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PHP RFC: Strict operators directive


PHP performs implicit type conversion for most operators. The rules of conversion are complex, depending on the operator as well as on the type and value of the operands. This can lead to surprising results, where a statement seemingly contradicts itself. This RFC proposes a new directive strict_operators, which limits the type juggling done by operators and makes them throw a TypeError for unsupported types.

Making significant changes to the behavior of operators has significant consequences to backward compatibility. Additionally, there is a significant group of people who are in favor of the current method of type juggling. Following the rationale of PHP RFC: Scalar Type Declarations; an optional directive ensures backward compatibility and allows people to choose the type checking model that suits them best.

Motivating examples

Mixed type comparison

Mathematics states that “if (a > b) and (b > c), then (a > c)”. This statement can be asserted in PHP;

if (($a > $b) && ($b > $c)) {
    assert($a > $c);

This assertion fails when choosing values of different types

$a = '42';
$b = 10;
$c = '9 eur';
if (($a > $b) && ($b > $c)) {
    assert($a > $c);

Numeric string comparison

Non-strict comparison uses a “smart” comparison method that treats strings as numbers if they are numeric. The meaning of the operator changes based on the value of both operands.

Using the <=> operator to order the values of an array can lead to different results based on the initial state of the array.

function sorted(array $arr) {
  usort($arr, function($x, $y) { return $x <=> $y; });
  return $arr;
sorted(['100', '5 eur', '62']); // ['100', '5 eur', '62']
sorted(['100', '62', '5 eur']); // ['5 eur', '62', '100']
sorted(['62', '100', '5 eur']); // ['62', '100', '5 eur']

Array comparison

Using the >, >=, <, <= and <=> operators on arrays or objects that don't have the same keys in the same order gives unexpected results.

In the following example $a is both greater than and less than $b

$a = ['x' => 1, 'y' => 22];
$b = ['y' => 10, 'x' => 15];
$a > $b; // true
$a < $b; // true

The logic of relational operators other than ==, ===, != and !== has limited practical use. In case both arrays have the same keys (in the same order), a side-by-side comparison is done. If the size differs, the array with the most elements is always seen as the greatest;

[1] < [50]; // true
[1, 1] < [50]; // false

This is not a proper method to compare the size of the array, as two operands of equal size but different values are not equal. Instead, count() should be used in this case.

If two arrays have the same number of items but not the same keys, the <, <=, > and >= operators will always return false.

[1] < ['bar' => 50]; // false
[1] > ['bar' => 50]; // false

In case the two arrays have the same number of items and the same keys but in a different order, an element by element comparison is done. The > and >= operator is implemented as the inverse of < and <=. This results in walking through the operand that's expected to be the smallest.

$a = ['x' => 1, 'y' => 22];
$b = ['y' => 10, 'x' => 15];
$a > $b; // true
$a < $b; // true

In the statement with the > operator, we walk through the elements of $b, so first comparing $b['y'] to $a['y']. In the statement with < we walk through the elements of $a, so first comparing $a['x'] to $b['x']. This results in both statements, while seemingly contracting, to evaluate to true.

Strict vs non-strict comparison of arrays

Strict comparison requires that arrays have keys occurring in the same order, while non-strict comparison allows out-of-order keys.

['a' => 'foo', 'b' => 'bar'] == ['b' => 'bar', 'a' => 0]; // true

To compare the values of two arrays in a strict way while not concerned about the order, requires ordering the array by key prior to comparison.

Type juggling of arithmetic operators

The behavior of arithmetic operators for non-scalar types is inconsistent.

Most arithmetic operations throw an Error if one of the operands is an array. But modulo and exponentiation operations will cast (to 0 or 1) and thus succeed silently.

Objects and resources are always cast to integers or floats. In case of an object, this results in a notice. For resources, this will succeed silently using the resource id as a number.

$a + 10 $a * 10 $a % 10
array error error -
object notice notice notice
resource - - -

Numeric strings and bitwise operators

Bitwise operators have an alternative operation if both operands are strings. This is regardless of the value of the strings.

