PHP RFC: List\unique() and Assoc\unique()


The array_unique() function allows getting all unique values of a given array. Unfortunately, PHP has multiple definitions of equality and thus uniqueness. The most obvious one (i.e. $a === $b) is not supported by array_unique().

This RFC proposes adding two new functions, List\unique() and Assoc\unique() as alternatives using strict equality (===) semantics, the former discarding and the latter preserving keys.

List\unique([1, 2, 3, 1, '2', 3.0, new Foo, ['bar']])
// > [1, 2, 3, '2', 3.0, Foo, ['bar']]
Assoc\unique(['foo' => 'foo', 'bar' => 'bar', 'baz' => 'foo'])
// > ['foo' => 'foo', 'bar' => 'bar']


Two new functions are added to PHP:

Both functions return a new array containing unique values of the $array parameter. List\unique() will return a list, meaning the array will have continuous keys, starting from 0. Assoc\unique() will reuse the original arrays keys instead.

Uniqueness is based on the strict equality operator (===). Any two values that are strictly equal are considered duplicates and thus only once added to the resulting array. References are preserved.


Removing duplicates from arrays is a common use case provided by many programming languages. PHPs array_unique() has been there for ~23 years. However, PHP has multiple definitions of equality, four in particular supported by array_unique():

  • SORT_STRING - Converts values to strings and compares with </==/>
  • SORT_REGULAR - Compares values directly with </==/>
  • SORT_NUMERIC - Converts values to doubles
  • SORT_LOCALE_STRING - Converts values to strings and compares with strcoll

Internally, array_unique() sorts the array to avoid comparing each value with every other value which would scale badly. For this reason, the second parameter $flags accepts the same SORT_* options as sort() function and friends.

None of these options support arrays and objects, and other primitive types are subject to subtle coercion issues. Additionally, coercion can lead to warnings that are likely undesirable, as the fact that these values are coerced for comparison is an implementation detail.


A common issue with many array functions is that they make no distinction between lists and associative arrays. Thus, it is often unclear whether a functions should discard or preserve keys. This is made evident by how the functions are used in user code, only considering them when some issue arises. This RFC proposes adding two separate functions specifically to force users to make a deliberate choice between the two, rather than doing so only after encountering issues with array keys.


The new functions use a temporary hashmap internally. The array is iterated and each value is added to the hashmap. If the value has not been added to the hashmap before, it is added to the resulting array. If it has been added, the value is skipped. These new functions have a time complexity of O(n), whereas array_unique() has O(n log n) (with the exception of SORT_STRING which also has O(n)).

Backward Incompatible Changes

There are no backwards-incompatible changes in this RFC.

Alternative approaches

Previously, adding a new ARRAY_UNIQUE_IDENTICAL constant that can be passed to array_unique()s $flag parameter was discussed. The discussion has revealed that most people would prefer a new function over extending array_unique() with a flag that might be more difficult to discover.


Voting opened on xxxx-xx-xx and closes on xxxx-xx-xx.

Add List\unique() and Assoc\unique() functions?
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rfc/list_assoc_unique.txt · Last modified: 2022/12/01 18:19 by ilutov