This is article serves mostly as internal documentation of how various representations of cell ranges relate to each other in googlesheets4.

library(tidyverse)
library(googlesheets4)

sheets_deauth()

User-specified range

Several googlesheets4 functions allow the user to specify which cells to read or write. This range specification comes via the sheet, range, and (possibly) skip arguments. Examples of functions with this interface: sheets_read(), sheets_cells(), and sheets_edit().

  • range is the primary and most powerful argument and takes precedence over all others. range can be:
    • an A1-style spreadsheet range, with or without a sheet name, such as “A3:D7” or “arts!A5:F15”
    • a (work)sheet name, such as “arts”
    • a named range, such as “arts_data”
    • a cell_limits object made with helpers from the cellranger package
  • sheet can be used to specify a (work)sheet by name, such as “arts”, or by position, such as 3
  • skip is an optional argument that appears in sheets_read() and sheets_cells(), to be compatible with functions like read.table(), readr::read_delim(), and readxl::read_excel().

(You might think n_max should also be mentioned here, but for technical reasons, in general, n_max can only be enforced after we’ve read data. So it’s not part of the range ingest problem.)

Loose ends and hangnails:

  • The story around (work)sheet visibility is muddy. But I’m letting that be, because I have yet to have a user interaction that had anything to do with sheet (in)visibility.
  • The problem of a completely unspecified range. In a very hand-wavy sense, “no range” means “all cells” or “all non-empty cells” or “all non-empty cells in the first (visible?) sheet”. That is obviously very imprecise, which means that I have to think about how to handle “no range” for each individual endpoint or function. Sometimes I inject some info (such as the first visible worksheet), so we don’t retrieve data that we will just throw away. This is all very special case-y right now.
  • cell_limits objects can hold sheet information and I have made no arrangements for that.
  • Should sheets_edit() have a skip argument, just for internal consistency?

Range spec

range_spec is an internal S3 class that is typically used inside any function that accepts the (sheet, range, skip) trio.

We need some sort of intermediate storage, in order to translate between the various ways the user can express their range and the requirements of different Sheets API endpoints (which differ more than you’d expect!). We generally require metadata about the associated Sheet in order to form a range_spec, because we potentially need to lookup the (work)sheet by position or determine whether a name refers to a named range or a (work)sheet.

The internal generic as_range_spec() dispatches on primary argument x, which maps to range. Its job is to transform user-supplied (sheet, range, skip) into:

  • sheet_name: (Work)sheet name, can be NULL.
  • named_range: Name of range, can be NULL. But if not NULL, then this is the complete specification of the range, i.e. it cannot be combined with any other information.
  • cell_range and/or cell_limits: Ways to specify a rectangle of cells, can be NULL. If user specifies skip, that is re-expressed as cell_limits. At intake, at most one of cell_range and cell_limits is populated. But internally, we might populate one from the other, as we prepare the range to meet the requirements of a specific API endpoint.
  • shim: indicates whether the user specified a specific cell rectangle (shim = TRUE) or we filled in some specifics pragmatically (shim = FALSE), which is necessary to express some partially open rectangles in A1-notation. This aspect of the user-supplied data needs to be retained to inform downstream post-processing.
  • (sheets_df and nr_df are retained in a range_spec, if they were provided to as_range_spec().)
  • Loose end: I wonder if range_spec should have a field for (work)sheet id.

Here’s how various user-specified ranges are stored as a range_spec.

