R Programming/Probability Distributions

This page review the main probability distributions and describe the main R functions to deal with them.

R has lots of probability functions.

  • r is the generic prefix for random variable generator such as runif(), rnorm().
  • d is the generic prefix for the probability density function such as dunif(), dnorm().
  • p is the generic prefix for the cumulative density function such as punif(), pnorm().
  • q is the generic prefix for the quantile function such as qunif(), qnorm().

Discrete distributionsEdit

Benford DistributionEdit

The Benford distribution is the distribution of the first digit of a number. It is due to Benford 1938[1] and Newcomb 1881[2].

> library(VGAM)
> dbenf(c(1:9))
[1] 0.30103000 0.17609126 0.12493874 0.09691001 0.07918125 0.06694679 0.05799195 0.05115252 0.04575749


We can draw from a Bernoulli using sample(), runif() or rbinom() with size = 1.

> n <- 1000
> x <- sample(c(0,1), n, replace=T)
> x <- sample(c(0,1), n, replace=T, prob=c(0.3,0.7))
> x <- runif(n) > 0.3
> x <- rbinom(n, size=1, prob=0.2)


We can sample from a binomial distribution using the rbinom() function with arguments n for number of samples to take, size defining the number of trials and prob defining the probability of success in each trial.

> x <- rbinom(n=100,size=10,prob=0.5)

Hypergeometric distributionEdit

We can sample n times from a hypergeometric distribution using the rhyper() function.

> x <- rhyper(n=1000, 15, 5, 5)

Geometric distributionEdit

The geometric distribution.

> N <- 10000
> x <- rgeom(N, .5)
> x <- rgeom(N, .01)


The multinomial distribution.

> sample(1:6, 100, replace=T, prob= rep(1/6,6))

Negative binomial distributionEdit

The negative binomial distribution is the distribution of the number of failures before k successes in a series of Bernoulli events.

> N <- 100000
> x <- rnbinom(N, 10, .25)

Poisson distributionEdit

We can draw n values from a Poisson distribution with a mean set by the argument lambda.

> x <- rpois(n=100, lambda=3)

Zipf's lawEdit

The distribution of the frequency of words is known as Zipf's Law. It is also a good description of the distribution of city size[3]. dzipf() and pzipf() (VGAM)

> library(VGAM)
> dzipf(x=2, N=1000, s=2)

Continuous distributionsEdit

Beta and Dirichlet distributionsEdit



We can sample n values from a Cauchy distribution with a given location parameter   (default is 0) and scale parameter   (default is 1) using the rcauchy() function.

> x <- rcauchy(n=100, location=0, scale=1)

Chi Square distributionEdit

Quantile of the Chi-square distribution (  distribution)

> qchisq(.95,1)
[1] 3.841459
> qchisq(.95,10)
[1] 18.30704
> qchisq(.95,100)
[1] 124.3421


We can sample n values from a exponential distribution with a given rate (default is 1) using the rexp() function

> x <- rexp(n=100, rate=1)


We can draw the density of a Fisher distribution (F-distribution) :

> par(mar=c(3,3,1,1))
> x <- seq(0,5,len=1000)
> plot(range(x),c(0,2),type="n")
> grid()
> lines(x,df(x,df1=1,df2=1),col="black",lwd=3)
> lines(x,df(x,df1=2,df2=1),col="blue",lwd=3)
> lines(x,df(x,df1=5,df2=2),col="green",lwd=3)
> lines(x,df(x,df1=100,df2=1),col="red",lwd=3)
> lines(x,df(x,df1=100,df2=100),col="grey",lwd=3)
> legend(2,1.5,legend=c("n1=1, n2=1","n1=2, n2=1","n1=5, n2=2","n1=100, n2=1","n1=100, n2=100"),col=c("black","blue","green","red","grey"),lwd=3,bty="n")


We can sample n values from a gamma distribution with a given shape parameter and scale parameter   using the rgamma() function. Alternatively a shape parameter and rate parameter   can be given.

