Using isset() and empty() hurts your code

Aleksi Kauppila on June 08, 2019

It's a known flaw in PHP that functions in standard library are inconsistent. Some of them have a terrible API that may return anything from object... [Read Full]
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I cannot say that i agree with the core message of this article. This is written from a mathematical standpoint, when in the majority of cases (at least in PHP) you are expressing semantic facts that are part of a model, not mathematical formulas.

A very important thing to understand when dealing with PHP is that you are not writing kernel-modules or 3D-engines or DBMS's or other performance-driven programs with it. You are using PHP for web-shops, for blogs or for accounting-, advertising- or logistics-web-apps. You are using it for model driven development, for software that tries to emulate a part of "real-life", and that is where semantics are king. The reason why high-level programming was invented was to give us better tools to express the semantics of a model in programming.

In many cases i actually do want to know if something is empty, no matter the technicals. For example: I want to know if the shopping-cart of my user is empty, not if the shopping cart is equal to null (which does not make semantic sense as a sentence). I don't care if at that point my cart is an object, an array or a decimal. I also don't care if the cart is NULL or "0" or an empty array, in all cases the cart can be considered to be empty. Just tell me if the cart is empty or not.
The reason why i often prefer "empty" is that it directly expresses the semantics of the model.

The same argument applies to "isset", it is a semantic operator that tells me if something is there. If it is NULL, it is defined to be "not there", which is exactly what i want to know. In your example-code above, i find the "isset" variant way easier to read.

The PHP expression

if (isset($payload['username'])) ...

directly translates to "If the payload has a username, then ...", which is very easy to read and understand.
In contrast, the PHP expression

if (array_key_exists('username', $payload')) ...

translates to "If the payload has an existing key that is 'username', then ...", which is a lot more convoluted and harder to understand that the "isset" version. But more importantly, it is not a statement that is taken from the model. Who talks like that?!

An even better way to express a check for an empty cart would probably be methods (like "isEmpty") on an shopping-cart object, but in reality (and especially lagacy PHP codebases) you do not always have your semantics expressed in objects, sometimes you have to deal with plain old primitives.

I am onboard with trying to reduce the possible bugs, but this is in my opinion a bad trade-off. You are making the code safer against unexpected (scalar) types, but at the same time you are making it harder to read and to understand by other (mostly junior-) developers because the wording does not relate to the model anymore. That means that when other people try to modify the code (and they will!), they are more likely to be confused by the code and more likely to introduce bugs (compared to when they could just read the code like plain fact-expressing English).
If you want to prevent bugs then the most important thing to do is to make the program easier to understand, problematic corner-cases come second.


On your second paragraph speak for yourself... I develop a factory shop control app mostly on a LAMP stack with ERP integration on an IBMi DB2. Believe me there are plenty of use cases for high DBMS and performance-driven apps in PHP.

As for the sentiment of your comment, yes there are many times isset and empty are useful, and understanding of how they are used is the only requirement for using them. They're my preferred way to test because I know what to expect.


Thanks for your take Gerrit!

I don't care if at that point my cart is an object, an array or a decimal. I also don't care if the cart is NULL or "0" or an empty array, in all cases the cart can be considered to be empty. Just tell me if the cart is empty or not.

I didn't understand this. Could you provide me some sample code, thanks!


The main time I find myself using isset() is for medium-to-big nested arrays, because it evaluates to false instead of throwing an exception if one of the more middling keys doesn't exist.

Eliminates a couple bothersome checks for if ($arr['foo'] && $arr['foo']['bar'] && $arr['foo']['bar']['baz']...), since you can just if (isset($arr['foo']['bar']['baz'][...]). It's not necessary, but convenient for working with more complex data structures.

I can't really think of other times I've needed to use it. Mostly strict equality checks and array_key_exists() work without issue.


Deep structures are unwanted in OOP. Maybe you use it for read a configuration, but read and inject a subtree is more explaining.


I get the point, but I think isset and empty can be very helpful when you're dealing with an existing codebase, given the fact that you may not understand it fully, or that the code may be doing something different than what you expected.
Great post anyways! I found your point of view very interesting.


Hi Aleksi,

Good article, thank you. For me it turned something that was more than a "vague feeling" into reasonable position.

There is one thing I'd like to add. In the example:

$customer = Customer::find($customerId);

imo $customer === null is the only reasonable check. instanceof should be used only when we expected find method might return several various instances. In other words, by checking with instanceof we ask "Who are you?", and checking for null - "Do you exist?". And these checks doesn't exclude each other and could be combined when needed.


Just a style thing, but I agree... e.g. $customer instanceof Customer is less explicit than a null test and won't work with things like null object pattern or duck typing.


instanceof should be used only when we expected find method might return several various instances.

This actually seems to be case with Laravel, which is what i had in mind when writing this. Bad interfaces and accidental complexity makes you do weird workarounds. :)


Good post. 👍

Laravel (Eloquent) ships with a nice findOrFail() method for models which throws a ModelNotFoundException when query does not return results. This has been my go-to approach instead of null-checks. I try to communicate with exceptions as much as possible - especially when I'm building a library - helps with debugging both in production and in development.


Thanks Niko!

I enjoy using your approach as well! It forces the client to react in case i cannot deliver what i'm asked to. It does a really good job of exposing problems immediately when they happen. I do know that this approach doesn't warrant the admiration of every peer, not sure why though :D Well, hopefully someone will educate me on this one day.


I've been using PHP for around 15 years. I've never really liked isset() and empty(), mainly because of their names. empty() should be isempty().

Then there are functions like is_int() which use another name style. (I'd prefer they were all named like this).

I STILL have to look up those function names every time. Now I'm not going to bother :-)

And I didn't know about array_key_exists()... Thanks!


Yeah the mixed naming conventions were starting to annoy me too recently. Haven't been using the language nearly as long as you have. But I would hope they would do something like rename all of the runonname functions the other way, alias the old names to the new ones, and then include a deprecation message for the old names and move on. At least that way it would be backwards compatible for however long before they're removed entirely.

Would also prefer renaming some functions like strlen to string_length or at least str_length.


The issue is when working with large arrays or being called frequently, array_key_exists is 2x to 10x slower than isset.


Interesting, thanks! Do you have a benchmark available somewhere?


It's a simple benchmark with many examples, but to quote one of them provided on the PHP manual:

Benchmark (100000 runs):
array_key_exists() : 205 ms
is_set() : 35ms
isset() || array_key_exists() : 48ms

A situation where isset makes sense for me is checking $_POST. It's completely legitimate for a key to not be have been sent by the client.


You could use filter_input and get much more useful info back than isset.


In this case you’d be interested in both questions: does a value exist and is it something useful. I agree, it makes sense.


Use argument type hints and return type hints in every method and function you write.

100% agree with this statement. If you're not using type hints you're probably stuck in 2012.


Good article! Not totally applicable for legacy code though. Until you have strict typing for properties, parameters and return values, not using isset() or empty() will make the code more verbose and actually less readable and less maintainable.


Never dive in this questions.. good conclusion.. will take your advice. Cheers

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