Everything you need (and don't need) to know about PHP's type system

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PHP is a dynamically typed scripting language and until the year of 2015 php had no support for statically declared types at all. One could cast to scalar types explicitly in the code, but declaring scalar types in methods and functions signatures wasn't a thing until PHP 7.0 with the Scalar Type Declarations and Return Type Declarations rfcs.

This doesn't mean that from version 7.0 PHP became a statically typed language, though. It has type hinting that can be analyzed statically but it still supports dynamic types and even allows them to be mixed. See the example below:

<?php

function returnsInt(): int
{
  return '100';
}

No doubt that there's a type mismatch there. The return type is supposed to be int and the returned type is in fact a string. Now, what PHP does there is to automatically transform the token '100' into an integer in order to return the required type. Even though it seems to have an extra cost, it doesn't. PHP's type juggling is nearly cost-free in many cases.

To better clarify how the language deals with types I'll split this article into the following sections:

If you have suggestions on what to add here, feel free to reach out to me on twitter or opening an issue on github.

Aahh!! If you like this kind of content, you'll certainly enjoy my post about How the Just In Time compiler works. Just open in another tab and check it out later, you won't regret 😉


Kinds of types in php

PHP's type system is very simplified when it comes to language features. For example there's no char type, or unsigned types or even int8, int16, int32, int64...

The char type is simplified to a string type and all integer variations are simplified into an integer type. Whether that's a good or bad thing, is up to you.

One can always inspect a variable's type using the gettype() function or using the var_dump() function and checking its output.

PHP comes with three different kinds of types: scalar types, compound types and special types.

Scalar types

Scalar types are the bare bones of the language and they are four:

By definition scalar types do not carry behaviour or state with themselves. Expressions like 100->toString() or 'thephp.website'::length() are invalid.

Main takeaway: scalar values do not have behaviour or state, they just represent a value.

Compound types

Compound types are much more interesting because even though they are very similar to the scalar type, each one of the four compound types carry different syntactic capabilities.

The four compound types are:

The array compound type

An array is in fact a hashmap, built-in to the language. Meaning that it stores values in a key => value manner. Even if you use it purely as a vector.

Arrays are very flexible structures when it comes to size, internal types and key-value mapping. The examples below are all valid arrays:

<?php

$vec = [0, 1, 2];
// $vec[1] is int(1)

$map = ['a' => 1, 'b' => 2];
// $map['a'] is int(1)

$map_ish = ['a' => 1, 0 => 2];
// $map_ish['a'] is int(1)
// $map_ish[0] => is int(2)

Unlike C, php won't require you to define an array's size before creating it. This of course comes with a memory consumption cost: the bigger your array size, the more memory you'll consume in crazy proportions (in fact, arrays are allocated in powers of two). How this consumption works is out of the scope of this article, feel free to ping me if you'd like to hear more.

In case you're curious about this statement, the video below presents some charts and further insights on arrays vs. object memory profiles.

As you'll see bellow, arrays are also considered to be of type iterable, meaning that you can iterate over them using a foreach loop. But they also provide specific functions that can manipulate their internal pointers.

Main takeaway: array is an extremely flexible compound type that can be perceived as a HashMap and is also considered an iterable type.

The object compound type

Due to php's architecture, the object compound type normally has a much lower memory consumption profile when compared with arrays. That's because normally one would use the object type by creating instances of classes.

Objects can carry state and behaviour. Meaning that php will offer dereferencing language structs to access an object's internals. The snippet below illustrates a php object's derefs:

<?php

class MyClass
{
  private const A = 1;
  public int $property = 0;
  public function method(): void {}
}

$obj = new MyClass();
// $obj is object(MyClass)
// $obj::A is int(1)
// $obj->property is int(0)
// $obj->method() is null

An object can also be normally created as a result of a type cast from an array. Transforming an array's keys into objects property names. Such cast will always result in an object(stdClass) type.

<?php

$obj = (object) ['a' => 1];
// $obj is object(stdClass)
// $obj->a is int(1)

Important to notice that casting an array with numeric keys into an object is valid, but one can't dereference its value because property names may not start with numbers.

<?php

$obj = (object) [0, 1]; // Legal
$obj->0; // Illegal

Main takeaway: objects normally have lower memory profiles than arrays, they carry state and behaviour and can be created by casting an array.

The callable compound type

A callable in php is anything that can be called (oh don't you say!!) with parenthesis or with the call_user_func() function. In other words, a callable can fulfil the responsibility of what we know as functions. Functions and methods are always callables. Objects and classes may also become callables.

A callable can, by definition, have its reference stored in a variable. Like the following:

<?php

$callable = 'strlen';

What? But that's a string, no?

