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Sorting Multidimensional Arrays

Sorting arrays with more than one dimension, or by something other than alphabetical or numerical order, is more complicated. PHP knows how to compare two numbers or two text strings, but in a multidimensional array, each element is an array. PHP does not know how to compare two arrays, so you need to create a method to compare them. Most of the time, the order of the words or numbers is fairly obvious—but for complicated objects, it becomes more problematic.

User Defined Sorts

Here is the definition of a two-dimensional array we used earlier. This array stores Bob's three products with a code, a description, and a price for each.

$products = array( array( "TIR", "Tires", 100 ),
          array( "OIL", "Oil", 10 ),
          array( "SPK", "Spark Plugs", 4 ) );

If we sort this array, what order will the values end up in? Because we know what the contents represent, there are at least two useful orders. We might want the products sorted into alphabetical order using the description or by numeric order by the price. Either result is possible, but we need to use the function usort() and tell PHP how to compare the items. To do this, we need to write our own comparison function.

The following code sorts this array into alphabetical order using the second column in the array—the description.

function compare($x, $y)
 if ( $x[1] == $y[1] )
  return 0;
 else if ( $x[1] < $y[1] )
  return -1;
  return 1;

usort($products, compare);

So far in this book, we have called a number of the built-in PHP functions. To sort this array, we have defined a function of our own. We will examine writing functions in detail in Chapter 5, "Reusing Code and Writing Functions," but here is a brief introduction.

We define a function using the keyword function. We need to give the function a name. Names should be meaningful, so we'll call it compare(). Many functions take parameters or arguments. Our compare() function takes two, one called x and one called y. The purpose of this function is to take two values and determine their order.

For this example, the x and y parameters will be two of the arrays within the main array, each representing one product. To access the Description of the array x, we type $x[1] because the Description is the second element in these arrays, and numbering starts at zero. We use $x[1] and $y[1] to compare the Descriptions from the arrays passed into the function.

When a function ends, it can give a reply to the code that called it. This is called returning a value. To return a value, we use the keyword return in our function. For example, the line return 1; sends the value 1 back to the code that called the function.

To be used by usort(), the compare() function must compare x and y. The function must return 0 if x equals y, a negative number if it is less, and a positive number if it is greater. Our function will return 0, 1, or –1, depending on the values of x and y.

The final line of code calls the built-in function usort() with the array we want sorted ($products) and the name of our comparison function (compare()).

If we want the array sorted into another order, we can simply write a different comparison function. To sort by price, we need to look at the third column in the array, and create this comparison function:

function compare($x, $y)
 if ( $x[2] == $y[2] )
  return 0;
 else if ( $x[2] < $y[2] )
  return -1;
  return 1;

When usort($products, compare) is called, the array will be placed in ascending order by price.

The "u" in usort() stands for "user" because this function requires a user-defined comparison function. The uasort() and uksort() versions of asort and ksort also require a user-defined comparison function.

Similar to asort(), uasort() should be used when sorting an associative array by value. Use asort if your values are simple numbers or text. Define a comparison function and use uasort() if your values are more complicated objects such as arrays.

Similar to ksort(), uksort() should be used when sorting an associative array by key. Use ksort if your keys are simple numbers or text. Define a comparison function and use uksort() if your keys are more complicated objects such as arrays.

Reverse User Sorts

The functions sort(), asort(), and ksort() all have a matching reverse sort with an "r" in the function name. The user-defined sorts do not have reverse variants, but you can sort a multidimensional array into reverse order. You provide the comparison function, so write a comparison function that returns the opposite values. To sort into reverse order, the function will need to return 1 if x is less than y and –1 if x is greater than y. For example

function reverseCompare($x, $y)
 if ( $x[2] == $y[2] )
  return 0;
 else if ( $x[2] < $y[2] )
  return 1;
  return -1;

Calling usort($products, reverseCompare) would now result in the array being placed in descending order by price.

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