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Formatting Strings with PHP

Until now, we have simply printed any strings that we want to display directly to the browser, in their original state. PHP provides two functions that allow you first to apply formatting, whether to round doubles to a given number of decimal places, define alignment within a field, or display data according to different number systems. In this section, you will look at a few of the formatting options provided by printf() and sprintf().

Working with printf()

If you have any experience with a C-like programming language, you will be familiar with the concept of the printf() function. The printf() function requires a string argument, known as a format control string. It also accepts additional arguments of different types, which you'll learn about in a moment. The format control string contains instructions regarding the display of these additional arguments. The following fragment, for example, uses printf() to output an integer as an octal (or base-8) number:

printf("This is my number: %o", 55);
// prints "This is my number: 67"

Within the format control string (the first argument), we have included a special code, known as a conversion specification.

A conversion specification begins with a percent (%) symbol and defines how to treat the corresponding argument to printf(). You can include as many conversion specifications as you want within the format control string, as long as you send an equivalent number of arguments to printf().

The following fragment outputs two numbers using printf():

printf("First number: %o<br>Second number: %o<br>", 55, 66);
// Prints:
// First number: 67
// Second number: 102

The first conversion specification corresponds to the first of the additional arguments to printf(), which is 55. The second conversion specification corresponds to 66. The o following the percent symbol requires that the data be treated as an octal. This part of the conversion specification is the type specifier.

printf() and Type Specifiers

You have already come across one type specifier, o, which displays integers as octals. Table 9.1 lists the other type specifiers that are available.

Table 9.1. Type Specifiers




Display argument as a decimal number


Display an integer as a binary number


Display an integer as ASCII equivalent


Display an integer as a floating-point number (double)


Display an integer as an octal number (base 8)


Display argument as a string


Display an integer as a lowercase hexadecimal number (base 16)


Display an integer as an uppercase hexadecimal number (base 16)

Listing 9.1 uses printf() to display a single number according to some of the type specifiers listed in Table 9.1.

Notice that we do not only add conversion specifications to the format control string. Any additional text we include will be printed.

Listing 9.1. Demonstrating Some Type Specifiers
1: <?php
2: $number = 543;
3: printf("Decimal: %d<br>", $number);
4: printf("Binary: %b<br>", $number);
5: printf("Double: %f<br>", $number);
6: printf("Octal: %o<br>", $number);
7: printf("String: %s<br>", $number);
8: printf("Hex (lower): %x<br>", $number);
9: printf("Hex (upper): %X<br>", $number);
10: ?>

Put these lines into a text file called printftest.php, and place this file in your Web server document root. When you access this script through your Web browser, it should look something like Figure 9.1. As you can see, printf() is a quick way of converting data from one number system to another and outputting the result.

Figure 9.1. Demonstrating conversion specifiers.

When you specify a color in HTML, you combine three hexadecimal numbers between 00 and FF, representing the values for red, green, and blue. You can use printf() to convert three decimal numbers between 0 and 255 to their hexadecimal equivalents:

$red = 204;
$green = 204;
$blue = 204;
printf("#%X%X%X", $red, $green, $blue);
// prints "#CCCCCC"

Although you can use the type specifier to convert from decimal to hexadecimal numbers, you can't use it to determine how many characters the output for each argument should occupy. Within an HTML color code, each hexadecimal number should be padded to two characters, which would become a problem if we changed our $red, $green, and $blue variables in the previous fragment to contain 1, for example. We would end up with the output #111. You can force the output of leading zeroes by using a padding specifier.

Padding Output with the Padding Specifier

You can require that output be padded by leading characters. The padding specifier should directly follow the percent sign that begins a conversion specification. To pad output with leading zeroes, the padding specifier should consist of a zero followed by the number of characters you want the output to take up. If the output occupies fewer characters than this total, the difference will be filled with zeroes:

printf("%04d", 36);
// prints "0036"

To pad output with leading spaces, the padding specifier should consist of a space character followed by the number of characters that the output should occupy:

printf("% 4d", 36)
// prints " 36"

By the Way

A browser will not display multiple spaces in an HTML document. You can force the display of spaces and newlines by placing <PRE> tags around your output.

echo "The     spaces     will be visible";

If you wish to format an entire document as text, you can use the header() function to change the Content-Type header.

header("Content-Type: text/plain");

Remember that your script must not have sent any output to the browser for the header() function to work as desired.

You can specify any character other than a space or a zero in your padding specifier with a single quotation mark followed by the character you want to use:

printf ("%'x4d", 36);
// prints "xx36"

We now have the tools we need to complete our HTML code example. Until now, we could convert three numbers, but we could not pad them with leading zeroes:

$red = 1;
$green = 1;
$blue = 1;
printf("#%02X%02X%02X", $red, $green, $blue);
// prints "#010101"

Each variable is output as a hexadecimal number. If the output occupies fewer than two spaces, leading zeroes will be added.

Specifying a Field Width

You can specify the number of spaces within which your output should sit. The field width specifier is an integer that should be placed after the percent sign that begins a conversion specification (assuming that no padding specifier is defined). The following fragment outputs a list of four items, all of which sit within a field of 20 spaces. To make the spaces visible on the browser, we place all our output within a PRE element.

echo "<pre>";
printf("%20s\n", "Books");
printf("%20s\n", "CDs");
printf("%20s\n", "DVDs");
printf("%20s\n", "Games");
printf("%20s\n", "Magazines");
echo "</pre>";

Figure 9.2 shows the output of this fragment.

