PHP Shorthand If/Else Using Ternary Operators (?:)

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An essential part of programming is evaluating conditions using if/else and switch/case statements. If / Else statements are easy to code and global to all languages. If / Else statements are great but they can be too long.

I preach a lot about using shorthand CSS and using MooTools to make JavaScript relatively shorthand, so I look towards PHP to do the same. If/Else statements aren't optimal (or necessary) in all situations. Enter ternary operators.

Ternary operator logic is the process of using "(condition) ? (true return value) : (false return value)" statements to shorten your if/else structures.

What Does Ternary Logic Look Like?

/* most basic usage */
$var = 5;
$var_is_greater_than_two = ($var > 2 ? true : false); // returns true

What Are The Advantages of Ternary Logic?

There are some valuable advantages to using this type of logic:

  • Makes coding simple if/else logic quicker
  • You can do your if/else logic inline with output instead of breaking your output building for if/else statements
  • Makes code shorter
  • Makes maintaining code quicker, easier
  • Job security?

Tips for Using Ternary Operators

Here are a few tips for when using "?:" logic:

  • Don't go more levels deep than what you feel comfortable with maintaining.
  • If you work in a team setting, make sure the other programmers understand the code.
  • PHP.net recommends avoiding stacking ternary operators. "Is [sic] is recommended that you avoid "stacking" ternary expressions. PHP's behaviour when using more than one ternary operator within a single statement is non-obvious."
  • If you aren't experienced with using ternary operators, write your code using if/else first, then translate the code into ?'s and :'s.
  • Use enough parenthesis to keep your code organized, but not so many that you create "code soup."

More Sample Usage

Here are a couple more uses of ternary operators, ranging from simple to advanced:

 /* another basic usage */
$message = 'Hello '.($user->is_logged_in() ? $user->get('first_name') : 'Guest');
 /* shorthand usage */
$message = 'Hello '.($user->get('first_name') ?: 'Guest');
 /* echo, inline */
echo 'Based on your score, you are a ',($score > 10 ? 'genius' : 'nobody'); //harsh!
 /* a bit tougher */
$score = 10;
$age = 20;
echo 'Taking into account your age and score, you are: ',($age > 10 ? ($score < 80 ? 'behind' : 'above average') : ($score < 50 ? 'behind' : 'above average')); // returns 'You are behind'
 /* "thankfully-you-don't-need-to-maintain-this" level */
 $days = ($month == 2 ? ($year % 4 ? 28 : ($year % 100 ? 29 : ($year %400 ? 28 : 29))) : (($month - 1) % 7 % 2 ? 30 : 31)); //returns days in the given month

To learn more about ternary operators and usage, visit PHP.net Comparison Operators.

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  1. Nice job clarifying this! I keep forgetting the exact syntax for some reason…

  2. Your second echo example in the more examples is missing the first ‘e’ in the code.

  3. Mikkel Lund

    Nice article. I use this all the time. Often if/else statements get way too complicated. I love to shorten code and the (?:) operator helps a lot. It’s even a lot better when you can shorten it more than a (?:) can do: Yesterday I saw this excample in a high-end PHP OOP book:

    if ($condition){
    return true;
    else {
    return false

    It’s a lot easier to just use:

    return condition;

    • Johan H

      Mind you, the if-statement you supplied checks if $condition is NOT false, everything else will pass, which might not always be ideal.

  4. I’ve been looking for a good explanation of this, thank you.

    Now I’m off to scour my code for opportunities to practice.

  5. ohh wow man, i really needed this
    thanks for sharing that with such nice explanation

    thanks again

  6. @Richard:

    If you have some experience with Javascript I would say that it is similar to:

    var test = result || error; //Javascript
    $test = $result ?: $error; //PHP

    In which it would return “result” value if it is not empty [1]. Otherwise it will return “error” value.

    I hope I was clear.

    [1] : For empty values see: http://www.php.net/manual/en/function.empty.php

  7. Oussama

  8. Danny

    /* echo, inline */
    echo ‘Based on your score, you are a ‘,($score > 10 ? ‘genius’ : ‘nobody’); //harsh!

    I think you may a typo with the ‘,’ instead of a ‘.’