sheet range skip range_spec
NULL NULL 0 sheet_name: NULL
named_range: NULL
cell_range: NULL
cell_limits: NULL
shim: FALSE
sheets_df: <provided>
nr_df: NULL
Africa NULL 0 sheet_name: Africa
named_range: NULL
cell_range: NULL
cell_limits: NULL
shim: FALSE
sheets_df: <provided>
nr_df: NULL
4 NULL 0 sheet_name: Europe
named_range: NULL
cell_range: NULL
cell_limits: NULL
shim: FALSE
sheets_df: <provided>
nr_df: NULL
NULL NULL 2 sheet_name: NULL
named_range: NULL
cell_range: NULL
cell_limits: list(ul = c(3, NA), lr = c(NA, NA), sheet = NA)
shim: FALSE
sheets_df: <provided>
nr_df: NULL
Africa NULL 3 sheet_name: Africa
named_range: NULL
cell_range: NULL
cell_limits: list(ul = c(4, NA), lr = c(NA, NA), sheet = NA)
shim: FALSE
sheets_df: <provided>
nr_df: NULL
4 NULL 4 sheet_name: Europe
named_range: NULL
cell_range: NULL
cell_limits: list(ul = c(5, NA), lr = c(NA, NA), sheet = NA)
shim: FALSE
sheets_df: <provided>
nr_df: NULL
<ignored> Asia!A1:B2 0 sheet_name: Asia
named_range: NULL
cell_range: A1:B2
cell_limits: NULL
shim: TRUE
sheets_df: <provided>
nr_df: <provided>
<ignored> canada 0 sheet_name: NULL
named_range: canada
cell_range: NULL
cell_limits: NULL
shim: FALSE
sheets_df: <provided>
nr_df: <provided>
<ignored> Europe 3 sheet_name: Europe
named_range: NULL
cell_range: NULL
cell_limits: list(ul = c(4, NA), lr = c(NA, NA), sheet = NA)
shim: FALSE
sheets_df: <provided>
nr_df: NULL
NULL A1:B2 0 sheet_name: NULL
named_range: NULL
cell_range: A1:B2
cell_limits: NULL
shim: TRUE
sheets_df: <provided>
nr_df: <provided>
Oceania A1:B2 0 sheet_name: Oceania
named_range: NULL
cell_range: A1:B2
cell_limits: NULL
shim: TRUE
sheets_df: <provided>
nr_df: <provided>
2 A1:B2 0 sheet_name: Americas
named_range: NULL
cell_range: A1:B2
cell_limits: NULL
shim: TRUE
sheets_df: <provided>
nr_df: <provided>
NULL cell_limits(c(2, 3), c(NA, 5)) 0 sheet_name: NULL
named_range: NULL
cell_range: NULL
cell_limits: list(ul = 2:3, lr = c(NA, 5), sheet = NA)
shim: TRUE
sheets_df: <provided>
nr_df: NULL
Americas cell_limits(c(2, 3), c(NA, 5)) 0 sheet_name: Americas
named_range: NULL
cell_range: NULL
cell_limits: list(ul = 2:3, lr = c(NA, 5), sheet = NA)
shim: TRUE
sheets_df: <provided>
nr_df: NULL

Cell rectangles

When a range_spec is first formed, it may hold specifics for a cell rectangle, although it does not have to. This info appears in one of these fields:

  • cell_range: an A1-style spreadsheet range, with NO sheet information
    • Examples: “A4”, “D:G”, “3:7”, “B3:H”, “C4:G16”
  • a cell_limits object, in the cellranger sense
    • Example: cell_limits(ul = c(2, 3), lr = c(NA, 5)))

A cell_limits object is, overall, a much more sane way to hold this information, because explicit NAs can be used to convey unboundedness. Some types of unboundedness simply can’t be conveyed in A1 notation, even though those partially open rectangles are as legitimate as those that can be recorded in A1 notation.

In any case, between user expectations and API idiosyncrasies, we have to be able to translate between cell_range and cell_limits.

A1 range from cell_limits

The reading functions sheets_read() and sheets_cells() hit the sheets.spreadsheets.get endpoint. Bizarrely, this endpoint requires the range to be specified in A1-notation. If the user specifies the cell rectangle in A1-notation, things are easy and we essentially just pass that along. But users can describe certain partially open cell rectangles via cell_limits that can’t be literally expressed in A1-notation. The table below shows how all possible combinations of row and cell limits are translated into an A1-style range, using technical limits on the number of rows and columns in a Google Sheet.

start_col start_row end_col end_row naive_range range
2 2 4 4 B2:D4 B2:D4
2 2 4 NA B2:D? B2:D
2 2 NA 4 B2:?4 B2:4
2 2 NA NA B2:?? B2:ZZZ
2 NA 4 4 B?:D4 B1:D4
2 NA 4 NA B?:D? B:D
2 NA NA 4 B?:?4 B1:4
2 NA NA NA B?:?? B:ZZZ
NA 2 4 4 ?2:D4 A2:D4
NA 2 4 NA ?2:D? A2:D
NA 2 NA 4 ?2:?4 2:4
NA 2 NA NA ?2:?? 2:5000000
NA NA 4 4 ??:D4 A1:D4
NA NA 4 NA ??:D? A:D
NA NA NA 4 ??:?4 1:4
NA NA NA NA ??:?? <NULL>

cell_limits from A1 range

When editing a sheet, we send an UpdateCellsRequest, which takes the location of the write via a union field. We must send one of the following:

