Ternary operators in PHP (?:) - condition in one line

26. 11. 2019

Obsah článku

The ternary operator allows you to shorten a simple condition into a single line in a place where parsing is unnecessary, complex, or outright inappropriate.


The ternary operators are shorthand for if and else conditions, so you don't need to use them. They are useful for ever repeating pieces of verification logic. Always use the format (condition ? positive logic : negative logic) including parentheses. Use for short verification to make the code clearer and shorter.

Basic definitions

Often we have a condition of the form, for example:

$a = 5;
$b = 3;
if ($a > $b) {
echo 'It's bigger';
} else {
echo 'It's smaller';

So if we want to write just one simple sentence, we have to use 4 lines of code, which could be reduced to one.

$a = 5;
$b = 3;
echo 'It is' . ($a > $b ? 'larger' : 'smaller');

Generally, the ternary operator is written using 3 parts (that is why it is called "ternary"):

(condition ? 'yes' : 'from')

Ternary operators are used very often in practice, for example to denote even rows in a table:

$pole = [3, 1, 4, 1, 5, 9, 2];
for ($i = 0; $pole[$i]; $i++) {
echo '<tr class=""' . ($i % 2 ? 'from' : 'even') . '">';
// This is somehow working with a spreadsheet...
// for example: echo '<td>' . $field[$i] . '</td>';
echo '</tr>';

Example of using the ternary operator

Quite often we need to check the existence of a variable value and use it immediately if necessary. If it doesn't exist, we want to return the default value.

The classical approach is to do it like this:

$a = 5;
$b = 8;
$c = $a ? $a : $b;

If the variable $a exists, use $a as the value, otherwise $b.

However, sometimes we get the value from a function:

$a = 5;
$b = 3;
$default = 42;
$c = my_function($a, $b) ? my_function($a, $b) : $default;

This method of calling is very inefficient in terms of system resources. First, the function must be called, and if it exists, it is called again to get the value, which is stored in the $c variable.

This could be better handled via a helper variable:

$a = 5;
$b = 3;
$helper = my_function($a, $b);
$default = 42;
$c = $helper ? $helper : $default;

Inappropriate use

The ternary operator is not always worth using because it tends to cause confusion when writing complicated and nested conditions.

See for yourself an example:

$valid = true;
$lang = 'French';
$x = $valid
? ($lang === 'French' ? 'oui' : 'yes')
: ($lang === 'French' ? 'non' : 'from');

Would you know at a glance that the variable $x would contain the value oui?

After a little practice you might, but that's not the right answer. :)

Verifying the (non-)existence of the value and using the default

The ternary operators are most powerful in routine verification of (non-)existence of values and use of other defaults.

For example, we want to check if a main category exists for an article and if not, output a replacement message:

echo $mainCategory ?? 'The category does not exist';

The operator ?? (two question marks) checks if the variable $mainCategory exists and is not null. It works in the same way as the isset() function.

Validating the emptiness of a value

A very often useful construct for verifying that the output value is not empty (i.e. not null, 0, false or `''(empty string)).

This can be written as follows:

$a = 5;
$b = 3;
$default = 42;
$c = my_function($a, $b) ?: $default;

First the function($a, $b) is called, then its value is tested and if it is not empty, it is immediately passed to the $c variable, otherwise the $default variable is used.

The ?: operator works like the != operator in a conditional (false regardless of data type), and can be remembered by looking like a smiley face with Elvis hair, for example.

Support for older versions of PHP

The ?: operator has worked since PHP 7. In older versions, we have to make do with the if (...) condition, which can achieve the same behavior. Remember that ternary operators are really just a shortcut to write the same thing that is handled by conditions.

Non-existence of a value can be checked with the isset() function, which checks that the variable exists and is not empty (null).

Instead of code:

$a = 5;
$b = 3;
$c = $a ?? $b;

Then we write down the older alternative:

$a = 5;
$b = 3;
$c = isset($a) && $a ?? $b;

Warning: The order of isset() and the variable itself matters. If we reversed the order and the variable didn't exist, it would raise an access error to the non-existent variable.

Jan Barášek   Více o autorovi

Autor článku pracuje jako seniorní vývojář a software architekt v Praze. Navrhuje a spravuje velké webové aplikace, které znáte a používáte. Od roku 2009 nabral bohaté zkušenosti, které tímto webem předává dál.

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