover_data throws an error, an informative message suggesting that data or params be provided is displayed. But a character return value is tested for and throws a different error with your string as the message.

The emm_basis method

The emm_basis method has four required arguments:

## function (object, trms, xlev, grid, ...) 

These are, respectively, the model object, its terms component (at least for the right-hand side of the model), a list of levels of the factors, and the grid of predictor combinations that specify the reference grid.

The function must obtain six things and return them in a named list. They are the matrix X of linear functions for each point in the reference grid, the regression coefficients bhat; the variance-covariance matrix V; a matrix nbasis for non-estimable functions; a function dffun(k,dfargs) for computing degrees of freedom for the linear function sum(k*bhat); and a list dfargs of arguments to pass to dffun. Optionally, the returned list may include a model.matrix element (the model matrix for the data or a compact version thereof obtained via .cmpMM()), which, if included, enables the submodel option.

To write your own emm_basis function, examining some of the existing methods can help; but the best resource is the predict method for the object in question, looking carefully to see what it does to predict values for a new set of predictors (e.g., newdata in predict.lm). Following this advice, let’s take a look at it:

## function (object, newdata, na.action = na.pass, ...) 
## {
##     if (missing(newdata)) 
##         return(fitted(object))
##     Terms <- delete.response(terms(object))
##     m <- model.frame(Terms, newdata, na.action = na.action, xlev = object$xlevels)
##     if (!is.null(cl <- attr(Terms, "dataClasses"))) 
##         .checkMFClasses(cl, m)
##     X <- model.matrix(Terms, m, contrasts = object$contrasts)
##     drop(X %*% object$coefficients)
## }
## <bytecode: 0x00000000333960c8>
## <environment: namespace:MASS>

Based on this, here is a listing of an emm_basis method for lqs objects:

emm_basis.lqs = function(object, trms, xlev, grid, ...) { 
    m = model.frame(trms, grid, na.action = na.pass, xlev = xlev)
    X = model.matrix(trms, m, contrasts.arg = object$contrasts) 
    bhat = coef(object) 
    Xmat = model.matrix(trms, data=object$model)                      # 5
    V = rev(object$scale)[1]^2 * solve(t(Xmat) %*% Xmat)
    nbasis = matrix(NA) 
    dfargs = list(df = nrow(Xmat) - ncol(Xmat))
    dffun = function(k, dfargs) dfargs$df
    list(X = X, bhat = bhat, nbasis = nbasis, V = V,                  #10
         dffun = dffun, dfargs = dfargs)

Before explaining it, let’s verify that it works:

emmeans(fake.lts, ~ B | A)
## A = a1:
##  B  emmean    SE df lower.CL upper.CL
##  b1   11.9 0.228 24     11.4     12.3
##  b2   23.1 0.228 24     22.6     23.6
##  b3   17.8 0.228 24     17.3     18.2
## A = a2:
##  B  emmean    SE df lower.CL upper.CL
##  b1   13.9 0.228 24     13.4     14.4
##  b2   24.1 0.228 24     23.6     24.5
##  b3   20.5 0.228 24     20.0     21.0
## Confidence level used: 0.95

Hooray! Note the results are comparable to those we had for fake.rlm, albeit the standard errors are quite a bit smaller. (In fact, the SEs could be misleading; a better method for estimating covariances should probably be implemented, but that is beyond the scope of this vignette.)

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Dissecting emm_basis.lqs

Let’s go through the listing of this method, line-by-line:

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Communication between methods

If you need to pass information obtained in recover_data() to the emm_basis() method, simply incorporate it as attr(data, "misc") where data is the dataset returned by recover_data(). Subsequently, that attribute is available in emm_grid() by adding a misc argument.

Hook functions

Most linear models supported by emmeans have straightforward structure: Regression coefficients, their covariance matrix, and a set of linear functions that define the reference grid. However, a few are more complex. An example is the clm class in the ordinal package, which allows a scale model in addition to the location model. When a scale model is used, the scale parameters are included in the model matrix, regression coefficients, and covariance matrix, and we can’t just use the usual matrix operations to obtain estimates and standard errors. To facilitate using custom routines for these tasks, the emm_basis.clm function function provided in emmeans includes, in its misc part, the names (as character constants) of two “hook” functions: misc$estHook has the name of the function to call when computing estimates, standard errors, and degrees of freedom (for the summary method); and misc$vcovHook has the name of the function to call to obtain the covariance matrix of the grid values (used by the vcov method). These functions are called in lieu of the usual built-in routines for these purposes, and return the appropriately sized matrices.

In addition, you may want to apply some form of special post-processing after the reference grid is constructed. To provide for this, give the name of your function to post-process the object in misc$postGridHook. Again, clm objects (as well as polr in the MASS package) serve as an example. They allow a mode specification that in two cases, calls for post-processing. The "cum.prob" mode uses the regrid function to transform the linear predictor to the cumulative-probability scale. And the "prob" mode performs this, as well as applying the contrasts necessary to convert the cumulative probabilities into the class probabilities.