  9. These are nice shorthands, but be warned, it will make your code unreadable and less understandable.

    • Kurimasta

      What Stjepano says

      If you code for longer, you start to let go of niftyness and look more towards readability.
      Using ternary operator wrong, indicates to me a lack of experience and/or youthful enthusiasm.

      If you use them:
      – never nest ternary operators
      – Store the result in a variable which is named after the result (Eg. $geniusStatusLabel = ($iq>120)?'genius':'below genius') and use the variable later.
      – Be consistent in preferred value (if applicable). Eg. the following looks ackward $var = !isset($_POST['var'])?null:$_POST['var']

  10. GTershel


    What is wrong with this code, I keep receiving an error.
    Creating a sticky form and I am using a simple if (submit) then ($_POST['value'])

    Please enter your short description of the category (blurb):
            <textarea id="catblurb" name="catBlurb"  value="
            Please enter a small description about this category.

    I only need the if part of the if/else.

    Thanks for any help

    • strykr

      For people that might see this when searching..

      $_POST['value'] should be $_POST['catBlurb']

  11. David

    Hey Dave!
    I don’t use ternary very often, but is really nice in spots where things need to be tidy.

    I have a bit of a word of advice here on the use of ternary and collaboration. Dave addresses that in his points above, “Tips for Using Ternary Operators”.

    As a rule I use ternary only if the If/Else is a ‘single line of code’ <— Yes this is variable depending on screen size. Just don't go overboard when working collaboratively or if there is a chance some-one else will inherit the code.

  12. Eight

    Great article.
    In the first example, I think it’s the same thing as doing :
    $var_is_greater_than_two = ($var > 2);
    Right ?

  13. Excellent… would be. But parts of the page does not display under Opera/NetBSD. Please fix it. TIA

  14. kirk bushell

    Good article, I’m glad some poeple cover this. One thing should be mentioned though – this should definitely not be used heavily. Embedded ternary operators, and nested ternary operators are a developer’s worst nightmare – it creates unnecessarily unreadable code that is difficult to maintain. Sometimes more code is better! :)

  15. Imam Tauhid

    i’am looking for this thing , thx for your explanation bro.

  16. Thank you for this explanation. I have a background in Java so coming to PHP I see many similar coding between the two. This is one of them. But I wanted to make sure its the same in both and found you via Google when searching.

  17. Sky

    “Makes maintaining code quicker, easier” – I’d say that it’s quote contrary. It makes it more difficult and obscure, not easier (these statements are by far easier to accidentally skip or misunderstand while analysing the code than regular ifs).

  18. Thanks, David! You’re doing great job revealing PHP mysteries.

  19. kil

    so, can i shorten this if else using ternary?

            $a = 9;
            $b = 27;
            $a = 0;
            $b = 0;
  20. ahmad

    wish we had a syntax to test something and assign it to l_value if the test was successfull
    y = x > 4 ?; means y = x if x > 4


    y = x > 4 ? : z; means y= x if x > 4 else y = z would be a shorthand for
    y= x > 4 ? x : z

    Note usually when we test a condition on a variable we want to assign the same value as above

    then we could have

    y = x > 4 ? w : z; means y = w if x > 4 else y = z

  21. Thanks.. This was just what I was looking for!

  22. MT

    Thanks… That is what i am looking for, sample usage attracts me!

  23. Jols (Bardz)

    Thanks bro, now I understand :)

  24. Andreas Burg

    Since PHP 5.3, it is possible to leave out the middle part of the ternary operator. Expression expr1 ?: expr3 returns expr1 if expr1 evaluates to TRUE, and expr3 otherwise.

    You should show an example e.g.

    echo $username ?: ‘unknown';
    // same as
    echo $username ? $username : ‘unknown';

    • John

      Thanks for clarifying this only works from PHP 5.3+, I was getting nuts trying to figure it out why it wasn’t working.

