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The Building Blocks of PHP

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This chapter covers some of the nuts and bolts of the PHP scripting language, including a few PHP-specific features with regards to global variables, data types, and changing types.
This chapter is from the book

In this chapter, you will get your hands dirty with some of the nuts and bolts of the PHP scripting language. Those of you new to programming might feel overwhelmed at times, but don’t worry—you can always refer to this chapter later on. Concentrate on understanding the concepts, rather than memorizing the features covered, because these elements will be repeated throughout the scripts in this book. Eventually you’ll get it, if not the first time!

If you’re already an experienced programmer, you should at least skim this chapter because it covers a few PHP-specific features with regards to global variables, data types, and changing types.

In this chapter, you will learn

  • About variables—what they are, why you need to use them, and how to use them
  • How to define and access variables
  • About data types
  • About some of the more commonly used operators
  • How to use operators to create expressions
  • How to define and use constants


A variable is a special container that you can define, which will then “hold” a value, such as a number, string, object, array, or a Boolean. Variables are fundamental to programming. Without variables, you would be forced to hard-code each specific value used in your scripts. The following hard-coded statement adds two numbers together and prints the result, which solves a simple mathematics problem:

echo (2 + 4);

However, this snippet of code is useful only for people who specifically want to know the sum of 2 and 4. To get past this limitation, you could write a script for finding the sum of another set of numbers, say 3 and 5. However, this approach to programming is clearly absurd, and this is where variables come into play.

Variables allow you to create templates for operations, such as adding two numbers, without worrying about the specific values the variables represent. Values will be given to the variables when the script is run, possibly through user input, through a database query, or from the result of another action earlier in the script. In other words, variables should be used whenever the data in your script is liable to change—either during the lifetime of the script, or when it is passed to another script for later use.

A variable consists of a name of your choosing, preceded by a dollar sign ($). Variable names can include letters, numbers, and the underscore character (_), but they cannot include spaces. Names must begin with a letter or an underscore. The following list shows some legal variables:





A semicolon (;)—also known as the instruction terminator—is used to end a PHP statement. The semicolons in the previous fragment of code are not part of the variable names, but are used to end the statement that declares the variable as “alive and kicking,” if you will. To declare a variable, you need only include it in your script. When you declare a variable, you usually assign a value to it in the same statement, as shown here:

$num1 = 8;

$num2 = 23;

The preceding lines declare two variables and use the assignment operator (=) to assign values to them. You will learn about assignment in more detail in the “Operators and Expressions” section later in this chapter. After you assign values to your variables, you can treat them exactly as if they were the values themselves. In other words

echo $num1;

is equivalent to

echo 8;

as long as $num1 is assigned a value of 8.

Globals and Superglobals

In addition to the rules for naming variables, there are rules regarding the availability of variables. In general, the assigned value of a variable is present only within the function or script where it resides. For example, if you have scriptA.php that holds a variable called $name with a value of joe, and you want to create scriptB.php that also uses a $name variable, you can assign to that second $name variable a value of jane without affecting the variable in scriptA.php. The value of the $name variable is local to each script, and the assigned values are independent of each other.

However, you can also define the $name variable as global within a script or function. If the $name variable is defined as a global variable in both scriptA.php and scriptB.php, and these scripts are connected to each other (that is, one script calls the other or includes the other), there will only be one value for the now-shared $name variable. Examples of global variable scope will be explained in more detail in Chapter 7, “Working with Functions.”

In addition to global variables of your own creation, PHP has several predefined variables called superglobals. These variables are always present, and their values are available to all your scripts. Each of the following superglobals is actually an array of other variables:

  • $_GET contains any variables provided to a script through the GET method.
  • $_POST contains any variables provided to a script through the POST method.
  • $_COOKIE contains any variables provided to a script through a cookie.
  • $_FILES contains any variables provided to a script through file uploads.
  • $_SERVER contains information such as headers, file paths, and script locations.
  • $_ENV contains any variables provided to a script as part of the server environment.
  • $_REQUEST contains any variables provided to a script via GET, POST, or COOKIE input mechanisms.
  • $_SESSION contains any variables that are currently registered in a session.

The examples in this book will use superglobals wherever possible. Using superglobals within your scripts is important in creating secure applications because superglobals reduce the likelihood of user-injected input to your scripts. By coding your scripts to accept only what you want, in the manner defined by you (from a form using the POST method, or from a session, for example), you can eliminate some of the problems created by loosely written scripts.

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