Well, yes. But it can be coerced into a callable if necessary. Like below:

<?php

function callACallable(
  callable $f
): int {
  return $f('thephp.website');
}

$callable = 'strlen';

var_dump(
  $callable('thephp.website')
);
// int(14)

var_dump(
  callACallable($callable)
);
// int(14)

Callables may also point to object methods:

<?php

class MyClass
{
  public function myMethod(): int
  {
    return 1;
  }
}

$obj = new MyClass();
var_dump([$obj, 'myMethod']());
// int(1)

Looks odd? I know it looks like an array. In fact it is. Unless you name it a callable 👀

This kind of callable above (object-method reference) is very interesting because you can call private or protected methods with it if you're inside the class' scope. Otherwise you may only call public methods with it.

Also classes that implement the __invoke() magic method, automatically transform their instances into callables themselves. Like the following:

<?php

class MyCallableClass
{
  public function __invoke(): int
  {
    return 1;
  }
}

$obj = new MyCallableClass();
var_dump($obj());
// int(1)

Main takeaway: callables hold reference to functions or methods and can be constructed in different ways.

The iterable compound type

Iterables are simpler to explain: they are by definition an array or an instance of the Traversable interface. The main thing of an iterable is that it can be used in a foreach() loop, with a yield from statement or with spread operator.

Examples of iterables are:

<?php

function generator_function(): Generator
{
  // ...
};

// All variables here are iterables
$a = [0, 1, 2];
$b = generator_function();
$c = new ArrayObject();

Main takeaway: if you can fit it in a foreach(), it is an iterable.

Special Types

There are two special types. And the biggest reason why they're called special, is that you can't cast these types. The special types are both the resource type and the NULL type.

A resource represents a handle to an external resource. It can be a file handle, an I/O stream or a database connection handle. You may guess now why you can't convert a resource to any other type.

The null type represents a null value. Meaning that a variable holding NULL was not initialized, assigned to NULL or unset during runtime.

Main takeaway: a special typed value can't be casted to anything.

What about class instances?

Class instances have the type object and will always be presented like so. Executing gettype() on an object will always return a string("object") and calling var_dump() on an object will always print its value using the object(ClassName) notation. If you need to fetch an object's class as a string, use the get_class() function.

<?php

$obj = new stdClass();

echo gettype($obj);
// object

var_dump($obj);
// object(stdClass)#1 (0) {
// ...

echo get_class($obj);
// \stdClass

Type "operations" in php

There are different "operations" one can do with PHP when it comes to types. I believe it is important to clearly state them here so that we don't mix things up later on.

Type juggling: type casting and coercion

Before we dive in, here are three important definitions we need keep in mind:

  1. Type conversion means to transform a type from A to B. For example: from integer to float.
  2. Type cast means to manually or explicitly convert a type from A to B. As in $hundred = (int) 100.0. (float(100.0) became int(100))
  3. Type coercion means to implicitly convert a type from A to B. As in $twenty = 10 + '10 bananas';. (string("10 bananas") became int(10))

Being that said, the following sections explain how it happens in php. Later on you'll find more information on Type Juggling.

Type casting

Similar to what Java does, php allows type casting. Meaning that when a variable points to a value that can be casted to a different type, it allows manual (explicit) type conversion.

Wait, wait. What!? 🤨

Given a variable $hundred holding a string("100") its value may be manually converted (casted) to become an int(100) or a float(100.00) - or any other scalar type or one of compound types array or object.

The following snippet works just fine in PHP and is very similar to Java:

<?php

$hundred = (int) '100';
// $hundred is now int(100)

Now, one thing Java does and is completely illegal on php code, is to convert (cast) a variable pointer into a different class. Meaning that we can only cast into scalar and some compound types in php:

<?php

class MyClass {}

// Yields a parse error
$illegal = (MyClass) new stdClass();

Important to notice! Type casting in php is allowed into scalar types only*. Meaning that casting an object into a different class instance is illegal, but casting an object into a scalar type is completely valid.

It is also possible to cast values into array or object types, which aren't considered scalar types but compound types (naming is really tough, huh?).

<?php

class MyClass {}

$obj = new MyClass();
$one = (int) $obj; // int(1)

The code above generates some notices but is still valid. Later on I'll explain where this int(1) value came from.

Main takeaway: php allows casts into scalar types, arrays or objects. Class casting is not allowed.

Type coercion

Type coercion happens as a side-effect of working with mismatched or undeclared types. It is explained in depth later on in this article. For now just know that php will automatically cast types in your code during runtime when necessary.

An example of type coercion can be multiplying an integer by a float number. The expression int(100) multiplied by a float(2.0) results in a float(200) value.