If both operands for the &, | and ^ operators are strings, then the operation will be performed on the ASCII values of the characters that make up the strings and the result will be a string. In all other cases, both operands will be converted to integers and the result will be an integer.

Bitwise operators are therefore the only operators that don't treat numeric strings as numbers.

"22" & "12"; // "02"
22 & 12;     // 4

Switch control structure

The switch statement does a non-strict comparison. This can lead to unexpected results;

function match($value)
  switch ($value) {
    case 2:
      return "double";
    case 1:
      return "single";
    case 0:
      return "none";
      throw new Exception("Unexpected value");
match("foo"); // "none"

In case both the expression and the condition operands are both numeric strings, both are converted to an integer. This can be unexpected;

function match($value)
  switch ($value) {
    case "1e1":
      return "1e1";
    case "10":
      return "10";
      throw new Exception("Unexpected value");
match("10"); // "1e1"

All combinations

Operators can do any of the following for unsupported operands

  • Cast
    • silent
    • with notice
    • with warning
    • causing a catchable error (fatal)
  • Notice + cast
  • Warning + cast
  • Throw Error
  • No operation

Please take a look at this list of all combinations of operators and operands.


By default, all PHP files are in weak type-checking mode for operators. A new declare() directive is added, strict_operators, which takes either 1 or 0. If 1, strict type-checking mode is used for operators in the the file. If 0, weak type-checking mode is used.

In strict type-checking mode, operators may cast operands to the expected type. However:

  • Typecasting is not based on the type of the other operand
  • Typecasting is not based on the value of any of the operands
  • Operators will throw a TypeError for unsupported types

In case an operator can work with several (or all) types, the operands need to match as no casting will be done by those operators.

The one exception is that widening primitive conversion is allowed for int to float. This means that parameters that declare float can also accept int.

1.2 + 2; // float(3.2)

In this case, we're passing an int to a function that accepts float. The parameter is converted (widened) to float.

Comparison operators

All comparison operators work with int, float and bool type operands. The types of both operands need to match.

Strings, resources, arrays, objects and null only support the ==, ===, != and !== operators.

10 > 42;        // false
3.14 < 42;      // true
"foo" > "bar";  // TypeError("Unsupported type string for comparison operation")
"foo" > 10;     // TypeError("Operator type mismatch string and int for comparison operation")
"foo" == "bar"; // false
"foo" == 10;    // TypeError("Operator type mismatch string and int for comparison operation")
"foo" == null;  // TypeError("Operator type mismatch string and null for comparison operation")
true > false;   // true
true != 0;      // TypeError("Operator type mismatch bool and int for comparison operation")
[10] > [];      // TypeError("Unsupported type array for comparison operation")
[10] == [];     // false

The function of the === and !== operators remains unchanged.

Numeric string comparison

Numeric strings are compared the same way as non-numeric strings. To compare two numeric strings as numbers, they need to be cast to integers or floats.

"120" > "99.9";               // TypeError("Unsupported type string for comparison operation")
(float)"120" > (float)"99.9"; // true
"100" == "1e1";               // false
(int)"100" == (int)"1e2";     // true
"120" <=> "99.9";             // TypeError("Unsupported type string for comparison operation")

Array comparison

Equality comparison == between two arrays in strict modes will always throw a TypeError.

Using == implies both comparing an array as an unsorted hashmap and using type juggling. Allowing == for arrays disabling type juggling makes strict_operators change the behavior of the operator.

This would lead to unexpected behavior.

$a = 0;
$b = "foo";
$a == $b;     // TypeError("Unsupported type string for comparison operation")
[$a] == [$b]; // ????

In the example above, the

Object comparison

Comparing two objects of different classes using the == or != operator will throw a TypeError.

class Foo {
  public $x;
  public function __construct($x) {
    $this->x = $x;
class FooBar extends Foo {}
(new Foo(10)) == (new Foo(10));     // true
(new Foo(10)) == (new Foo(99));     // false
(new Foo(10)) === (new Foo(10));    // false
(new Foo(10)) == (new FooBar(11));  // TypeError("Type mismatch Foo object and FooBar object for comparison operation")
(new Foo(10)) === (new FooBar(11)); // false

Comparing two objects of the same class will with these operators check the properties of the objects. By default, properties are compared in a similar fashion to the === operator. If the property of both objects contains arrays or objects of the same class, they're compared as using the == operator.