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Exported methods from emmeans

For package developers’ convenience, emmeans exports some of its S3 methods for recover_data and/or emm_basis—use methods("recover_data") and methods("emm_basis") to discover which ones. It may be that all you need is to invoke one of those methods and perhaps make some small changes—especially if your model-fitting algorithm makes heavy use of an existing model type supported by emmeans. For those methods that are not exported, use recover_data() and .emm_basis(), which run in emmeans’s namespace, thus providing access to all available methods..

A few additional functions are exported because they may be useful to developers. They are as follows:

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Existing support for rsm objects

As a nontrivial example of how an existing package supports emmeans, we show the support offered by the rsm package. Its rsm function returns an rsm object which is an extension of the lm class. Part of that extension has to do with structures whereby, as is typical in response-surface analysis, models are fitted to variables that have been linearly transformed (coded) so that the scope of each predictor is represented by plus or minus 1 on the coded scale.

Without any extra support in rsm, emmeans will work just fine with rsm objects; but if the data are coded, it becomes awkward to present results in terms of the original predictors on their original, uncoded scale. The emmeans-related methods in rsm provide a mode argument that may be used to specify whether we want to work with coded or uncoded data. The possible values for mode are "asis" (ignore any codings, if present), "coded" (use the coded scale), and "decoded" (use the decoded scale). The first two are actually the same in that no decoding is done; but it seems clearer to provide separate options because they represent two different situations.

The recover_data method

Note that coding is a predictor transformation, not a response transformation (we could have that, too, as it’s already supported by the emmeans infrastructure). So, to handle the "decode" mode, we will need to actually decode the predictors used to construct he reference grid. That means we need to make recover_data a lot fancier! Here it is:

recover_data.rsm = function(object, data, mode = c("asis", "coded", "decoded"), ...) {
    mode = match.arg(mode)
    cod = rsm::codings(object)
    fcall = object$call
    if(is.null(data))                                                 # 5
        data = emmeans::recover_data(fcall, 
                   delete.response(terms(object)), object$na.action, ...)
    if (!is.null(cod) && (mode == "decoded")) {
        pred = cpred = attr(data, "predictors")
        trms = attr(data, "terms")                                    #10
        data =, formulas = cod))
        for (form in cod) {
            vn = all.vars(form)
            if (! <- grep(vn[1], pred))) { 
                pred[idx] = vn[2]                                     #15
                cpred = setdiff(cpred, vn[1])
        attr(data, "predictors") = pred
        new.trms = update(trms, reformulate(c("1", cpred)))           #20
        attr(new.trms, "orig") = trms
        attr(data, "terms") = new.trms
        attr(data, "misc") = cod

Lines 2–7 ensure that mode is legal, retrieves the codings from the object, and obtain the results we would get from recover_data had it been an lm object. If mode is not "decoded", or if no codings were used, that’s all we need. Otherwise, we need to return the decoded data. However, it isn’t quite that simple, because the model equation is still defined on the coded scale. Rather than to try to translate the model coefficients and covariance matrix to the decoded scale, we elected to remember what we will need to do later to put things back on the coded scale. In lines 9–10, we retrieve the attributes of the recovered data that provide the predictor names and terms object on the coded scale. In line 11, we replace the recovered data with the decoded data.

By the way, the codings comprise a list of formulas with the coded name on the left and the original variable name on the right. It is possible that only some of the predictors are coded (for example, blocking factors will not be). In the for loop in lines 12–18, the coded predictor names are replaced with their decoded names. For technical reasons to be discussed later, we also remove these coded predictor names from a copy, cpred, of the list of all predictors in the coded model. In line 19, the "predictors" attribute of data is replaced with the modified version.

Now, there is a nasty technicality. The ref_grid function in emmeans has a few lines of code after recover_data is called that determine if any terms in the model convert covariates to factors or vice versa; and this code uses the model formula. That formula involves variables on the coded scale, and those variables are no longer present in the data, so an error will occur if it tries to access them. Luckily, if we simply take those terms out of the formula, it won’t hurt because those coded predictors would not have been converted in that way. So in line 20, we update trms with a simpler model with the coded variables excluded (the intercept is explicitly included to ensure there will be a right-hand side even is cpred is empty). We save that as the terms attribute, and the original terms as a new "orig" attribute to be retrieved later. The data object, modified or not, is returned. If data have been decoded, ref_grid will construct its grid using decoded variables.

In line 23, we save the codings as the "misc" attribute, to be accessed later by emm_basis().

