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How to find strings in a very large array of data?

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Steven on 20 Nov 2019
Edited: per isakson on 23 Nov 2019
I have a csv file containing a large number of numbers and a few random strings like 'zgdf'. I need to find them and set them to zero. I cannot use 'csvread' (due to strings), so I use 'textscan' to read the file.
I then turn the data to digits using str2double. MATLAB then turns the string values to NaN which is fine for me, but it takes a long time, specially because this has to be done for many similar files.
Any faster method to sort this out?
This is how I read the data (original file has two columns and large number or rows):
fileID = fopen(filename);
C = textscan(fileID,'%s %s','Delimiter',',');
for i = 1: length (C{1})
D(i) = str2double(C{1}{i});


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Steven on 21 Nov 2019
Thanks for your message.
I might have, not entirely sure.
Assuming that I know what the strings are, how do I do that in textscan?
And then when it treats them as empty, I don't think I can assign them to an array, right? How to deal with that empty cell then?
Adam Danz
Adam Danz on 21 Nov 2019
Knowing your matlab relase is usually helpful which is why it's included as an optional field when you're forming a question in this forum.
I've confirmed that the loop method of str2double() is indeed faster than the direct application to the cell array. Sometimes loops are faster.
See method 3 in my answer which applies your sscanf idea and avoids the error you described.
See method 4 for a FEX function that is like str2double() but much faster.
Method 5 is very fast but requires r2019a.
Lastly, whenever you build a variable within a loop, always pre-allocate the variable. Not pre-allocating the variable will definitely slow down your code.
Ridwan Alam
Ridwan Alam on 21 Nov 2019
I have updated my answer with the syntax for textscan with "TreatAsEmpty" option. It returns NaN in place of those known noisy chars. Using the ["EmptyValue",0] option will return 0 instead of NaN.
Not sure how much speed up will that do though :(

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Accepted Answer

Adam Danz
Adam Danz on 20 Nov 2019
Edited: Adam Danz on 21 Nov 2019
[This answer has been reorganized following the discussion in the comment section under the question]
Method 1
fid = fopen('myCSVfile.csv');
C = textscan(fid,'%s %s','Delimiter',',');
A = str2double(C{1}); % Faster than doing the same thing in a loop.
[update] the loop method below is actually faster
A = zeros(size(C{1})); % <--- always pre-allocate!
for i = 1:numel(C{1})
A = str2double(C{1}{i});
Method 2
Try this modification of the script produced by ImportData tool. Rather than importing your data and then converting it using str2double(), this imports the data as numeric and replaces non-numeric elements with NaN. I think it should be faster than your approach but I doubt it is much faster (or maybe it's not faster at all).
The only 2 variables you'll need to change to adapt to your data are
  • file (the filename, or, preferably, the full path to your file)
  • The NumerVariables value (number of columns of data)
%% Setup the Import Options and import the data
file = "C:\Users\name\Documents\MATLAB\myCSVfile.csv"; % Full path to your file (or just file name)
opts = delimitedTextImportOptions("NumVariables", 2); % Number of columns of data
opts.VariableTypes(:) = {'double'}; % read in all data as double (nan for strings)
opts.Delimiter = ",";
opts.ExtraColumnsRule = "ignore";
opts.EmptyLineRule = "read";
Data = readtable(file, opts); % Read in as table
Data = Data{:,:}; % Convert to matrix
Method 3
D = zeros(size(C{1})); % <--- pre-allocate!
for j = 1: length (C{1})
s = sscanf(C{1}{j},'%f');
if ~isempty(s)
D(j) = s;
This is 4.5x faster than method 1.
Method 4
This FEX function is designed to overcome the slow speed of str2double()
Method 5
A very fast solution is to read the data in using readmatrx() which automatically converts non-numeric elements to NaN but it requires r2019a.
file = 'myCSVfile.csv';
D = readmatrix(file); %that's it, just 2 lines


Ridwan Alam
Ridwan Alam on 21 Nov 2019
I also don't have readmatrix(). Time to upgrade!
Steven on 21 Nov 2019
Thanks Adam,
I tried on 2018b and Method 2 was much faster! Thanks.
On my PC, this is how long each took for a given file:
Method 1: 5.8 s
Method 2: 0.6 s
Method 3: 3.1 s
I couldn't check method 5 though.
Great experience!
Thanks guys

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More Answers (2)

Ridwan Alam
Ridwan Alam on 20 Nov 2019
Edited: Ridwan Alam on 21 Nov 2019
Given, the list of noise is {'a', 'b', 'ee'}:
C = cell2mat(textscan(fileID,'%f %f','Delimiter',',','TreatAsEmpty',{'a','b','ee'},'EmptyValue',0));
Try this!!
%% Old Answer
Updated using Method 1 from Adam:
C = textscan(fileID,'%s %s','Delimiter',',');
C = [str2double(C{1}) str2double(C{2})];
C(isnan(C)) = 0;


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Adam Danz
Adam Danz on 21 Nov 2019
Right, if you know the strings in the file ahead of time you can list them in the TreatAsEmpty value. I assume the strings are not known prior to reading in the file.
Ridwan Alam
Ridwan Alam on 21 Nov 2019
Sure, Steven. Please vote up if you liked the conversation. Thanks!

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per isakson
per isakson on 21 Nov 2019
Edited: per isakson on 23 Nov 2019
"random strings like 'zgdf'" If that means letters of the US alphabet, this code is rather fast.
chr = fileread('cssm.txt');
chr = regexprep( chr, '[A-Za-z]+', '0.0' );
cac = textscan( chr, '%f%f', 'Delimiter',',', 'CollectOutput',true );
num = cac{1};
>> num(1:10,:)
ans =
0.81472 0.15761
0 0.97059
0.12699 0.95717
0.91338 0.48538
0.63236 0.80028
0.09754 0.14189
0.2785 0
0.54688 0.91574
0 0.79221
0.96489 0.95949
Where cssm.txt contains
0.81472, 0.15761
abc , 0.97059
0.12699, 0.95717
0.91338, 0.48538
0.63236, 0.80028
0.09754, 0.14189
0.27850, def
0.54688, 0.91574
zgdf , 0.79221
0.96489, 0.95949
et cetera
In response to comments
See the caveat in the first line of my answer.
I fail to find a regular expression for "not a legal number" and if one exists it might not be that fast.
It's straight forward to add a few (many becomes impractical) characters, e.g. '^â', and make sure that the string is followed by comma or end of line.
>> chr = regexprep( '12.3, abc, g^â, 1.0e5, def ', '(?m)[A-Za-zâ^]+(?=\x20*\r?(,|$))', '0.0' )
chr =
'12.3, 0.0, 0.0, 1.0e5, 0.0 '
Look ahead, e.g. '(?=\x20*\r?(,|$))', is reasonable fast, but look behind sometimes ruins the performance.
The above regex fails for 'def1', '1deg' and '10a'
fileread in combination with CRLF as newline character poses a problem when using regular expressions. The anchor $ doesn't recognise CRLF as newline. (Please tell me if I missed something.) The best way to avoid this problem is to replace fileread by a function that uses
[fid, msg] = fopen( filespec, 'rt' );
chr = fread( fid, inf, '*char' );


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Steven on 21 Nov 2019
Thanks Per.
Sometimes, characters include something like "g^â".

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