Figure 9.2. Aligning with field width specifiers.

By default, output is right-aligned within the field you specify. You can make it left-aligned by prepending a minus () symbol to the field width specifier:

printf("%-20s\n", "Left aligned");

Note that alignment applies to the decimal portion of any number that you output. In other words, only the portion before the decimal point of a double will sit flush to the end of the field width when right aligned.

Specifying Precision

If you want to output data in floating-point format, you can specify the precision to which you want to round your data. This is particularly useful when dealing with currency. The precision identifier should be placed directly before the type specifier. It consists of a dot followed by the number of decimal places to which you want to round. This specifier only has an effect on data that is output with the f type specifier:

printf("%.2f", 5.333333);
// prints "5.33"

By the Way

In the C language, it is possible to use a precision specifier with printf() to specify padding for decimal output. The precision specifier will have no effect on decimal output in PHP. Use the padding specifier to add leading zeroes to integers.

Conversion Specifications: A Recap

Table 9.2 lists the specifiers that can make up a conversion specification in the order that they would be included. Note that it is difficult to use both a padding specifier and a field width specifier. You should choose to use one or the other, but not both.

Table 9.2. Components of Conversion Specification




Padding specifier

Determines the number of characters that output should occupy, and the characters to add otherwise


Field width specifier

Determines the space within which output should be formatted


Precision specifier

Determines the number of decimal places to which a double should be rounded


Type specifier

Determines the data type that should be output


Listing 9.2 uses printf() to output a list of products and prices.

Listing 9.2. Using printf() to Format a List of Product Prices
1: <?php
2: $products = array("Green armchair"=>"222.4",
3:      "Candlestick"=>"4",
4:      "Coffee table"=>80.6
5: );
6: echo "<pre>";
7: printf("%-20s%23s\n", "Name", "Price");
8: printf("%'-43s\n", "");
9: foreach ($products as $key=>$val) {
10:     printf( "%-20s%20.2f\n", $key, $val );
11: }
12: echo "</pre>";
13: ?>

We first define an associative array containing product names and prices in lines 2 through 5. We open print a PRE element in line 6, so that the browser will recognize our spaces and newlines. Our first printf() call on line 7 uses the following format control string:


The first conversion specification in the format control string ("%-20s") defines a width specifier of 20 characters, with the output to be left-justified. The string type specifier is also used. The second conversion specification ("%23s") sets up a right-aligned field width. This printf() call will output our field headers.

Our second printf() function call on line 8 draws a line containing characters, 43 characters wide. We achieve this with a padding specifier, which adds padding to an empty string.

The final printf() call on line 10 is part of a foreach statement that loops through the product array. We use two conversion specifications herethe first ("%-20s") prints the product name as a string left-justified within a 20-character field, and the second ("%20.2f") uses a field width specifier to ensure that output will be right-aligned within a 20-character field. We also use a precision specifier to ensure that the output is rounded to two decimal places.

Put these lines into a text file called printftest2.php, and place this file in your Web server document root. When you access this script through your Web browser, it should look like Figure 9.3:

Figure 9.3. Products and prices formatted with printf().

Argument Swapping

Imagine that you are printing dates to the browser. You have the dates in a multidimensional array and you are using printf() to format the output.

$dates = array(
            array('mon'=> 12, 'mday'=>25, 'year'=>2004),
            array('mon'=>  5, 'mday'=>23, 'year'=>2004),
            array('mon'=> 10, 'mday'=>29, 'year'=>2004)
$format = include("local_format.php");
foreach($dates as $date) {
    printf("$format", $date['mon'], $date['mday'], $date['year']);

In the preceding snippet, we are getting our format control string from an include file called local_format.php. Assuming that this file contains only

return "%02d/%02d/%d<br>";

Our output will be in the format mm/dd/yyyy.


Imagine now that we are installing our script for a European site, where dates are commonly presented with days before months (dd/mm/yyyy). Assume that the core code is written in stone and cannot be changed. What should you do? Luckily we can now alter the order in which the arguments are presented from within the format control code, by changing the return statement to:

return "%2\$02d/%1\$02d/%3\$d<br>";

We can insert the argument number we are interested in after the initial percentage character that marks each conversion specification, followed by an escaped dollar ($) character. So, in our fragment, we are demanding that the second argument be presented:


followed by the first


and concluded with the third.


The result of the new code is a list of dates in British format:


Storing a Formatted String

The printf() function outputs data to the browser, which means that the results are not available to your scripts. You can, however, use the function sprintf(), which is written just like printf() except that it returns a string that you can then store in a variable for later use. The following fragment uses sprintf() to round a double to two decimal places, storing the result in $cash:

$cash = sprintf("%.2f", 21.334454);
echo "You have \$$cash to spend.";
// Prints "You have $21.33 to spend."

A particular use of sprintf() is to write formatted data to a file. You can call sprintf() and assign its return value to a variable that can then be printed to a file with fputs().

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