Writing Code

Understand Elgg’s standards and processes to get your changes accepted as quickly as possible.

License agreement

By submitting a patch you are agreeing to license the code under a GPLv2 license and MIT license.

Pull requests

Pull requests (PRs) are the best way to get code contributed to Elgg core. The core development team uses them even for the most trivial changes.

For new features, submit a feature request or talk to us first and make sure the core team approves of your direction before spending lots of time on code.


Use these markdown checklists for new PRs on github to ensure high-quality contributions and help everyone understand the status of open PRs.

Bugfix PRs:

- [ ] Commit messages are in the standard format
- [ ] Includes regression test
- [ ] Includes documentation update (if applicable)
- [ ] Is submitted against the correct branch
- [ ] Has LGTM from at least one core developer

Feature PRs:

- [ ] Commit messages are in the standard format
- [ ] Includes tests
- [ ] Includes documentation
- [ ] Is submitted against the correct branch
- [ ] Has LGTM from at least two core developers

Choosing a branch to submit to

The following table assumes the latest stable release is 2.1.

Type of change Branch to submit against
Security fix Don’t! Email security@elgg.org for guidance.
Bug fix 1.12 (or 2.1 if the 1.12 fix is too complex)
Performance 2.x
Deprecation 2.x
Minor feature 2.x
Major feature master
Has any breaking change master

If you’re not sure which branch to submit against, just ask!

The difference between minor and major feature is subjective and up to the core team.

Commit message format

We require a particular format to allow releasing more often, and with improved changelogs and source history. Just follow these steps:

  1. Start with the type by selecting the last category which applies from this list:

    • docs - only docs are being updated
    • chore - this include refactoring, code style changes, adding missing tests, Travis stuff, etc.
    • perf - the primary purpose is to improve performance
    • fix - this fixes a bug
    • deprecate - the change deprecates any part of the API
    • feature - this adds a new user-facing or developer feature
    • security - the change affects a security issue in any way. Please do not push this commit to any public repo. Instead contact security@elgg.org.

    E.g. if your commit refactors to fix a bug, it’s still a “fix”. If that bug is security-related, however, the type must be “security” and you should email security@elgg.org before proceeding. When in doubt, make your best guess and a reviewer will provide guidance.

  2. In parenthesis, add the component, a short string which describes the subsystem being changed.

    Some examples: views, i18n, seo, a11y, cache, db, session, router, <plugin_name>.

  3. Add a colon, a space, and a brief summary of the changes, which will appear in the changelog.

    No line may exceed 100 characters in length, so keep your summary concise.

    Good summary Bad summary (problem)
    page owners see their own owner blocks on pages bug fix (vague)
    bar view no longer dies if ‘foo’ not set updates views/default/bar.php so bar view no longer... (redundant info)
    narrows river layout to fit iPhone alters the river layout (vague)
    elgg_foo() handles arrays for $bar in elgg_foo() you can now pass an array for $bar and the function will... (move detail to description)
    removes link color from comments header in river fixes db so that... (redundant info)
    requires non-empty title when saving pages can save pages with no title (confusingly summarizes old behavior)
  4. (recommended) Skip a line and add a description of the changes. Include the motivation for making them, any info about back or forward compatibility, and any rationale of why the change had to be done a certain way. Example:

    We speed up the Remember Me table migration by using a single INSERT INTO ... SELECT query instead of row-by-row. This migration takes place during the upgrade to 1.9.

    Unless your change is trivial/obvious, a description is required.

  5. If the commit resolves a GitHub issue, skip a line and add Fixes # followed by the issue number. E.g. Fixes #1234. You can include multiple issues by separating with commas.

    GitHub will auto-close the issue when the commit is merged. If you just want to reference an issue, use Refs # instead.

When done, your commit message will have the format:

type(component): summary

Optional body
Details about the solution.
Opportunity to call out as breaking change.

Closes/Fixes/Refs #123, #456, #789

Here is an example of a good commit message:

perf(upgrade): speeds up migrating remember me codes

We speed up the Remember Me table migration by using a single INSERT INTO ... SELECT query instead of row-by-row.
This migration takes place during the upgrade to 1.9.

Fixes #6204

To validate commit messages locally, make sure .scripts/validate_commit_msg.php is executable, and make a copy or symlink to it in the directory .git/hooks/commit-msg.

chmod u+x .scripts/validate_commit_msg.php
ln -s .scripts/validate_commit_msg.php .git/hooks/commit-msg/validate_commit_msg.php

Rewriting commit messages

If your PR does not conform to the standard commit message format, we’ll ask you to rewrite it.