Arithmetic operators

Arithmetic operators will only work with integers and floats. Using operands of any other type will result in a TypeError.

In strict type-checking mode, the behavior of the operator is not determined by the value of the operands. Thus for any string, including numeric strings, a TypeError is thrown, so strings need to be explicitly cast.

The + operator is still available for arrays as union operator, requiring both values to be arrays.

Incrementing/Decrementing operators

The incrementing/decrementing operators will throw a TypeError when the operand is a string, boolean, null, array, object or resource.

The function of these operators for integers and floats remains unchanged.

Bitwise Operators

Bitwise operators expect both parameters to be an integer. The &, |, ^ and ~ operators also accept strings as operands.

Using strings for >> or <<, mixing strings with integers or using any other type will throw a TypeError.

String Operators

The concatenation operator . will throw a TypeError if any of the operands is a boolean, array or resource. It will also throw a TypeError if the operand is an object that doesn't implement the __toString() method.

Integers, floats, null, and objects (with the __toString() method) are cast to a string.

Variable parsing

When a string is specified in double quotes or with heredoc, variables are parsed within it. Using the concatenation operator or double-quoted string is considered interchangeable

Logical Operators

The function of logical operators remains unchanged. All operands are cast to booleans.

Switch control structure

When strict-type checking for operators is enabled, the switch statement will do a comparison similar to a comparison on arrays; Scalar values in the array are compared using both type and value, thus similar to the === operator. For arrays, the key order does not matter. Objects of the same class will be compared similarly to the `==` operator, while objects of different classes are always seen as not equal. It will never throw a TypeError.

function match($value)
  switch ($value) {
    case ["foo" => 42, "bar" => 1]:
      return "foobar";
    case null:
      return "null";
    case 0:
      return "zero";
    case "1e1":
      return "1e1";
    case "10":
      return "10";
      throw new Exception("Unexpected value");
match(["bar" => 1, "foo" => 42]); // "foobar"
match(0);                         // "zero"
match("10");                      // "10"
match("foo");                     // Exception("Unexpected value")

Backward Incompatible Changes

Since the strict type-checking for operators is off by default and must be explicitly used, it does not break backward-compatibility.

Proposed PHP Version

This is proposed for PHP 8.0.


What has been changed since the initial proposal?

  • Comparison operators >, >=, <, <= and <=> with string operands will throw a TypeError. See motivation.
  • Variable parsing in strings specified in double quotes and with heredoc, is also affected.
  • Concatenation operation (using .) on null does not throw a TypeError, but will cast null to an empty string.
  • There is no secondary vote for switch. If this RFC is accepted strict_operators will apply to switch.

Why does == and != throw a TypeError instead of returning false?

In other dynamically typed languages, like Python and Ruby, the == and != do a type check and always return false in case the type is different. Throwing a TypeError is more common for statically typed languages like Go.

The RFC tries to limit the cases where the behavior changes, rather than that a TypeError is thrown, as much as possible. For instance 1 == true and null == 0 both evaluate to true without strict_operators. Having those statements be false based on the directive could lead to unseen bugs.

Why does the concatenation operator cast, but arithmetic operators don't?

The concatenation operator will cast integers, floats and (when __toString is defined) objects to a string. This is a common use case and operands are always typecasted to a string. Integers and floats always have a proper string representation.

Arithmetic operators won't cast strings to an integer or float, because not all strings can be properly represented as a number and a TypeError must be thrown based on the operand type only, not the value.

Both the concatenation operator and arithmetic operators throw a TypeError for arrays, resources, and objects. Casting these to a string or int/float doesn't give a proper representation of the value of the operand.

Using a boolean or null as operand for both concatenation and arithmetic operators also throws a TypeError. In most cases, the use of a boolean or null indicates an error as many functions return false or null in case of an error or when no result can be returned. This is different from the function returning an empty string or 0. ''strpos'' is a well known example.

