Nikita Popov


PHP RFC: Syntax for variadic functions



Currently variadic functions are implemented by fetching the function arguments using func_get_args(). The following code sample shows an implementation of a variadic function used to prepare and execute a MySQL query (I'll be making use of this example throughout the RFC):

class MySQL implements DB {
    protected $pdo;
    public function query($query) {
        $stmt = $this->pdo->prepare($query);
        $stmt->execute(array_slice(func_get_args(), 1));
        return $stmt;
    // ...
$userData = $db->query('SELECT * FROM users WHERE id = ?', $userID)->fetch();

There are two issues with the above approach:

Firstly, by just looking at the function signature public function query($query) you cannot know that this is actually a variadic function. You'd think that the function can only run a normal query and doesn't support bound parameters.

Secondly, because func_get_args() returns *all* arguments passed to the function you first need to remove the $query parameter using array_slice(func_get_args(), 1).

This RFC proposed to solve these issues by adding a special syntax for variadic functions:

class MySQL implements DB {
    public function query($query, ...$params) {
        $stmt = $this->pdo->prepare($query);
        return $stmt;
    // ...
$userData = $db->query('SELECT * FROM users WHERE id = ?', $userID)->fetch();

The ...$params syntax indicates that this is a variadic function and that all arguments after $query should be put into the $params array. Using the new syntax both of the issues mentioned above are solved.

Population of variadic parameter

The following example shows how the variadic parameter ...$params is populated depending on the number of passed arguments:

function fn($reqParam, $optParam = null, ...$params) {
    var_dump($reqParam, $optParam, $params);
fn(1);             // 1, null, []
fn(1, 2);          // 1, 2, []
fn(1, 2, 3);       // 1, 2, [3]
fn(1, 2, 3, 4);    // 1, 2, [3, 4]
fn(1, 2, 3, 4, 5); // 1, 2, [3, 4, 5]

$params will be an empty array if the number of passed arguments is smaller than the number of declared parameters. Any further arguments will be added to the $params array (in the order in which they were passed). The $params array is using continuous zero-based indices.

By-reference capture

The new syntax additionally adds support for capturing variadic arguments by-reference, something that was previously not possible in userland code. Only internal functions could make use of this via ZEND_ACC_PASS_REST_BY_REF.

This would allow implementing functions like sscanf() or mysqli_stmt::bind_param() in userland. The following method uses the new syntax to prepare a query and bind parameters by-reference to it:

class MySQL implements DB {
    public function prepare($query, &...$params) {
        $stmt = $this->pdo->prepare($query);
        foreach ($params as $i => &$param) {
            $stmt->bindParam($i + 1, $param);
        return $stmt;
    // ...
$stmt = $db->prepare('INSERT INTO users (name, email, age) VALUES (?, ?, ?)', $name, $email, $age);
foreach ($usersToInsert as list($name, $email, $age)) {

A by-reference capture of variadic arguments is indicated by a & before the ellipsis ....

Type hints

Furthermore it's possible to provide a typehint that all variadic arguments are checked against. E.g. this is how the signature of array_merge implemented in userland would look like:

function array_merge(array ...$arrays) { /* ... */ }

PHP would make sure that all arguments are actually arrays. This also works for all other typehints like callable ...$callbacks or Route ...$routes.

Prototype checks

An advantage of declaring variadics in the parameter list is that the signature can be enforced by intefaces and during inheritance. The MySQL::query() and MySQL::prepare() examples above already referenced an interface DB. This is how the interface could look like:

interface DB {
    public function query($query, ...$params);
    public function prepare($query, &...$params);
    // ...

This interface will force any implementation to make both these functions variadic and will also enforce the by-ref capture for prepare().

The exact protoype checks (what is valid and what is not) are outlined below:

// INVALID: Turning a variadic function into a non-variadic one
public function query($query, ...$params)
public function query($query)
// VALID: Turning a non-variadic function into a variadic one
public function query($query)
public function query($query, ...$params)
// Note: This is allowed as ...$params is optional and PHP allows additional optional arguments
// INVALID: Changing the passing mode for variadic parameters
public function query($query, &...$params)
public function query($query, ...$params)
// INVALID: Changing the typehint of a variadic parameter to an incompatible typehint
public function query($query, array ...$params)
public function query($query, callable ...$params)
// INVALID: Removing parameter before the variadic parameter
public function query($query, ...$params)
public function query(...$params)
// Note: Personally I don't think this makes sense, but this is how
//       PHP behaves in general, so I'm staying consistent with it
// VALID: Adding additional optional parameter before the variadic parameter (with compatible typehint)
public function query($query, array ...$params)
public function query($query, array $extraParam = null, array ...$params)
// INVALID: Adding additional optional parameter with incompatible typehint
public function query($query, array ...$params)
public function query($query, callable $extraParam = null, array ...$params)

Syntactic restrictions

There may be only one variadic parameter and it needs to be the last parameter of the function. A variadic parameter may not have a default value.

