An R function for computing Levenshtein distances between texts using the word as the unit of comparison


Jan Vanhove


February 17, 2022

For a new research project, we needed a way to tabulate the changes that were made to a text when correcting it. Since we couldn’t find a suitable tool, I wrote an R function that uses the Levenshtein algorithm to determine both the smallest number of words that need to be changed to transform one version of a text into another and what these changes are.

You can download the obtain_edits() function from or source it directly:


The function recognises words that were deleted or inserted, words that were substituted for other words, and cases where one word was split into two words or where two words were merged to one word. All these changes count as one operation. The algorithm determines both the smallest number of operations needed to transform one version of the text into the other and outputs a data frame that lists what these operations are.

Here’s an example:

original  <- "Check howmany changes need be made in order to change the first tekst in to the second one."
corrected <- "Check how many changes need to be made in order to change the first text into the second one."
obtain_edits(original, corrected)
[1] 4

  change_position  change_type change_from change_to
1              14       merger       in to      into
2              13 substitution       tekst      text
3               5    insertion                    to
4               2        split     howmany  how many

Note that while the minimal operation count is uniquely determined, the list of changes that were made isn’t. Consider this example:

textA <- "first secondthird"
textB <- "second third"
obtain_edits(textA, textB)
[1] 2

  change_position change_type change_from    change_to
1               2       split secondthird second third
2               1    deletion       first             

The algorithm identifies the difference from textA to textB as a matter of deleting ‘first’ and splitting up ‘secondthird’. But we could also consider it a matter of substituting ‘second’ for ‘first’ and ‘third’ for ‘secondthird’.

Nothing about stats or research design in this post, but perhaps this function is useful to someone somewhere!