Will comparing a number to a numeric string work with strict operators?

No, this will throw a TypeError. Users that use string operators need to explicitly typecast the string to an integer. If it concerns input data, for instance from $_POST, it's recommended to use the filter functions.

Why aren't all comparison functions available for strings?

In many other languages, using <, >, <= and => with string operands performs an strcmp like operation. The <=> is even described as strcmp as operators. Why do these operators throw an exception with string operands when strict_operators is enabled?

It's common to use these operators when both operands are numeric strings. Having these statements return a different value based on the directive, could lead to issues, especially when source code is copy/pasted from an external codebase.

In case it concerns comparing text, it's better to use Collator::compare(). For non-collation related strings, like date strings, the strcmp function should be used.

Nikita Popov made the following argument:

Having $str1 < $str2 perform a strcmp() style comparison under strict_operators is surprising. I think that overall the use of lexicographical string comparisons is quite rare and should be performed using an explicit strcmp() call. More likely than not, writing $str1 < $str2 is a bug and should generate a TypeError. Of course, equality comparisons like $str1 == $str2 should still work, similar to the distinction you make for arrays.

Why isn't is allowed to increment strings with strict_operators?

Nikita Popov made the following argument:

String increment seems like a pretty niche use case, and I believe that many people find the overflow behavior quite surprising. I think it may be better to forbid string increment under strict_operators.

Are built-in functions affected by strict_operators?

No. Only operators (including the case statement)) in the source file that has declare(strict_operators=1) are affected. Functions defined elsewhere, including functions defined in extensions, are not affected.

Specifically sort() and in_array() will perform weak comparison as usual and require the use of the $sort_flags and $strict arguments to change the way the values are compared.

Can relational operators be allowed for arrays?

If both arrays must have the same keys in the same order, using < or > on two arrays can be useful. But, as shown in the examples, when this is not the case, these type of comparisons will yield unexpected results.

Throwing a TypeError only if the keys of the arrays don't match is not in line with this RFC. The behavior of an operator should not depend on the value of the operand, only on the type. Furthermore, a TypeError would be misplaced here, as some arrays would be accepted but others not, whereas a TypeError indicates no values of that type are accepted.

Are there cases where a statement doesn't throw a TypeError but yields a different result?

Yes, there are 3 cases where a comparison works differently in strict operators mode.

  • Two numeric strings will be compared on equality as strings instead of numbers. Comparing two operands of the same type should always work. Under strict operators, the operation is only determined by the type and never by the value. Comparisons like “100” == “1e2” are unlikely to be intended and will return false with strict_operators.
  • When comparing two arrays (or objects) no typecasting will be performed. So [null] == [0] will result in false with strict operators and in true without the directive.
  • With strict operators, the case in a switch statement will not do type conversion. It also doesn't compare numeric strings as numbers but as strings.

Will this directive disable type juggling altogether?

No. Operators can still typecast under the given conditions. For instance, the concatenation (.) operator will cast an integer or float to a string, and boolean operators will cast any type of operand to a boolean.

Typecasting is also done in other places: if and while statements interpret expressions as boolean, and booleans and floats are cast to an integer when used as array keys.

This RFC limits the scope to operators.

Why is switch affected? It's not an operator.

Internally the case of a switch is handled as a comparison operator. The issues with case are therefore similar (or even the same) to those of comparison operators. The audience that strict_operators caters to, likely want to get rid of this behavior completely.

Unaffected PHP Functionality

This RFC

  • Does not affect any functionality concerning explicit typecasting.
  • Does not affect variable casting that occurs in (double-quoted) strings.
  • Is largely unaffected by other proposals like PHP RFC: Saner string to number comparisons that focus on improving type juggling at the cost of breaking BC.


Proposed Voting Choices

Voting ended prematurely and will be reopened at a later stage targeting PHP 8.

  • Primary vote; Add the strict_operators directive to PHP 8? Requires a 2/3 majority
rfc/strict_operators.1589551398.txt.gz · Last modified: 2020/05/15 14:03 by jasny