WordPress Template Tags: How They Show Post Content & More
WordPress template tags are a super-important and super-valuable part of WordPress, especially for theme development. They’re also one of the things I remember spending lots of time not quite getting as I was learning WordPress.
So today we’re happy to present you with our free chapter on WordPress template tags from our full “learn WordPress development” guide, Up and Running!
The Best Way to Learn WordPress DevelopmentUp and Running is our complete “learn WordPress development” course. Now in its updated and expanded Third Edition, it’s helped hundreds of happy buyers learn WordPress development the fast, smart, and thorough way.
Here’s what they have to say:
“I think anyone interested in learning WordPress development NEEDS this course. Watching the videos was like a bunch of lights being turned on.” -Jason, WordPress developer
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Like each chapter of Up and Running, this one starts with the “Key Takeaways” about WordPress’s post template tags.
- Template tags is the generic term for functions designed to work mainly inside WordPress’s PHP templates, especially inside The Loop.
- A common pattern, true across most template tags, is that functions beginning with
returna value for later use, while functions beginning with
echoa value directly onto the page.
get_the_()functions are designed to operate inside The Loop. However, many
get_the_()functions can be called outside The Loop, if given a post ID as a function parameter.
Some WordPress functions are designed to work inside page templates—the PHP files like
page.php that make up the body of any WordPress theme.
Some WordPress functions are designed to work inside page templates. These functions are called template tags.
These functions are called template tags, and they’re among WordPress’s most important and easiest-to-use functions.
get_the_() Template Tags
Template tag names often start with either
get_the_, and they often either print or retrieve information related to the current post.
Template tags do all kinds of things—you can see the full list at https://codex.wordpress.org/Template_Tags—but the most important ones often do one of two things:
- Retrieve information related to the current post
- Print information related to the current post onto the page
Not all template tags do one of these things, but this chapter will only cover the ones that do.
One more thing to know: these template tags often have predictable names: they often start with either
This pattern in naming matches a really important pattern in functionality:
echo Things, and
This is an important pattern to get under your skin:
echoa value: they print something directly onto the page as HTML.
returna value: they give your PHP script something that it can use later.
To illustrate, let’s look more closely at two template tags:
<?php /* Environment: We're INSIDE The Loop, and the current post's title is "My Favorite Post" */ /* Using the_title() */ the_title(); // Prints out the string "My Favorite Post" $broken_variable = the_title(); // Prints out the string "My Favorite Post" echo $broken_variable; // Prints out nothing; $broken_variable is NULL /* Using get_the_title() */ get_the_title(); // Doesn't accomplish anything echo get_the_title(); // Prints out the string "My Favorite Post" $post_title = get_the_title(); // Saves the value "My Favorite Post" to the variable $post_title echo $post_title; // Prints out the string "My Favorite Post"
Let’s look, step by step, at the results for each of our lines of code:
This function’s designed to print things, so that’s what happens. The HTML page will now have “My Favorite Post” on it.
$broken_variable = the_title();
Don’t do this.
the_title() always prints onto the page, so you now get the string “My Favorite Post” printed straight onto your page, and you don’t successfully save that string to the
Don’t do this: it doesn’t do anything. More specifically, it does get the title, but doesn’t use it for anything. Remember,
get_() functions don’t print by default.
Gets the title, and then prints that with
echo. Writing this line is exactly the same as just writing
$post_title = get_the_title();
This line doesn’t print anything, but does save the value “My Favorite Post” to the variable
Since we previously saved the string “My Favorite Post” to
echoing that variable prints it straight onto the page.
A Second Example
Let’s look at PHP more in-context with HTML. Pretend we’re in our theme’s
index.php file, and want to print each post’s excerpt onto the page. Here are some options:
/* We're INSIDE The Loop */ <div><?php get_the_excerpt(); ?></div> <!-- Nothing echoed, so results in an empty div element --> <div><?php the_excerpt(); ?></div> <!-- Prints out the post's excerpt inside the div element --> <div><?php echo get_the_excerpt(); ?></div> <!-- Prints out the post's excerpt inside the div element --> <div><?php echo 'Excerpt: ' . get_the_excerpt(); ?></div> <!-- Prints out "Excerpt: " and the post's excerpt inside the div element -->
This naming relationship holds across the WordPress function library! The only real exception to keep in mind is that
the_post() does something important, and doesn’t
echo anything. (Remember, though: You don’t really have to understand
the_post() as long as you always remember to write it into your Loop.)
get_the_() Template Tags to Know
The following functions are utterly crucial to theme development. They’re also really easy to use, so if you’re like us you’ll come to love them right away. Here they are:
get_the_title(): prints or retrieves the current post’s title
get_the_permalink(): prints or retrieves a link to the URL of the current post
get_the_content(): prints or retrieves the current post’s content
get_the_excerpt(): prints or retrieves an excerpt of the beginning of the current post
get_the_author(): prints or retrieves the public name of the current post’s author
For the full list of template tags, check out the Codex at: https://codex.wordpress.org/Template_Tags
get_the_() Template Tags Happen In The Loop
Some functions must be called within The Loop, and some shouldn’t be. Let’s look at the patterns there, and how template tags fit into it.
