An array in PHP is actually an ordered map. A map is a type that maps values to keys. This type is optimized in several ways, so you can use it as a real array, or a list (vector), hashtable (which is an implementation of a map), dictionary, collection, stack, queue and probably more. Because you can have another PHP-array as a value, you can also quite easily simulate trees.

Explanation of those structures is beyond the scope of this manual, but you'll find at least one example for each of those structures. For more information about those structures, we refer you to external literature about this broad topic.


Specifying with array()

An array can be created by the array() language-construct. It takes a certain number of comma-separated key => value pairs.

A key is either a nonnegative integer or a string. If a key is the standard representation of a non-negative integer, it will be interpreted as such (i.e. '8' will be interpreted as 8, while '08' will be interpreted as '08').

A value can be anything.

array( [key =>] value
     , ...
// key is either string or nonnegative integer
// value can be anything

Creating/modifying with square-bracket syntax

You can also modify an existing array, by explicitly setting values.

This is done by assigning values to the array while specifying the key in brackets. You can also omit the key, add an empty pair of brackets ("[]") to the variable-name in that case.
$arr[key] = value;
$arr[] = value;
// key is either string or nonnegative integer
// value can be anything
If $arr doesn't exist yet, it will be created. So this is also an alternative way to specify an array. To change a certain value, just assign a new value to it. If you want to remove a key/value pair, you need to unset() it.

Useful functions

There are quite some useful function for working with arrays, see the array-functions section.

Note: The unset() function allows unsetting keys of an array. Be aware that the array will NOT be reindexed.

$a = array( 1 => 'one', 2 => 'two', 3 => 'three' );
unset( $a[2] );
/* will produce an array that would have been defined as
   $a = array( 1=>'one', 3=>'three');
   and NOT
   $a = array( 1 => 'one', 2 => 'three');

The foreach control structure exists specificly for arrays. It provides an easy way to traverse an array.

Array do's and don'ts

Why is $foo[bar] wrong?

You might have seen the following syntax in old scripts:

$foo[bar] = 'enemy';
echo $foo[bar];
// etc

This is wrong, but it works. Then, why is it wrong? The reason is that, as stated in the syntax section, there must be an expression between the square brackets ('[' and ']'). That means that you can write things like this:

echo $arr[ foo(true) ];

This is an example of using a function return value as the array index. PHP knows also about constants, and you may have seen the E_* before.

$error_descriptions[E_ERROR] = "A fatal error has occured";
$error_descriptions[E_WARNING] = "PHP issued a warning";
$error_descriptions[E_NOTICE] = "This is just an informal notice";

Note that E_ERROR is also a valid identifier, just like bar in the first example. But the last example is in fact the same as writing:

$error_descriptions[1] = "A fatal error has occured";
$error_descriptions[2] = "PHP issued a warning";
$error_descriptions[8] = "This is just an informal notice";

because E_ERROR equals 1, etc.

Then, how is it possible that $foo[bar] works? It works, because bar is due to its syntax expected to be a constant expression. However, in this case no constant with the name bar exists. PHP now assumes that you meant bar literally, as the string "bar", but that you forgot to write the quotes.

So why is it bad then?

At some point in the future, the PHP team might want to add another constant or keyword, and then you get in trouble. For example, you already cannot use the words empty and default this way, since they are special keywords.

And, if these arguments don't help: this syntax is simply deprecated, and it might stop working some day.

Tip: When you turn error_reporting to E_ALL, you will see that PHP generates warnings whenever this construct is used. This is also valid for other deprecated 'features'. (put the line error_reporting(E_ALL); in your script)

Note: Inside a double-quoted string, an other syntax is valid. See variable parsing in strings for more details.


The array type in PHP is very versatile, so here will be some examples to show you the full power of arrays.

// this
$a = array( 'color' => 'red'
          , 'taste' => 'sweet'
          , 'shape' => 'round'
          , 'name'  => 'apple'
          ,            4        // key will be 0

// is completely equivalent with
$a['color'] = 'red';
$a['taste'] = 'sweet';
$a['shape'] = 'round';
$a['name'] = 'apple';
$a[]        = 4;        // key will be 0

$b[] = 'a';
$b[] = 'b';
$b[] = 'c';
// will result in the array array( 0 => 'a' , 1 => 'b' , 2 => 'c' ),
// or simply array('a', 'b', 'c')

Example 6-4. Using array()

// Array as (property-)map
$map = array( 'version'    => 4
            , 'OS'         => 'Linux'
            , 'lang'       => 'english'
            , 'short_tags' => true
// strictly numerical keys
$array = array( 7
              , 8
              , 0
              , 156
              , -10
// this is the same as array( 0 => 7, 1 => 8, ...)

$switching = array(         10 // key = 0
                  , 5    =>  6
                  , 3    =>  7 
                  , 'a'  =>  4
                  ,         11 // key = 6 (maximum of integer-indices was 5)
                  , '8'  =>  2 // key = 8 (integer!)
                  , '02' => 77 // key = '02'
                  , 0    => 12 // the value 10 will be overwritten by 12
// empty array
$empty = array();

Example 6-5. Collection

$colors = array('red','blue','green','yellow');

foreach ( $colors as $color ) {
    echo "Do you like $color?\n";

/* output:
Do you like red?
Do you like blue?
Do you like green?
Do you like yellow?

Note that it is currently not possible to change the values of the array directly in such a loop. A workaround is the following:

Example 6-6. Collection

foreach ($colors as $key => $color) {
    // won't work:
    //$color = strtoupper($color);
    $colors[$key] = strtoupper($color);

/* output:
    [0] => RED
    [1] => BLUE
    [2] => GREEN
    [3] => YELLOW

This example creates a one-based array.

Example 6-7. One-based index

$firstquarter  = array(1 => 'January', 'February', 'March');

/* output:
    [1] => 'January'
    [2] => 'February'
    [3] => 'March'

Example 6-8. Filling real array

// fill an array with all items from a directory
$handle = opendir('.');
while ($file = readdir($handle)) 
    $files[] = $file;

Arrays are ordered. You can also change the order using various sorting-functions. See array-functions for more information.

Example 6-9. Sorting array


Because the value of an array can be everything, it can also be another array. This way you can make recursive and multi-dimensional arrays.

Example 6-10. Recursive and multi-dimensional arrays

$fruits = array ( "fruits"  => array ( "a" => "orange"
                                     , "b" => "banana"
                                     , "c" => "apple"
                , "numbers" => array ( 1
                                     , 2
                                     , 3
                                     , 4
                                     , 5
                                     , 6
                , "holes"   => array (      "first"
                                     , 5 => "second"
                                     ,      "third"