R Error more columns than column names

The “more columns than column names” error message is a tricky one because it represents a problem with a data file rather than your code. If you have no control over the data file then there is a way to use code to work around the problem however this approach is not elegant and actually requires recreating the data file or text file to make it useful.

The circumstances of this error.

The “more columns than column names” message occurs when loading a dataframe from an external data file or text file.

# r error more columns that column names

This is an example of a proper format file for a .csv data type. When it is loaded with the read.csv() function this data type works the way it is supposed to.

# more columns than column names r error
> x = read.csv(file="C:/Users/Owner/Desktop/c2020.csv")
> x
Bob_T Tom_B Sue_C Tim_M
1 5 6 4 0
2 2 8 6 8
3 4 4 4 1
4 0 3 7 3
5 3 7 5 5
6 1 9 2 6

It produces a data frame consisting of a header for the column names with the separated data in columns underneath. However, if the data or excel file is not formatted properly then you get our command line message.

What is causing this error?

The cause of the “more columns than column names” message is the improper formatting of a datafile preventing the function from properly reading the column headers. This does not involve either row names or missing values but this is a problem that can arise in a data set with multiple columns. This often happens when trying to load an excel spreadsheet into your working directory, but the input is not reading the column headers properly. You can load an excel spreadsheet into R, but you may run into some value errors like this one.

# cause of more columns than names r error
Bob_T,Tom_B Sue_C Tim_M

In this case, the excel file has spaces instead of a comma as the field separator between column names in two places. When the read.csv() function is run in this case it produces our message.

# r error message more columns than column names
> x = read.csv(file="C:/Users/Owner/Desktop/c2021.csv")
Error in read.table(file = file, header = header, sep = sep, quote = quote, :
more columns than column names

This is because it is not reading enough column names because it does not recognize the spaces as a column name field separator like it would a comma. This is what is triggering the error message.

How to fix this error.

There a two main fixes for the “more columns than column names” message. You can use the first if you have direct access to the datafile. In such a case all you have to do is open it in a text editor and make necessary corrections. That will fix the problem in a simple way by correcting the original problem. Replace the spaces with decimal commas between the character columns, and you should be on your way to a working R session.

# r error more columns than names solution
> x = read.csv(file="C:/Users/Owner/Desktop/c2021.csv", sep = '\t')
> x
1 5,6,4,0
2 2,8,6,8
3 4,4,4,1
4 0,3,7,3
5 3,7,5,5
6 1,9,2,6

This example simply inserts a second argument “sep = ‘\t'” which blocks the separation of the header line and columns resulting in a single column. Contrary to how it may look there are no blank fields but there is just one column type. After this first run, you then use the data frame to recreate the data in a properly formatted .csv file or to create a data frame in your code. This fixes the problem but it requires extra steps. However, if you cannot correct the original file this is the best option.

This error message is the result of bad formatting of a data file and it is not necessarily a problem with your code. If you have access to the data then you can simply fix it. Otherwise, you can use code to get access data so that you can put it in the proper format and that will fix the problem for you. In either case, once you have the data in its proper format you can continue to process it as needed.

R Error more columns than column names