debugging in R with a single command

The art of debugging C++ code in R has been covered in many other places, notably including this post by Davis Vaughan, and this helpful introduction by Toby Hocking, which provides a little more detail on how to get a debugger started. The detail on starting a debugger is nevertheless brief, and only added as an aside to the main point of the post. The aim of this post is to provide a detailed reference on how to start a source code debugger in R.

This blog post will not describe details of common debugging environments, even if only because Davis Vaughan has already done such a great job of that. As he describes there, the two most common debugging environments used on Linux systems are “gdb” (the GNU Project Debugger) and “lldb”.

This whole post presumes code to be debugged is in an R package, and that all commands that follow are executed from within the root directory of that package. Debugging code from other packages requires modifying the following procedure to ensure that debug symbols are inserted within the source code of those other packages. But then it’ll generally be easier to do that from within the root directory of the package you want debugged anyway, so we’ll just presume that from here on anyway.

How to start a source-code debugger in R

Starting an R session causes a computer console to enter a dedicated computational environment where R commands can be typed, and will be appropriately interpreted and executed. Similarly, starting a source-code debugger generally results in entering a dedicated debugging environment where debugging commands can be entered in order to debug source code which has been pre-loaded into that environment.

Starting a debugger from within an R environment generally consists of the two steps of:

  1. Re-compiling source code to include debugging symbols; and then
  2. Starting an R session in “debug” mode.

Although people experienced with debugging might see these steps as trivial, they can easily prevent insurmountable challenges to anybody who has never used a source code debugger before. This post will describe a simple setup for “automating away” these two steps, and reducing them to a single command.

Re-compiling source code to include debugging symbols

While there are potentially a number of ways source code in an R package (or elsewhere) can be re-compiled with debugging symbols, perhaps the easiest is to insert the symbols within a Makevars file. These files are used to control compilation of source code. The following line in a Makevars file will insert debugging symbols when the code is re-compiled:


The code can then be compiled with an R command like pkgbuild::compile_dll(), and will then include the debug symbols needed in the debugging environment.

I have a function in my personal R package of general purpose functions, called debug() which automatically creates a Makevars file to insert these symbols (or modifies an existing file to add the symbols on to any existing compilation symbols). The following section describes how this function is used to implement a one-line command to start debugging.

Starting an R session in debug mode

As described above, R is effectively a self-contained computational environment within some other environment (such as a terminal environment, or RStudio). A debugger is also a self-contained computational environment. Unsurprisingly, this means that a debugging environment can not be started from within R, but must be started from the “host” environment from where you usually start R, such as a terminal, or a shell environment in RStudio.

Debuggers also need to be started by evaluating some specified R expression, generally specified as an external R script. This means debugging some function, f(), requires creating a simple file, say “script.R”, which calls that function. The script must include any other lines necessary for R to know how to load the function, such as library() calls, or the full function definition. For example, if I wanted to debug a function within my mpmisc package - which would be silly, because it contains no source code, but the principle applies regardless - then I would create a “script.R” file with the following lines:

library (mpmisc)
check <- increment_dev_version () # or whatever function I want debugged.

The debugger can then be started from that location by running:

R -d gdb -e 'source("script.R")'

This command calls R, and must be run within a shell environment, not from within R! The -d flag tells R to run in debug mode, and requires specifying which debugger to use, such as “gdb” as in that example, or “lldb”, or any other available debugger. The -e flag specifies a command for R to evaluate while debugging.

Putting it together in a single command

My single-command solution is implemented via a shell alias, for which is use “debugr”, which just calls a shell script:

alias debugr="bash /<path>/<to>/debug.bash"

The shell script is in my dotfiles repo, and contains these lines:


echo "---------------------------------------------------"
echo "         Debug an R script with gdb or lldb"
echo "---------------------------------------------------"

read -p "Enter name of script (empty = default 'script.R'): " SCRIPT

Rscript -e "mpmisc::debug (); pkgbuild::compile_dll()"


if [ "$SCRIPT" == "" ]; then
    R -d $DEBUGGER -e "source('script.R')"
    R -d $DEBUGGER -e "source('$SCRIPT')"

That script calls mpmisc::debug() to create or modify Makevars to include debug symbols, and then re-compiles the source object by calling pkgbuild::compile_dll(). It also includes an interactive prompt to specify the script to be used for debugging, with a default of “script.R”. I can then debug any package by creating a debug script, and then simply calling debugr to drop me straight into a debugging environment. As said at the outset, this post is only intended to describe how to get that far. See the links given at the stop for what to do once you’re there.

Originally posted: 30 Aug 22

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