> x <- rgamma(n=10, scale=1, shape=0.4)
> x <- rgamma(n=100, scale=1, rate=0.8)


We can sample n values from a Levy distribution with a given location parameter   (defined by the argument m, default is 0) and scaling parameter (given by the argument s, default is 1) using the rlevy() function.

> x <- rlevy(n=100, m=0, s=1)

Log-normal distributionEdit

We can sample n values from a log-normal distribution with a given meanlog (default is 0) and sdlog (default is 1) using the rlnorm() function

> x <- rlnorm(n=100, meanlog=0, sdlog=1)

Normal and related distributionsEdit

We can sample n values from a normal or gaussian Distribution with a given mean (default is 0) and sd (default is 1) using the rnorm() function

> x <- rnorm(n=100, mean=0, sd=1)

Quantile of the normal distribution

> qnorm(.95)
[1] 1.644854
> qnorm(.975)
[1] 1.959964
> qnorm(.99)
[1] 2.326348
  • The mvtnorm package includes functions for multivariate normal distributions.
    • rmvnorm() generates a multivariate normal distribution.
> library(mvtnorm)
> sig <- matrix(c(1, 0.8, 0.8, 1), 2, 2)
> r <- rmvnorm(1000, sigma = sig)
> cor(r) 
          [,1]      [,2]
[1,] 1.0000000 0.8172368
[2,] 0.8172368 1.0000000

Pareto DistributionsEdit

  • Generalized Pareto dgpd() in evd
  • dpareto(), ppareto(), rpareto(), qpareto() in actuar
  • The VGAM package also has functions for the Pareto distribution.

Student's t distributionEdit

Quantile of the Student t distribution

> qt(.975,30)
[1] 2.042272
> qt(.975,100)
[1] 1.983972
> qt(.975,1000)
[1] 1.962339

The following lines plot the .975th quantile of the t distribution in function of the degrees of freedom :

curve(qt(.975,x), from = 2 , to = 100, ylab = "Quantile 0.975 ", xlab = "Degrees of freedom", main = "Student t distribution")
abline(h=qnorm(.975), col = 2)

Uniform distributionEdit

We can sample n values from a uniform distribution (also known as a rectangular distribution] between two values (defaults are 0 and 1) using the runif() function

> runif(n=100, min=0, max=1)


We can sample n values from a Weibull distribution with a given shape and scale parameter   (default is 1) using the rweibull() function.

> x <- rweibull(n=100, shape=0.5, scale=1)

Extreme values and related distributionEdit

plogis, qlogis, dlogis, rlogis

  • Frechet dfrechet() evd
  • Generalized Extreme Value dgev() evd
  • Gumbel dgumbel() evd
  • Burr, dburr, pburr, qburr, rburr in actuar

Distribution in circular statisticsEdit

  • Functions for circular statistics are included in the CircStats package.
    • dvm() Von Mises (also known as the nircular normal or Tikhonov distribution) density function
    • dtri() triangular density function
    • dmixedvm() Mixed Von Mises density
    • dwrpcauchy() wrapped Cauchy density
    • dwrpnorm() wrapped normal density.

See alsoEdit

  • Packages VGAM, SuppDists, actuar, fBasics, bayesm, MCMCpack


  1. Benford, F. (1938) The Law of Anomalous Numbers. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 78, 551–572.
  2. Newcomb, S. (1881) Note on the Frequency of Use of the Different Digits in Natural Numbers. American Journal of Mathematics, 4, 39–40.
  3. Gabaix, Xavier (August 1999). "Zipf's Law for Cities: An Explanation". Quarterly Journal of Economics 114 (3): 739–67. doi:10.1162/003355399556133. ISSN 0033-5533. http://pages.stern.nyu.edu/~xgabaix/papers/zipf.pdf.
Previous: Optimization Index Next: Random Number Generation