  • start: An instance of GridCoordinate which identifies one cell. This is where the write starts and the cells hit are determined by the structure of the accompanying RowData. Think of start as specifying the upper left corner of a target rectangle. Fields:

    • sheetId: ID of the (work)sheet. The only required field.
    • rowIndex: Zero-based row index. Unspecified means 0.
    • columnIndex: Zero-based column index. Unspecified means 0.
  • range: An instance of GridRange which identifies a rectangle of cells. Fields:

    • sheetId: ID of the (work)sheet. The only required field.
    • startRowIndex: Zero-based inclusive start row. Unspecified means 0.
    • endRowIndex: Zero-based exclusive end row. Unspecified means unbounded.
    • startColumnIndex: Zero-based inclusive start column. Unspecified means
    • endColumnIndex: Zero-based exclusive end column. Unspecified means unbounded.

    All the start/end row/column indices are optional. If omitted, it means the rectangle is unbounded on that side. Unbounded on the left or top is boring, because that just amounts to starting at the first row or column. But unbounded on the right or bottom is a more interesting scenario because of this:

    If the RowData doesn’t cover the entire range rectangle, the targetted cells that don’t receive new data are cleared, according to the accompanying field mask in fields.

sheets_edit() is the only writing function in googlesheets4 that lets the user target a specific range. This function is why we need the ability to convert A1-notation to cell_limits and to decide whether user’s range should be sent via start or range. sheets_write(), sheets_create(), and sheets_append() all offer a higher-level API, focused on the holistic management of (work)sheets that hold a single data table.

Here’s a table that translates the A1-style ranges created above into cell_limits. Some scenarios are covered more than once in this input, because above we were tackling a different (harder) problem. But that’s harmless and these inputs are good, in terms of covering all relevant scenarios. Note I dropped the row corresponding to “no input”.

range cell_limits
B2:D4 <cell_limits (2, 2) x (4, 4)>
B2:D <cell_limits (2, 2) x (-, 4)>
B2:4 <cell_limits (2, 2) x (4, -)>
B2:ZZZ <cell_limits (2, 2) x (-, 18278)>
B1:D4 <cell_limits (1, 2) x (4, 4)>
B:D <cell_limits (-, 2) x (-, 4)>
B1:4 <cell_limits (1, 2) x (4, -)>
B:ZZZ <cell_limits (-, 2) x (-, 18278)>
A2:D4 <cell_limits (2, 1) x (4, 4)>
A2:D <cell_limits (2, 1) x (-, 4)>
2:4 <cell_limits (2, -) x (4, -)>
2:5000000 <cell_limits (2, -) x (5000000, -)>
A1:D4 <cell_limits (1, 1) x (4, 4)>
A:D <cell_limits (-, 1) x (-, 4)>
1:4 <cell_limits (1, -) x (4, -)>

How to decide whether to send user’s range via start or range? Possible scenarios for (sheet, range) (remember: so far, sheets_edit() doesn’t offer skip):

  • sheet not given: populate with first (visible) sheet.
  • No range: Send sheet ID as GridCoordinate via start. We will overwrite data (and usually formats) in cells covered by the accompanying data. But we don’t touch the rest of the sheet. Why not send as range? That feels too aggressive because it clears the data (and usually formats) of any cells in the sheet that are not covered by the data. But if user wants that, there’s always sheets_write().
  • range as A1 notation: Re-express it as cell_limits.
  • range as cell_limits breaks down into a couple scenarios:
    • cell_limits contains at least 1 NA: send as GridRange via range. Analysis of the “all NA” edge case: we send just the sheet ID as a GridRange, so we will clear the targeted fields for the whole sheet. This seems OK here, because no one can do this by accident, i.e. you have to go out of your way to make an explicit cell_limits object containing only NAs. Why would you do this instead of sheets_write()? Maybe you need to suppress the inclusion of col_names or you don’t like the table formatting applied by sheets_write().
    • cell_limits has no NAs: If rectangle includes more than 1 cell, send as GridRange via range. If rectangle is exactly 1 cell, send as GridCoordinate via start.