To edit just the last commit:

  1. Amend the commit: git commit --amend (git opens the message in a text editor).
  2. Change the message and save/exit the editor.
  3. Force push your branch: git push -f your_remote your_branch (your PR with be updated).
  4. Rename the PR title to match

Otherwise you may need to perform an interactive rebase:

  1. Rebase the last N commits: git rebase -i HEAD~N where N is a number. (Git will open the git-rebase-todo file for editing)
  2. For the commits that need to change, change pick to r (for reword) and save/exit the editor.
  3. Change the commit message(s), save/exit the editor (git will present a file for each commit that needs rewording).
  4. git push -f your_remote your_branch to force push the branch (updating your PR).
  5. Rename the PR title to match


Elgg has automated tests for both PHP and JavaScript functionality. All new contributions are required to come with appropriate tests.

General guidelines

Break tests up by the behaviors you want to test and use names that describe the behavior. E.g.:

  • Not so good: One big method testAdd().
  • Better: Methods testAddingZeroChangesNothing and testAddingNegativeNumberSubtracts

Strive for componentized designs that allow testing in isolation, without large dependency graphs or DB access. Injecting dependencies is key here.

PHP Tests


Located in engine/tests/phpunit, this is our preferred test suite. It uses no DB access, and has only superficial access to the entities API.

  • We encourage you to create components that are testable in this suite if possible.
  • Consider separating storage from your component so at least business logic can be tested here.
  • Depend on the Elgg\Filesystem\* classes rather than using PHP filesystem functions.


The rest of the files in engine/tests form our integration suite, for anything that needs access to the DB or entity APIs.

  • Our long-term goals are to minimize these and convert them to PHPUnit

Testing interactions between services

Ideally your tests would construct your own isolated object graphs for direct manipulation, but this isn’t always possible.

If your test relies on Elgg’s Service Provider (_elgg_services() returns a Elgg\Di\ServiceProvider), realize that it maintains a singleton instance for most services it hands out, and many services keep their own local references to these services as well.

Due to these local references, replacing services on the SP within a test often will not have the desired effect. Instead, you may need to use functionality baked into the services themselves:

  • The events and hooks services have methods backup() and restore().
  • The logger service has methods disable() and enable().

Jasmine Tests

Test files must be named *Test.js and should go in either js/tests/ or next to their source files in views/default/**.js. Karma will automatically pick up on new *Test.js files and run those tests.

Test boilerplate

define(function(require) {
        var elgg = require('elgg');

        describe("This new test", function() {
                it("fails automatically", function() {

Running the tests

Elgg uses Karma with Jasmine to run JS unit tests.

You will need to have nodejs and npm installed.

First install all the development dependencies:

npm install

Run through the tests just once and then quit:

npm test

You can also run tests continuously during development so they run on each save:

karma start js/tests/karma.conf.js

Debugging JS tests

You can run the test suite inside Chrome dev tools:

npm run chrome

This will output a URL like http://localhost:9876/.

  1. Open the URL in Chrome, and click “Debug”.
  2. Open Chrome dev tools and the Console tab.
  3. Reload the page.

If you alter a test you’ll have to quit Karma with Ctrl-c and restart it.

Coding best practices

Make your code easier to read, easier to maintain, and easier to debug. Consistent use of these guidelines means less guess work for developers, which means happier, more productive developers.

General coding

Don’t Repeat Yourself

If you are copy-pasting code a significant amount of code, consider whether there’s an opportunity to reduce duplication by introducing a function, an additional argument, a view, or a new component class.

E.g. If you find views that are identical except for a single value, refactor into a single view that takes an option.

Note: In a bugfix release, some duplication is preferrable to refactoring. Fix bugs in the simplest way possible and refactor to reduce duplication in the next minor release branch.

Embrace SOLID and GRASP

Use these principles for OO design to solve problems using loosely coupled components, and try to make all components and integration code testable.

Whitespace is free

Don’t be afraid to use it to separate blocks of code. Use a single space to separate function params and string concatenation.

Variable names

Use self-documenting variable names. $group_guids is better than $array.

Avoid double-negatives. Prefer $enable = true to $disable = false.

Interface names

Use the pattern Elgg\{Namespace}\{Name}.

Do not include an I prefix or an Interface suffix.

We do not include any prefix or suffix so that we’re encouraged to:

  • name implementation classes more descriptively (the “default” name is taken).
  • type-hint on interfaces, because that is the shortest, easiest thing to do.

Name implementations like Elgg\{Namespace}\{Interface}\{Implementation}.


Where possible, have functions/methods return a single type. Use empty values such as array(), "", or 0 to indicate no results.

Be careful where valid return values (like "0") could be interpreted as empty.

Functions not throwing an exception on error should return false upon failure.

Functions returning only boolean should be prefaced with is_ or has_ (eg, elgg_is_logged_in(), elgg_has_access_to_entity()).

Ternary syntax

Acceptable only for single-line, non-embedded statements.

Minimize complexity

Minimize nested blocks and distinct execution paths through code. Use Return Early to reduce nesting levels and cognitive load when reading code.