  25. Unlike (literally!) every other language with a similar operator, ?: is left associative. So this:

      $arg = 'T';
      $vehicle = ( ( $arg == 'B' ) ? 'bus' :
                   ( $arg == 'A' ) ? 'airplane' :
                   ( $arg == 'T' ) ? 'train' :
                   ( $arg == 'C' ) ? 'car' :
                   ( $arg == 'H' ) ? 'horse' :
                   'feet' );
      echo $vehicle;

    Will output: horse

    • Dan
      $arg = 'T';
      echo $vehicle = (
          ( $arg == 'B') ? 'bus'      : 
          (($arg == 'A') ? 'airplane' :
          (($arg == 'T') ? 'train'    :
          (($arg == 'C')  ? 'car'     :
          (($arg == 'H')  ? 'horse'   :

      Not all languages do things the same way. So you should never expect the same behavior in any of them. Though be pleasantly surprised is they are. For all other cases adapt your code accordingly.

           string vehicle;
           string arg = "T";
           vehicle = ( ( arg == "B" ) ? "bus" :
                     ( arg == "A" ) ? "airplane" :
                     ( arg == "T" ) ? "train" :
                     ( arg == "C" ) ? "car" :
                     ( arg == "H" ) ? "horse" :
                     "feet" );
      cout << vehicle;
      Can also be written as:
           string vehicle;
           string arg = "C";
           vehicle = ( 
                     ( arg == "B" ) ? "bus" :
                     (( arg == "A" ) ? "airplane" :
                     (( arg == "T" ) ? "train" :
                     (( arg == "C" ) ? "car" :
                     (( arg == "H" ) ? "horse" :
      cout << vehicle;

      Which is also usable in PHP in the same way. And both output the same result. This way if you want your code to be decently portable between languages, if that's a concern. Write it in a way that works either for both or decently for both.

  26. Wow! I did not know that you don’t have to put a value after the question mark i.e. that you can do this:

    var $myvar = 'Hello ' . $test ?: ' World';

    Can I also do this:

    var $myvar = 'Hello ' . $test ? ' World' :;

    Or will that throw an error?

  27. Jeff Lowery

    The ternary operator IS NOT the same as if/else; a ternary operator assures that a variable is given an assignment.

    var xylophone;
    if (foo) {
       xylophone = 'bar';
    } else {
       xylaphone = 'snafu';    //oops! and can be hard to spot

    compare that to:

    var xylophone = foo? 'bar' : 'snafu';      // a misspelling here is easier to spot
  28. Dan

    I did want to add that in PHP ternary does not always make code shorter than a if/else. Given that you can code in similar if/else blocks to that of ternary. Many people are so hooked on the typical logic that if/else requires specifically if and else and brackets { }. Then when you do deeply nested ternary you then use ( ). Though with deeply nested if/else you can forgo the brackets, you can not with ternary. A deeply nested if/else simply understands the flow of logic without them. IE so many )))))))))); at the end of a deeply nested ternary. Which you can forgo in a deeply nested if/else, which the blow structure can also be a part of.

    if($a>$b||die('Not Greater'))echo'Is Greater';
    echo$a>$b?'Is Greater':die('Not Greater');
  29. Don’t do stupid things with PHP. Make your code human readable. i.e.

    $arg = 'T';
    $vehicle = array(
      'B' => 'bus',
      'A' => 'airplane',
      'T' => 'train',
      'C' => 'car',
      'H' => 'horse'
    echo $vehicles[$arg] ?: 'feet';
  30. Thanks for introducing me to this concept. It makes the code a lot shorter and once you are used to it even easier to read. I use this quite often now for example in this context:

    $comments = $numComments>1 ? "Comments" : "Comment";
  31. $var_is_greater_than_two = ($var > 2 ? true : false); // returns true

    could actually be just:

    $var_is_greater_than_two = ($var > 2); // returns true

    and its much clearer…

    Just my two cents.

  32. Very clean and nice, thanks :-)

  33. I saw this in a book on WordPress. I think it is a form of the ternary if, but I cannot find a reference
    on it.

    • Andreas

      I linked to it in my first post http://davidwalsh.name/php-shorthand-if-else-ternary-operators#comment-78632

      > The expression (expr1) ? (expr2) : (expr3) evaluates to expr2 if expr1 evaluates to TRUE, and expr3 if expr1 evaluates to FALSE.

      Since PHP 5.3, it is possible to leave out the middle part of the ternary operator. Expression expr1 ?: expr3 returns expr1 if expr1 evaluates to TRUE, and expr3 otherwise.

Wrap your code in <pre class="{language}"></pre> tags, link to a GitHub gist, JSFiddle fiddle, or CodePen pen to embed!

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