<?php

var_dump(100 * 2.0);
// float(200)

Main takeaway: php has a mechanism to normalize types in runtime implicitly and you should always watch out for it.

Type hinting

Type hinting is both a coercion enforcement and a strict typing mechanism. It was introduced to php language in version 7.0 and affects function and method signatures. Since php 7.4 it is also possible to type-hint class properties.

Here's an example of type hint:

<?php

function sum(
  int $a,
  int $b
): int {
  return $a + $b;
}

The hints here say that variable $a is naturally or coerced of type int, the variable $b is naturally or coerced of type int and the result of this function is naturally or coerced of type int.

Did you notice how I used "naturally or coerced" above? That's because PHP won't complain if you call this function with non-integer values. In fact, it will attempt to implicitly convert (coerce) your parameters into integers if they aren't already.

In this function's body you can always trust that $a and $b are integers. But that they will have the expected integers, will depend on the function's caller.

<?php

function sum(
  int $a,
  int $b
): int {
  // $a is int(10)
  // $b is int(10)
  return $a + $b;
}

sum('10 apples', '10 bananas');

It is also possible to use a php directive named strict_types to avoid coercions and simply raise errors when a type mismatch occurs. Like the following:

<?php

declare(strict_types=1);

function sum(
  int $a,
  int $b
): int {
  return $a + $b;
}

sum('10 bananas', '10 apples');
// PHP Fatal error: Uncaught
// TypeError: Argument 1 passed
// to sum() must be of the type
// int, string given

It doesn't mean that php is statically typed when strict types are switched on! In fact, type hinting only adds processing overhead to the php engine. Internally it will always perform type juggling and won't ever trust your variable type hints.

Type hints only serve two purposes: define into which types a value should be coerced into OR to raise fatal errors when strict types are switched on.

Main takeaway: type hinting gives mere hints about types to the engine, not orders. Being strict about typing is your choice and will bring a small overhead with it.

Union Types

Before we move to type juggling I'd like to quickly talk about Union Types because it seems to make more sense here.

Besides all three types php has (scalar, compound and special) the php manual also mentions a pseudo-type which exists for readability purposes only. This type doesn't really exist, is just a convention.

I want you to pay attention to one very specific pseudo-type: the array|object pseudo-type is often used in the documentation to specify parameters or return types.

The iterable type is also a kind-of Union Type. It can be defined as array|Traversable.

Since php 7.1 the language added a kind-of support to union types by introducing the nullable types. If you really think about a nullable type is just an union of T|null. For example ?int means int|null.

I bet you never thought about that before! 😝

So after so many unknown union types, php 8.0 comes with a proper Union Types feature. Where you can define any union you need without having to depend on pseudo-types or conventions. It works like this:

<?php

declare(strict_types=1);

function divide(
  int $a,
  int $b
): int|float {
  return $a / $b;
}

The above function may return an integer or a float. But never anything else.

PHP's type juggling

Probably it isn't the first time you've heard the term Type Juggling, is it? This is one of the most important core features php offers and yet it is one of the least understood ones.

I can't blame people for not knowing it. It is called "juggling" for a reason. There are so many variations of what a variable type can be in each context that it can become quite cumbersome to understand with which type you're dealing.

Let's start with the following statement: php does not support explicit type definition in variable declaration. And this is very powerful!

Whenever you declare a variable php will infer which type it should contain based on its assignment. While $var; creates a variable with a NULL value, $one = 1; creates an integer and $obj = new stdClass() creates an object(stdClass).

There's no type definition at all! PHP tries its best to guess what type should be attributed to a variable.

PHP variables are very dynamic, to the point they may change type in runtime without any trouble! The code below is valid:

<?php

$var;
// $var is NULL

$var = 1;
// $var is int(1)

$var = 'thephp.website';
// $var is string("thephp.website")

$var = new stdClass();
// $var is object(stdClass)

And because variables are so dynamic many operations in php require the engine to check their values based on the operation's context. An expression like sum (a + b) will internally check for the first operand's type and later on guess the second operand's type.

Take a look at this snippet from php's source code. If op1 is long (a is integer) then check if op2 is long (b is integer). If so, perform a long sum otherwise check if op2 is double and perform a double sum if yes. And this expression may return an integer or a float.

That's why you can simply take for granted that type juggling will happen automatically.

This also means that type coercion (implicit casts) will also happen automatically. But they aren't supposed to be a surprise! There are very specific moments where a type coercion may occur.

Type coercions (and therefore juggling) may occur:

You might be thinking: well, if coercions are everywhere then how does php handle incompatible types? Converting an integer to a boolean seems ok, but an array to integer sounds a bit awkward already.

Well, php has very well defined rules for type casting. The first thing necessary is to understand what is the resulting type supposed to be and later on evaluate the casting.

