Generics in PHP using PHP DocComments

Author by Jakub Misek
9 minutes
Generics in PHP using PHP DocComments

Most of the type-safe languages, like TypeScript, C++, C#, Java, ... or Hack, .. allow you to specify not just types but also so-called generic type arguments - a way of substituting a type name with an actual type when you use it. PHP lets you to specify types for extra type-safety (and improved code completion), but generic types need to be specified inside Doc Comments. That's because the PHP language syntax itself does not know them yet.

Let's see how they look like, and what's the benefit of generic types.

Basic Usage

There is a well-known PHPDoc tag @template which tells the editor about a new type name - the generic type. Consider the following sample, and notice that we introduce type named T.

 * @template T
class MyCollection {

    /** @var T[] */
    var $items;

    /** @return T */
    function getItem($i) { return $this->items[$i]; }

@template T defines a new type name T, which can be used in Doc Comments in the scope of entire class.

T can be *anything* (an object, int, bool, string, array, ...) at this point but at the same time $items and getItem() are restricted to the same T. More precisely, $items is restricted to be an array of T, and getItem() is annotated to return the same type T.

In the same way, you make restrictions within a single function scope, like the following one:

 * @template T
 * @param T[] $list
 * @return T
function array_first($list) {
    return array_shift($list);

$x = array_first( [1,2,3] ); // "T" is substituted with "int", "$x' is "int"

Code Diagnostic

The PHP editor recognizes generic types and checks everything matches; consider the following sample:

 * @template TEntry
 * @param TEntry[] $list
 * @param TEntry $item
 * @return int|string|false
function find($list, $item) {
  return array_search($item, $list);

$list and $item are both restricted to the same type TEntry, they are bound to each other. This makes your code much safer, since it adds additional level of type information to it.

When you make use of such annotated function, the editor substitutes the type argument TEntry with what it knows. Then we get error right in the PHP editor, if we try to use the function find() in a way which does not make sense:

$needle = 'hello';
find( [1,2,3], $needle ); // ERROR: type mismatch: expected 'int', but 'string' given.

This is very useful for maintaining your code integrity without the need of continuously running tests for every line of the project:

type mismatch check

Limit the Generic Type

@template TException of Exception

Sometimes you need to restrict the generic type argument itself. Imagine function that accepts anything assignable to type Exception. And returns it.

 * @template TException of \Exception
 * @param TException $e
 * @return TException
function handle($e) { return $e; }

// call
$e= handle(new InvalidArgumentException); // $e is "InvalidArgumentException", not just "Exception"

The sample above keeps the type information we pass as an argument. In the result, PHP Editor, and eventual type checks will make use of better type information for the resulting value in $e. Moreover, we only allow objects of type Exception to be used as an argument.

Generic Type Specification

Generic type names can be used in other type names, and that allows for more complex combinations. Specifying generic type arguments is made through < and > brackets.

Generic Class Type Arguments

As a sample, to specify our MyCollection class with specifying the type argument T, we use it like this:

 * @param MyCollection<int> $collection
function foo( $collection ) {
    // $collection is of type "MyCollection", where "T" is "int"

Special Type Names

Additionally, there are some special keywords allowing us to be even more specific.


Use the type name class-string<T> to annotate a type, which is a string that refers to a type name. Let's demonstrate on an example:

 * @template T
 * @param class-string<T> $class_name
 * @return T
function make($class_name) { return new $class_name; }

The parameter $class_name uses a generic type specification, it will be a string referring to a type name (so we can make an instance of it with new). But also, the editor will inherit as much information as it can, so in result:

  • the editor may check argument to make() is a valid class name.
  • it may resolve the return type of make() and provide better code completion and additional type checks.

completion PHP generic type


In the same way, the editor understands array<> notation. Use array<TKey, TValue> or just array<TValue> to annotate arrays and their elements.


Other special annotations are iterable<T>, (callable(): TResult), Collection<T>, Generator<TKey, TValue, TSend, TReturn>

Inherit, and More

Finally, there are new Doc Comment keywords @extends and @implements. We use them in the class's Doc Comment to specify generic type base class and base interfaces.

/** @extends MyCollection<int> */
class IntCollection extends MyCollection {

Or combine it all together:

 * @template T
 * @extends MyCollection<T>
 * @implememts Traversable<T>
class ReadOnlyCollection extends MyCollection implements Traversable {


It's a long time requested feature. When writing a type-safe object-oriented PHP code, you'll definitely need some generics. PHP Tools for Visual Studio and PHP Tools for Visual Studio Code provide you with the smart PHP Editor which has full support for generics - code completion, code diagnostics, and refactoring help you with writing type-safe and bullet-proof code. Code faster, and avoid unnecessary errors.

See Also