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16.4. Variables

In PHP, all variable names begin with a dollar sign ($). The $ is followed by an alphabetic character or an underscore, and optionally followed by a sequence of alphanumeric characters and underscores. There is no limit on the length of a variable name. Variable names in PHP are case-sensitive. Here are some examples:


In PHP, unlike in many other languages, you do not have to explicitly declare variables. PHP automatically declares a variable the first time a value is assigned to it. PHP variables are untyped; you can assign a value of any type to a variable.

PHP uses a symbol table to store the list of variable names and their values. There are two kinds of symbol tables in PHP: the global symbol table, which stores the list of global variables, and the function-local symbol table, which stores the set of variables available inside each function.

16.4.1. Dynamic Variables

Sometimes it is useful to set and use variables dynamically. Normally, you assign a variable like this:

$var = "hello";

Now let's say you want a variable whose name is the value of the $var variable. You can do that like this:

$$var = "World";

PHP parses $$var by first dereferencing the innermost variable, meaning that $var becomes "hello". The expression that's left is $"hello", which is just $hello. In other words, we have just created a new variable named hello and assigned it the value "World". You can nest dynamic variables to an infinite level in PHP, although once you get beyond two levels, it can be very confusing for someone who is trying to read your code.

There is a special syntax for using dynamic variables, and any other complex variable, inside quoted strings in PHP:

echo "Hello ${$var}";

This syntax also helps resolve an ambiguity that occurs when variable arrays are used. Something like $$var[1] is ambiguous because it is impossible for PHP to know which level to apply the array index to. ${$var[1]} tells PHP to dereference the inner level first and apply the array index to the result before dereferencing the outer level. ${$var}[1], on the other hand, tells PHP to apply the index to the outer level.

Initially, dynamic variables may not seem that useful, but there are times when they can shorten the amount of code you need to write to perform certain tasks. For example, say you have an associative array that looks like:

$array["abc"] = "Hello";
$array["def"] = "World";

Associative arrays like this are returned by various functions in the PHP modules. mysql_fetch_array() is one example. The indices in the array usually refer to fields or entity names within the context of the module you are working with. It's handy to turn these entity names into real PHP variables, so you can refer to them as simply $abc and $def. This is done as follows:

foreach($array as $index=>$value) {
  $$index = $value;

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