What “In the Loop” Means
Just so we’re clear, here’s what “inside The Loop” and “outside The Loop” mean. Pretend we’re looking at a PHP template in the WordPress template hierarchy, like your theme’s
// We're now OUTSIDE The Loop if ( have_posts() ) : while ( have_posts() ) : the_post(); // We're now INSIDE The Loop, working on posts one-by-one; "in-The-Loop" functions go here endwhile; endif; // We're OUTSIDE The Loop again
Functions that Work on Individual Posts Usually Happen in The Loop
Functions that retrieve, alter, or display the properties of individual posts should generally take place inside The Loop.
Why? Because The Loop is what moves through individual posts one-by-one and does things to them. The Loop is what processes raw posts into webpages, so for functions that participate in that process in a predictable way (say, printing out each post’s title with
the_title()), The Loop is the natural place to be.
A template file that makes good use of “In-the-Loop” functions might look something like this:
<?php // We're now OUTSIDE The Loop if ( have_posts() ) : while ( have_posts() ) : the_post(); ?> // We're now INSIDE The Loop <h2><a href="<?php the_permalink(); ?>"><?php the_title(); ?></a><h2> <span class="author-name">By <?php the_author(); ?></span> <section><?php the_excerpt(); ?></section> endwhile; endif; // We're OUTSIDE The Loop again
Some “In The Loop” Functions Can Be Called Outside It, with Function Parameters
Less commonly, some functions that work with individual posts can also be called outside The Loop. If so, though, they must be given the ID of the post as a function parameter so that they know which post to act on.
This will make more sense with an example. For this example, we’re outside The Loop. That could be lots of places: in
index.php but outside The Loop, in
footer.php or another non-Loop template file, in
functions.php, or in a PHP file in a plugin.
/* We're OUTSIDE The Loop right now */ $title_broken = get_the_title(); // Won't work! Get the title of which post? $title_working = get_the_title( 2 ); // Will get the title of the post whose post ID is 2, if that post exists echo $title_working; // Will print out the title of the post whose post ID is 2, if that post exists echo get_the_title( 3 ); // Will print out the title of the post whose post ID is 3, if that post exists
get_the_title() can be called outside The Loop, with a function parameter (the
3 in the example above) that says which post it is whose title we want to retrieve. Many of the
get_the_() template tags work similarly.
the_() Functions are Loop-Only
the_() functions are Loop-only! So the following won’t work:
/* We're OUTSIDE The Loop right now */ the_title(); // Won't work! the_title() is Loop-only the_title( 2 ); // Won't work! the_title() is Loop-only and takes no parameters
Summary: The Loop and WordPress Template Tag Names
To repeat and summarize the above in practical terms:
the_()functions assume knowledge of the current post, so they only make sense inside The Loop.
get_the_()functions are meant primarily in The Loop. To work outside The Loop, these functions need to be given a post ID as a function argument, so that they know what post to act on.
- Functions that aren’t used to retrieve, alter, or display individual post properties—some
get_functions, and most other functions that don’t start with
the_—shouldn’t be called in The Loop.
Final Note: Naming Inconsistencies
WordPress functions are not named perfectly consistently. Some
get_() functions behave exactly like the
get_the()functions described here—and match a corresponding
the_() function—but are missing
the_ in their function names for whatever reason. (
get_permalink() is an obvious example, although mercifully
get_the_permalink() was added in WordPress 3.9.)
get_() functions do “get” (retrieve) things, but they act nothing like the functions covered in this chapter.
includes the entire contents of
header.php, for example. Just know that things aren’t perfectly consistent, and you’ll learn the odd bits quickly.
Here’s something simple to learn:
get_the_()‘s designed to
You’ll use each type plenty in turn.
- What will be the effect of running just
get_the_author();inside The Loop?
- The current post’s author will be printed onto the page
- The current post’s author will be saved into WordPress’s global state
- Called inside The Loop,
the_title();is equivalent to:
- The following code will properly execute outside The Loop:
get_the_content( 2 );
Answers and Explanations
C.Just getting a
returnvalue has no effect if you don’t do anything with it.
Awould be the correct answer for a Loop that calls
the_title();retrieves the current post’s title and immediately
echos it; it is a kind of predefined shorthand for
the_()functions don’t work outside The Loop.
get_the_content()doesn’t know which post to act on by default, but can run if passed a post ID (
2in this case) or a post slug as a function argument.
Image credit: Douglas R Witt