The emm_basis method

Now comes the emm_basis method that will be called after the grid is defined. It is listed below:

emm_basis.rsm = function(object, trms, xlev, grid, 
                         mode = c("asis", "coded", "decoded"), misc, ...) {
    mode = match.arg(mode)
    cod = misc
    if(!is.null(cod) && mode == "decoded") {                          # 5
        grid =, formulas = cod)
        trms = attr(trms, "orig")
    m = model.frame(trms, grid, na.action = na.pass, xlev = xlev)     #10
    X = model.matrix(trms, m, contrasts.arg = object$contrasts)
    bhat = as.numeric(object$coefficients) 
    V =, ...)
    if (sum( > 0)                                         #15
        nbasis = estimability::nonest.basis(object$qr)
        nbasis = estimability::all.estble
    dfargs = list(df = object$df.residual)
    dffun = function(k, dfargs) dfargs$df                             #20

    list(X = X, bhat = bhat, nbasis = nbasis, V = V, 
         dffun = dffun, dfargs = dfargs, misc = list())

This is much simpler. The coding formulas are obtained from misc (line 4) so that we don’t have to re-obtain them from the object. All we have to do is determine if decoding was done (line 5); and, if so, convert the grid back to the coded scale (line 6) and recover the original terms attribute (line 7). The rest is borrowed directly from the emm_basis.lm method in emmeans. Note that line 13 uses one of the exported functions we described in the preceding section. Lines 15–18 use functions from the estimability package to handle the possibility that the model is rank-deficient.

A demonstration

Here’s a demonstration of this rsm support. The standard example for rsm fits a second-order model CR.rs2 to a dataset organized in two blocks and with two coded predictors.

example("rsm")   ### (output is not shown) ###

First, let’s look at some results on the coded scale—which are the same as for an ordinary lm object.

emmeans(CR.rs2, ~ x1 * x2, mode = "coded", 
        at = list(x1 = c(-1, 0, 1), x2 = c(-2, 2)))
##  x1 x2 emmean    SE df lower.CL upper.CL
##  -1 -2   75.0 0.298  7     74.3     75.7
##   0 -2   77.0 0.240  7     76.4     77.5
##   1 -2   76.4 0.298  7     75.6     77.1
##  -1  2   76.8 0.298  7     76.1     77.5
##   0  2   79.3 0.240  7     78.7     79.9
##   1  2   79.2 0.298  7     78.5     79.9
## Results are averaged over the levels of: Block 
## Confidence level used: 0.95

Now, the coded variables x1 and x2 are derived from these coding formulas for predictors Time and Temp:

## $x1
## x1 ~ (Time - 85)/5
## $x2
## x2 ~ (Temp - 175)/5

Thus, for example, a coded value of x1 = 1 corresponds to a time of 85 + 1 x 5 = 90. Here are some results working with decoded predictors. Note that the at list must now be given in terms of Time and Temp:

emmeans(CR.rs2, ~ Time * Temp, mode = "decoded", 
        at = list(Time = c(80, 85, 90), Temp = c(165, 185)))
##  Time Temp emmean    SE df lower.CL upper.CL
##    80  165   75.0 0.298  7     74.3     75.7
##    85  165   77.0 0.240  7     76.4     77.5
##    90  165   76.4 0.298  7     75.6     77.1
##    80  185   76.8 0.298  7     76.1     77.5
##    85  185   79.3 0.240  7     78.7     79.9
##    90  185   79.2 0.298  7     78.5     79.9
## Results are averaged over the levels of: Block 
## Confidence level used: 0.95

Since the supplied settings are the same on the decoded scale as were used on the coded scale, the EMMs are identical to those in the previous output.

Dispatching and restrictions

The emmeans package has internal support for a number of model classes. When recover_data() and emm_basis() are dispatched, a search is made for external methods for a given class; and if found, those methods are used instead of the internal ones. However, certain restrictions apply when you aim to override an existing internal method:

  1. The class name being extended must appear in the first or second position in the results of class(object). That is, you may have a base class for which you provide recover_data() and emm_basis() methods, and those will also work for direct descendants thereof; but any class in third place or later in the inheritance is ignored.
  2. Certain classes vital to the correct operation of the package, e.g., "lm", "glm", etc., may not be overridden.

If there are no existing internal methods for the class(es) you provide methods for, there are no restrictions on them.

Exporting and registering your methods

To make the methods available to users of your package, the methods must be exported. R and CRAN are evolving in a way that having S3 methods in the registry is increasingly important; so it is a good idea to provide for that. The problem is not all of your package users will have emmeans installed.

Thus, registering the methods must be done conditionally. We provide a courtesy function .emm_register() to make this simple. Suppose that your package offers two model classes foo and bar, and it includes the corresponding functions,,, and Then to register these methods, add or modify the .onLoad function in your package (traditionally saved in the source file zzz.R):

.onLoad <- function(libname, pkgname) {
    if (requireNamespace("emmeans", quietly = TRUE))
        emmeans::.emm_register(c("foo", "bar"), pkgname)

You should also add emmeans (>= 1.4) and estimability (which is required by emmeans) to the Suggests field of your DESCRIPTION file.

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It is relatively simple to write appropriate methods that work with emmeans for model objects it does not support. I hope this vignette is helpful for understanding how. Furthermore, if you are the developer of a package that fits linear models, I encourage you to include recover_data and emm_basis methods for those classes of objects, so that users have access to emmeans support.

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