For example, if an expression occurs inside an if() statement we can quickly realize that the expression should yield a boolean value.

<?php

$var = 100;
// $var is int(100)

// $var is treated as bool
// and evaluates to TRUE
if ($var) {
  // $var is still int(100)
}

// $var is still int(100)

Notice how $var was int(100) during its entire lifetime, but got treated as bool(TRUE) inside that if() statement. That's because the if() statement expects an expression that evaluates to boolean as result. The type juggling is exactly what php does under the hood for you.

To illustrate, here goes the decision tree for converting a type to boolean. Boolean conversion will return false when the original value is:

And it will return true for everything else.

The above table can be found in the "Converting to boolean" section of the manual.

A complete documentation on type comparisons and conversion tables can also be found in the language manual. I don't have the courage to read it myself, but is part of my job to make it available here 🤷🏻‍♀️

Important note here: in php 8.0 union types were introduced to the language bringing an extra layer of complexity. Type juggling, when dealing with union types, must follow a precedence. And this precedence is well-defined, instead of based on type order.

So if you're not using strict_types your union types will follow this rule. If the union type doesn't contain the subject's type, it may coerce its value in the following order of precedence: int, float, string and bool.

For example:

<?php

function f(
  int|string $v
): void {
  var_dump($v);
}

f(""); // string IS in the union type
// string("")

f(0); // int IS in the union type

f(0.0); // float ISN'T in the union type
// int(0)

f([]); // array ISN'T in the union type
// Uncaught TypeError:
// f(): Argument #1 ($v)
// must be of type string|int

In the above example something very interesting happens! The array type won't be converted to a bool(FALSE). It raises a TypeError instead!

PHP type modes

You have already realized that there are two ways php can handle types. One way is called "Coercive Type Mode" with all these juggling and guessing games happening. The other way is the "Strict Type Mode" where juggling and guessing still happens, but when explicitly defined types are set, some TypeErrors will be thrown if type mismatches happen.

Now, I see it as a very common thing that php developers expect the engine to respect the Law of Equivalent Exchange (等価交換法), and pay our effort of strictly typing everything with a performance boost, because then it will be finally able to bypass all type checks and perform operations right away.

While I see the reason why someone might think this way, I must tell you: it is completely wrong! Let's check the following the strlen() logic in php's source code.

Every time we need to check whether we're using strict mode, we get the boolean value from EX_USES_STRICT_TYPES(). If true, we're in strict mode. If false, we're in coercive mode.

Now, check the snippet again! It starts like this:

// ...
zval *value;

value = GET_OP1_ZVAL_PTR_UNDEF(BP_VAR_R);
// value is the parameter of
// strlen()

if (EXPECTED(
  Z_TYPE_P(value) == IS_STRING
)) {
  ZVAL_LONG(
    EX_VAR(
      opline->result.var
    ),
    Z_STRLEN_P(value)
  );
  FREE_OP1();
  ZEND_VM_NEXT_OPCODE();
} else {
  // ...
}

Do you see that first if() statement there? Guess what it is doing... EXACTLY! It checks for your parameter's type!!

Do you know what this snippet is doing with your type hints? NOTHING! 🤣

The else clause holds the interesting stuff that MIGHT use the strict types or not.

// ...
} else {
  // Looks promising
  zend_bool strict;

  // 😭
  if (
    (OP1_TYPE & (IS_VAR|IS_CV)) &&
    Z_TYPE_P(value) == IS_REFERENCE
  ) {
      // ...
  }

  // ...

  // 👀
  strict = EX_USES_STRICT_TYPES();
  do {
    if (EXPECTED(!strict)) {
      // ...
    }
    zend_internal_type_error(
      strict,
      /*...*/
    );
    ZVAL_NULL(
      EX_VAR(opline->result.var)
    );
  } while (0);
}

From the snippet above we can see an example of how the strict mode doesn't cut any processing. In fact, it creates a couple of extra checks with a single purpose: to raise fatal errors.

I'm not saying it is a bad implementation. I'm personally very happy with it. But I think it is important to make it clear that it won't affect performance positively.

Main takeaway: strict types won't make your code faster!

Closing Thoughts

This article was a big quest. I'm seriously thinking about writing a book. This page alone would make up for 15% of a good-sized book already 😂

I hope the information I've collected here is useful for you. And if not, at least interesting.

I believe php's type system is incredibly rich and carries many innovative and legacy features and they all make much sense when you look at the history of the language development.

As usual, feel free to ping me on twitter if you have anything to say. Open an issue or pull request and be happy.

Main takeaway: it took me an incredible amount of time to write this article. If you'd like to show any kind of support, please share it in your social media and social circles 🙏

See you next time! Cheers!