Variables and Data Types in PHP

Continued from Understanding Variables:

PHP variables must also conform to a set of rules. Variable names must start with a dollar sign. They can contain any combination of strings, numbers, and underscores, but the first character after the dollar sign cannot be a number. PHP variables are also case-sensitive.

PHP variables don’t need an initial value when they are created, and they don’t need to be declared a specific data type either.

PHP has several built-in data types:

  • boolean – a data type with only two possible values: true or false
  • integer – any positive or negative whole number, or a zero
  • float – numbers that are too large or too small to be represented as integers
  • string – a series of alphanumeric characters, numbers, and punctuation marks
  • array – a data type which can hold several different values
  • object – built-in or user-defined classes of data; a collection of properties or attributes
  • resource – a variable holding a reference to an external resource, like a MySQL database
  • NULL – a special data value that has no value and means nothing; not the same as zero

When using integers, a leading 0 ( zero ) is used to specify that the integer is octal, and a leading 0x or 0X is used to specify hexadecimal. A floating point number can contain either a decimal or an “e” to represent “ten to the power of” in scientific notation, or both.

Note: ActionScript and JavaScript also use arrays, but they aren’t listed as a basic data type in the official documentation, as far as I’ve been able to discover, while arrays are listed as one of the eight main data types supported by PHP. While most of us just use arrays without considering whether they are a data type or not, I have endeavored to follow the various documentation in these articles. I apologize for any confusion this may cause.


Understanding Variables

While not technically tutorials, I have decided to post a series of articles about variables for Web programming newbies. Variables are an essential element for anyone wishing to do Web programming. They are also an integral part of many technologies, including JavaScript, ActionScript, and PHP.

To begin with, what is a variable? A technical definition would be somewhere along the lines of : A pointer to a location in memory where a temporary value can be stored for use in a program. To the common person that may not make much sense, so I prefer a different definition: A container which holds a value that can be changed. Simply put, a variable is a key word that represents a temporary value. If it helps, you can think of variables as having a variable value. Generally, this value can be changed through instructions given by a program, but some variables are unchangeable depending on the scripting language in use. Many languages have built-in variables which keep a constant value.

Most scripting languages also have some sort of method for deciding the pattern of variable names. In general, variable names may contain letters, numbers, underscores, and dollar signs, but they cannot start with a number. They also cannot contain spaces. While variable names can generally be of any length, if they are too long they become unmanageable.

Many languages are case-sensitive, so it is also a good idea to pay attention to whether your variable names include capital or lowercase letters. In languages where variable names are not case-sensitive, a program may confuse one variable with another if care is not taken during naming. A variable named my_var will look exactly the same as a different variable named My_Var. As a rule of thumb, I never create variables using capital letters. That way, regardless of the language I’m using I will never have conflicting variable names.

In the continuation of my Variables series, I plan on looking at the use of variables in a couple of different coding languages; specifically ActionScript, JavaScript, and PHP. Stay tuned for more.

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