As such all of the following are invalid:

function fn(...$args, $arg)
function fn(...$args1, ...$args2)
function fn($arg, ...$args = [])


Two new methods are added to Reflection:

bool ReflectionFunction::isVariadic()
bool ReflectionParameter::isVariadic()

The functions will return true if the function/parameter is variadic, false otherwise.


To sum up, the feature adds the following new syntax:

  • function fn($arg, ...$args): Capture all variadic arguments into the $args array
  • function fn($arg, &...$args): Do the capture by reference
  • function fn($arg, array ...$args): Enforce that all variadic arguments are arrays (or some other typehint)
  • function fn($arg, array &...$args): Combine both - variadic arguments are arrays that are captured by-reference

The advantages of the syntax are:

  • It's immidiately clear that a function is variadic, without having to read documentation.
  • It is no longer necessary to array_slice() the variadic arguments from func_get_args()
  • It is now possible to do variadic by-reference captures
  • Types can be checked with a typehint (rather than a manual loop)
  • Variadic prototypes can be enforce in interfaces / by inheritance

Backwards compatibility


This change does not break backwards compatibility for userland code.

In particular, this RFC does not propose to deprecate or remove the func_get_args() family of functions, at least not any time soon.


The pass_rest_by_ref argument of ZEND_BEGIN_ARG_INFO and ZEND_BEING_ARG_INFO_EX is no longer used. Instead functions can declare a variadic argument in the arginfo using ZEND_ARG_VARIADIC_INFO.

For example, this is how the arginfo for sscanf() changed:

// OLD:
ZEND_BEGIN_ARG_INFO_EX(arginfo_sscanf, 1, 0, 2)
    ZEND_ARG_INFO(0, str)
    ZEND_ARG_INFO(0, format)
    ZEND_ARG_INFO(1, ...)
// NEW:
ZEND_BEGIN_ARG_INFO_EX(arginfo_sscanf, 0, 0, 2)
    ZEND_ARG_INFO(0, str)
    ZEND_ARG_INFO(0, format)

It would theoretically be possible to retain support for pass_rest_by_ref (by automatically generating a variadic arg), but as this is an exceedingly rarely used feature I don't think this is necessary. All usages of it in php-src have been replaced.

Apart from this the change should be transparent from an internals point of view. Macros like ARG_MUST_BE_SENT_BY_REF continue to work.


Choice of syntax

Presumably this RFC will quickly deteriorate towards a bike-shedding of the best syntax for variadic parameters, so I'll try to explain my choice for the proposed syntax right away:

The use of ... is already familiar from the PHP documentation, where variadics are denoted using a trailing $... parameter. The reason ... follows *before* the parameter in the proposed syntax is to clearly show that the typehint/ref-modifier before it applies to all arguments.

Some possible alternative syntax and why I don't like it:

  • $args.... With ref-modifier (&$args...) this does not show well that the individual arguments are references, rather than $args itself. With typehint (array $args...) it also looks like the typehint applies to $args itself rather than all variadic arguments.
  • *$args. This is the syntax that both Ruby and Python use. For PHP this does not work well because *$ is a weird combination. It gets worse with a by-reference capture: &*$args. This looks like a random sequences of special characters. Combined with a typehint the syntax looks a lot like a pointer: Foo *$args.
  • params $args. This is what C# does. This would require making params a keyword. Furthermore this doesn't have any nice way to declare typehints. In C# this is done using params type[] args, but PHP doesn't have type[] hints and introducing them only here doesn't seem right.

The proposed syntax is also used by Java and will be used in Javascript (ECMAScript Harmony proposal). Go and C++ also employ a similar syntax.


Patch available in PR#421:

Argument unpacking

The argument unpacking RFC introduces the following related syntax:

$db->query($query, ...$params);


An option needs 50%+1 votes to win

Should the proposed variadic-function syntax be added in PHP 5.6 (master)? (97.3% approved)
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