Use comments effectively

Good comments describe the “why.” Good code describes the “how.” E.g.:


// increment $i only when the entity is marked as active.
foreach ($entities as $entity) {
        if ($entity->active) {


// find the next index for inserting a new active entity.
foreach ($entities as $entity) {
        if ($entity->active) {

Always include a comment if it’s not obvious that something must be done in a certain way. Other developers looking at the code should be discouraged from refactoring in a way that would break the code.

// Can't use empty()/boolean: "0" is a valid value
if ($str === '') {

Commit effectively

  • Err on the side of atomic commits which are highly focused on changing one aspect of the system.
  • Avoid mixing in unrelated changes or extensive whitespace changes. Commits with many changes are scary and make pull requests difficult to review.
  • Use visual git tools to craft highly precise and readable diffs.
Include tests

When at all possible include unit tests for code you add or alter.

Keep bugfixes simple

Avoid the temptation to refactor code for a bugfix release. Doing so tends to introduce regressions, breaking functionality in what should be a stable release.

PHP guidelines

These are the required coding standards for Elgg core and all bundled plugins. Plugin developers are strongly encouraged to adopt these standards.

Developers should first read the PSR-2 Coding Standard Guide.

Elgg’s standards extend PSR-2, but differ in the following ways:

  • Indent using one tab character, not spaces.
  • Opening braces for classes, methods, and functions must go on the same line.
  • If a line reaches over 100 characters, consider refactoring (e.g. introduce variables).
  • Compliance with PSR-1 is encouraged, but not strictly required.


  • Include PHPDoc comments on functions and classes (all methods; declared properties when appropriate), including types and descriptions of all parameters.
  • In lists of @param declarations, the beginnings of variable names and descriptions must line up.
  • Annotate classes, methods, properties, and functions with @access private unless they are intended for public use, are already of limited visibility, or are within a class already marked as private.
  • Use // or /* */ when commenting.
  • Use only // comments inside function/method bodies.


  • Use underscores to separate words in the names of functions, variables, and properties. Method names are camelCase.
  • Names of functions for public use must begin with elgg_.
  • All other function names must begin with _elgg_.
  • Name globals and constants in ALL_CAPS (ACCESS_FRIENDS, $CONFIG).


For PHP requirements, see composer.json.

Do not use PHP shortcut tags <? or <%. It is OK to use <?= since it is always enabled as of PHP 5.4.

When creating strings with variables:

  • use double-quoted strings
  • wrap variables with braces only when necessary.

Bad (hard to read, misuse of quotes and {}s):

echo 'Hello, '.$name."!  How is your {$time_of_day}?";


echo "Hello, $name!  How is your $time_of_day?";

Remove trailing whitespace at the end of lines. An easy way to do this before you commit is to run php .scripts/fix_style.php from the installation root.

CSS guidelines

Use shorthand where possible


background-color: #333333;
background-image:  url(...);
background-repeat:  repeat-x;
background-position:  left 10px;
padding: 2px 9px 2px 9px;


background: #333 url(...) repeat-x left 10px;
padding: 2px 9px;

Use hyphens, not underscores


.example_class {}


.example-class {}

One property per line


color: white;font-size: smaller;


color: white;
font-size: smaller;

Property declarations

These should be spaced like so: property: value;


color :value;
color : value;


color: value;

Vendor prefixes

  • Group vendor-prefixes for the same property together
  • Longest vendor-prefixed version first
  • Always include non-vendor-prefixed version
  • Put an extra newline between vendor-prefixed groups and other properties


-moz-border-radius: 5px;
border: 1px solid #999999;
-webkit-border-radius: 5px;
width: auto;


border: 1px solid #999999;

-webkit-border-radius: 5px;
-moz-border-radius: 5px;
border-radius: 5px;

width: auto;

Group subproperties


background-color: white;
color: #0054A7;
background-position: 2px -257px;


background-color: white;
background-position: 2px -257px;
color: #0054A7;

Javascript guidelines

Same formatting standards as PHP apply.

All functions should be in the elgg namespace.

Function expressions should end with a semi-colon.

elgg.ui.toggles = function(event) {

Deprecating APIs

Occasionally functions and classes must be deprecated in favor of newer replacements. Since 3rd party plugin authors rely on a consistent API, backward compatibility must be maintained, but will not be maintained indefinitely as plugin authors are expected to properly update their plugins. In order to maintain backward compatibility, deprecated APIs will follow these guidelines:

  • Minor version (1.x) that deprecates an API must include a wrapper function/class (or otherwise appropriate means) to maintain backward compatibility, including any bugs in the original function/class. This compatibility layer uses elgg_deprecated_notice('...', '1.11') to log that the function is deprecated.
  • The next major revision (2.0) removes the compatibility layer. Any use of the deprecated API should be corrected before this.