Functions in PHP: Return Values and Parameters

Functions are an important part of programming languages. They help us avoid code duplication by allowing us to run the same set of instructions over and over again on different data.

In this tutorial, we will talk about functions in PHP. We will cover all the basic concepts of functions in PHP, and you’ll learn how to create your own user-defined functions in PHP. You will learn about returning values from a function and function parameters in PHP. You’ll also learn other concepts like setting default argument values or passing an argument by reference. 

Internal Functions in PHP

PHP comes with a lot of built-in functions that you can use in your program. Some of these functions come as standard, while others become available to you through specific PHP extensions.

PHP comes with a lot of functions to work with strings. For example, you can use the str_contains() function to check if a string contains a substring and the wordwrap() function to wrap a string to a given number of characters. These functions are available for you to use as standard.

Another set of PHP functions for manipulating images is available if you install the GD extension library. Once the extension is enabled, you will be able to use functions like imagecreatetruecolor(), imagecreatefrompng(), and imagefill() to create and manipulate images.

If you ever get a fatal undefined function error in PHP but you are certain that it is an internal function, make sure that you have installed the respective extensions to use that function.

User-Defined Functions in PHP

You can also define your own functions in PHP. Defining your own functions becomes a necessity in almost every non-trivial program you write. They are a great way to avoid code duplication and errors.

Here is some basic code to define a function that outputs a greeting when we call the function later.

In the above example, we just passed a name to the greet() function, and it echoed a different output based on the specified name.

You have to follow specific rules when defining a function. The name of a function has to start with a letter or an underscore. After that, you can use different lengths of numbers, letters, and underscores in the name. This means that greet01(), _greet(), and greet_01() are all valid function names in PHP. However, using 01_greet() as a function name will throw a syntax error.

Return From a Function in PHP

In the previous example, our user-defined greet() function did not return anything. It just echoed a couple of sentences based on the input. It is entirely up to us to return anything inside any function we define in PHP.

When you want to return something, you need to use the return statement. A function can return any type of value in PHP. This includes strings, integers, floats, arrays, or even objects.

In the above example, the palindrome() function turns any given string into a palindrome by appending it to its reversed version. Now, instead of echoing the output directly, we assign it to a variable. We can now further manipulate the variable, but we’ll just echo it in this example.

A function can have multiple return values, and the execution of the function stops immediately once it encounters a return statement. This means that you can only return one value from a function. However, you can work around this limitation by returning an array that consists of all the values that you want to return as its elements.

In the above example, we wanted the function to return a bunch of information about the name passed to it. So we used an array with mixed values. The passed values are then assigned to different variables using list().

You should also note that the greet() function did not echo Bye Monty! in our program. This is because the function execution was stopped as soon as it encountered a return statement.

Function Parameters in PHP

Function parameters (also known as “function arguments”) are used to pass an input to a function, upon which it can act to give us the desired output. We have only defined functions with a single parameter so far in this tutorial.

However, it is entirely up to us how many parameters we want to pass to a function. It can be zero for functions which don’t require any kind of input from us. It can also be two, three, five, or ten. You can also pass arrays as parameters.

Here is an example of PHP functions that accept zero and two parameters respectively.

We can rewrite the second function to pass an array as our only parameter. We will just extract different values from the array inside our function. This can be helpful in situations where you want to either manipulate arrays or pass a lot of values to a function.

Specifying Default Argument Values

Let’s say you create a greeting function that is mostly used to wish users good morning. The value of $time in our greeting_time() function will usually be morning then. In such cases, you can make your program shorter and your code easier to read by assigning sensible default values to specific arguments.

This is actually quite common in built-in PHP functions. The strpos() function is used to find the location of a substring in a string. The function takes three arguments: the string, the substring, and the position where you want to start. The function returns the index of the substring in the string.

The position parameter is the point at which you want to start looking for the substring. Usually, we want to look inside the main string from its starting position. This means that the value of offset will usually be zero.

Instead of asking us to specify the offset as 0 each time we call the function, PHP sets its value to 0 by default. Now, we only need to specify the third parameter when we want to change the offset to something else.

We can also set a default value for different parameters in our own functions. Here is an example:

There are two things that you need to keep in mind about default parameters or arguments. First, they have to be a constant value, like morning in our case. Any arguments with default values should always be on the right side. For example, the following function definition will cause an error during the first call.

The reason for the error is the ambiguity about the argument Monty. PHP has no way of knowing if you want it to be the value of $name or if you want to use it in place of the default $time value.

Passing Arguments by Value vs. Passing by Reference

By default, different arguments are passed to a PHP function by value. This way, we can avoid changing the value of the argument passed to a function. However, if you intend to change the value of arguments passed to a PHP function, you can pass those arguments by reference.

The following example should help you understand the difference between these two approaches.

The argument in r_palindrome() is passed by reference. This means that when we pass $word_b to r_palindrome(), the value of $word_b itself is changed to a palindrome.


In this tutorial, we have covered a lot of the basics related to functions in PHP. Hopefully, you can now write your own user-defined functions that take advantage of everything we learned here. Feel free to ask any questions you have about this topic in the comments.

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