PHP's list() is asking for a class

PHP has a weird mechanism for achieving multiple return values with the list function. It lets you do things like this:

<?php

function severalThings() {
        return ['thing', 'another thing', 'one more thing'];
}

list($foo, $bar, $foobar) = severalThings();

This is quite commonly used in some codebases, but I think it’s bad style.

Firstly, because PHP doesn’t offer a concrete way to let the user of a function know exactly what it’s returning, it may not be clear what you’re getting from that array. The function could even not return an array at all, in which case trying to use list on its return value will silently set your variables to null.

At least in PHP 7 we can now guarantee that the function will return an array, but we still can’t be sure what the array contains or how many values it has. The user of the function always needs to go and look at exactly what the function is doing to be sure. Bad luck if it’s some 1000 line monstrosity with ten levels of indentation.

When you’re sure you know what the function is giving you, you may not want all of the values in the array it’s returning. In that case, your options are:

This doesn’t just cause problems for users of the function. Once you’ve got client code using list on the return values of a function, it’s difficult to ever change the number or ordering of elements. As mentioned above, code analysis tools have no idea what’s going on with list, so automated refactorings are out.

There is one clear solution to all of this: don’t return an array, return an instance of a class. Anywhere list is used is begging for a class.

When list is used, we’ve got a situation where we need x, y and z values. A class or interface is the perfect way to achieve that in a safe, clear and maintainable way. In PHP 5, a doc block can indicate what interface the function is going to return, and in PHP 7 we can guarantee it with a return type.

Returning an instance of a class or interface also makes the code easier to change in future. You don’t need to add bloat to the function if more logic is required, as it can now be encapsulated in the class, which has all the advantages you’d expect when dealing with an object:

In short, classes are better than list().


Tech mentioned