Best practices in PHP when iterating over database results

How the default method for iterating over database results is stuck in 2005, goes against best practices and what to do about it.

Many PHP database libraries use a while loop with assignment to iterate over database results. In this article I’ll show why this pattern is so pervasive, why it opens the door for errors and what you can use instead.

This is a typical piece of PHP code, using PDO for accessing the database and iterating over the result:

$result = $db->query("SELECT id, name from my_table");
while ($row = $result->fetch()) {
    // do something with $row

Many coding styles don’t recommend the practice of “assignment inside control structure expression”. The MediaWiki Coding Style even has a rule that forbids assignments in control structures, which prevents this style of looping. Which could raise the questions:

  • Why disallow assignments in control structures?
  • How do I fix the code to make the coding style checker happy?
  • How did this style of looping evolve and why did the evolution stop?

Why assignments in control structures are dangerous

Except for the iteration of database results, using an assignment in a control structure can be dangerous. The danger comes from the similarity of operators that use the equal sign in an expression:

  • $a = $b is an assignment, the value of variable $b gets assigned to $a. The return type of the expression is the type of $b.
  • $a == $b is a comparison, checking if $a and $b have the same value after applying type conversion. The return type of the expression is a boolean.
  • $a === $b is a comparison, checking if $a and $b have the same value and type.The return type of the expression is a boolean.

Control structures like if and while expect a boolean expression. If you’re using an assignment (one equal sign) instead of a comparison (two or three equal signs) the PHP interpreter will first do the assignment and then type-juggle the assigned value into a boolean. This will change the way your code works:

When looping over a database result, you do want exactly this behavior, but in almost all other cases, using assignment instead of comparison is an unobtrusive and hard-to-find typo that makes your code behave in unexpected ways. To protect against this typical mistake, the authors of the MediaWiki Coding Style decided to disallow assignments in control structures.

Even when you are using a different coding style, I can recommend using this rule in the PHP Cosing Style Checker (or an IDE setting that highlights problematic code pieces) to prevent severe errors that come from a simple typo.

Side note: Yoda conditions

Other coding styles like Symfony and WordPress allow assignments in comparisons, but prevent accidental assignments in comparisons by enforcing a pattern called “Yoda Conditions”. This style of comparison places the static comparison value to the left instead of the right, triggering a syntax error when you accidentally do an assignment:

// The usual comparison
if ($myVariable == 1) { /* ... */}

// Yoda comparison
if (1 == $myVariable) { /* ... */}

// Syntax error when you accidentally assign
if (1 = $myVariable) { /* ... */}

Personally, I don’t like Yoda conditions, because they break the expected reading direction and don’t prevent the override when the left side is a variable. And to enforce this style, you need a coding style checker anyway, so why not disallow assignments in control structures in your CS checker?

How to improve the database iteration code

Explicit assignment outside condition

When using the MediaWiki Coding Style, the code that doesn’t violate the rule looks like this:

$row = $result->fetch();
while($row !== null ) {
    // do something with $row
    // ...
   $row = $result->fetch();

While it satisfies the code style checker rules, the code becomes worse in two ways:

  • It duplicates the call to fetch(), violating the “Don’t repeat yourself” principle
  • It makes it easier to forget to call fetch() at the end of the loop, resulting in an infinite loop. You’ll also need to call fetch() before calling continue inside the loop. This solution means a tradeoff between error sources - a typo in comparison vs. forgetting to call a function.

Ignore coding style for certain lines

A better way would be a local phpcs:ignore comment

$result = $db->query("SELECT id, name from my_table");
// phpcs:ignore MediaWiki.ControlStructures.AssignmentInControlStructures.AssignmentInControlStructures
while( $row = $result->fetch() ) {
    // do something with $row

This keeps the boolean assignment and avoids repetition. Explicitly ignoring a rule will signal intent to the reader of the code.

Use a better database API

The underlying problem is that the PDO database API has no builtin support for the “iterate over all results” use case. Instead, the fetch() method either returns null, signifying “there are no values”, or one result row (an array with values), with a side effect of moving an internal “result pointer” (cursor) to the next result, if it exists. The easiest, most concise way to interact with this API is using a while loop with assignment.

What you really want is a foreach loop, but you’d have to make one of the following changes:

// PDO with PHP 8 example
$result = $db->query("SELECT id, name from my_table");
foreach($result->getIterator() as $row) {
     // do something with $row
  • Write your own implementation of the Iterator interface , wrapping the fetch method with conditionals and keeping the result as an internal state.
  • Use another database abstraction like laminas-db or Doctrine DBAL that implements iteration over result sets. When using Doctrine DBAL, keep in mind that some of the methods that return iterators are undocumented. At the time of writing this article (April 2022), the Doctrine documentation examples still use fetch with while loops.

A history of PHP database access

Using a while loop for iterating over database results has been around for quite some time. In PHP 2, released in 1997, you would get the number of results and would iterate with a while loop and a “result index” variable:

// PHP 2.0 database access example
$result = mysql("phpfi","select id, name from my_table");
$num = mysql_numrows($result);
// result index
while($i < $num);
   // No $row, you have to access individual columns
   $id = mysql_result($result,$i,"id");

PHP 3.0, released in 1998, introduced a new API for MySQL, moving the concept of result counting and row index into the abstracted internal state of the database access functions and allowed to fetch whole rows:

// PHP 3.0 database access example
$result = mysql_db_query("database","select id, name from my_table");
while ($row = mysql_fetch_array ($result)) {
    // do something with row

PHP 4.0 did not introduce new APIs, but supported some rudimentary Object-Oriented-Programming, which enabled early database abstraction libraries like MDB2 and ADOdb. Their code already looked like PDO and they used a while loop to iterate:

// ADOdb library example
$result = $db->execute("SELECT id, name from my_table");
while ($row = $result->fetchRow()) {
    // do something with row

PHP 5.1, released in 2005, introduced the PDO class, an object-oriented database abstraction layer built into the language. It kept the “fetch row or null”-pattern that previous database libraries used.

But PHP 5 also introduced two new features that at least made it possible to iterate over database results with foreach:

  • The object-oriented concept of interfaces
  • The special Iterator interface. This interface allows implementing classes to provide sequential values to a foreach loop. In PHP 4, foreach could only iterate over arrays and object properties.

I have no idea why it took PHP about 15 years (until PHP 8.0, released in 2020) to introduce the getIterator method in PDO. My best guess is that the OOP capabilities of PHP 5 resulted in an explosion of frameworks and ORM libraries that made the use case of iterating over result rows less prevalent, preserving the while loop method with its assignment in conditional pattern across millions of code bases, which acted as the blueprint for new code.

Side note: Iteration and memory usage

One of the reasons why a fetch() method/function is so prevalent might be memory usage. When you can’t have the whole result set in memory, it’s better to retrieve the results one-by-one. For a long time, using fetch() and while was the only way to iterate in a memory-efficient way. Modern database libraries and PHP 8 PDO now offer an iterator interface that allows to iterate one-by-one with foreach.

If you’re using MySQL, there is one pitfall: Buffered Queries. By default, the PHP interpreter internally loads the whole result set into memory. If you have a large result set, you need to make an unbuffered query.

Conclusion / TL;DR

  • Use a database API that supports foreach instead of while for iterating over results. This means the API should return an Iterator or Traversable type instead of a union type like null|array.
  • Check for assignments in conditions, prevent them via your code style checks
  • Pay attention to memory usage and don’t pre-fetch everything when you expect large results.