Last updated August 11, 2016. Created on February 18, 2008.
Edited by vigneshbabu, ashish_nirmohi, Manjit.Singh, eft. Log in to edit this page.

The main role of the preprocessors is to set up variables to be placed within the template (.tpl.php) files. From Drupal 7 they apply to templates and functions, whereas in Drupal 6 preprocess functions only apply to theming hooks implemented as templates; plain theme functions do not interact with preprocessors.


  1. Preprocessors are also used for providing template suggestions.
  2. In versions 5 and below, the function _phptemplate_variables served the same purpose. It has been deprecated in 6.
  3. Prior to Drupal 6.7, for your theme to have its preprocessors recognized, the template associated with the hook had to exist inside the theme. When a default template exists, copy it to your theme and clear the registry (or you should really be upgrading to a later version of Drupal anyway for security reasons, at which point you don't have to worry about this).

There can be numerous preprocessors for each theming hook. Every layer from core, modules, engines and themes can have one, each progressively building upon the variables before being rendered through template files. This keeps the markup clean and easy to work with inside templates by placing most of the logic inside these preprocessors.

Here are the expected preprocessors. They are run in this order when they exist:

  1. template_preprocess Drupal 6
    template_preprocess Drupal 7
    This is supplied by core and always added. The variables generated here are used for every templated hook.
  2. template_preprocess_hook
    The module or core file that implements the theming hook supplies this. The initial generation of all the variables specific to the hook is usually done here.
  3. moduleName_preprocess
    Do not confuse this with the preprocessor before it. This allows modules that did not originally implement the hook to influence the variables. Applies to all hooks.
  4. moduleName_preprocess_hook
    Same idea as the previous preprocessor but for specific hooks.
  5. engineName_engine_preprocess
    - The preprocessor for theming engines. Applies to all hooks.
  6. engineName_engine_preprocess_hook
    Another preprocessor for theming engines but specific to a single hook.
  7. engineName_preprocess
    NOT RECOMMENDED. This is the first preprocessor that can be used inside the theme. It can be named after the theme engine the theme is running under. Applies to all hooks.
  8. engineName_preprocess_hook
    NOT RECOMMENDED. Another preprocessor named after the engine but specific to a single hook.
  9. themeName_preprocess
    This one is named after the theme itself. Applies to all hooks.
  10. themeName_preprocess_hook
    Same as the previous preprocessor but for a specific hook.

There are many possibilities here for modifying the variables. In most cases, it is only the first two preprocessors that exist. The first adds the default baseline variables and the second adds a set specific to the theming hook. Contributed modules taking advantage of the preprocessor slots (3 & 4) should document their behavior. It will not be covered extensively here.

While it is possible, the default PHPTemplate does not inject itself to this list. (5 & 6)

Themes can start adding their preprocessors seventh in the list. The preprocess function should be added to the theme's template.php file. However, due to the problems listed below, it is recommended that themes use their own names as the prefix (9 & 10). It is possible to grow this list beyond the ten shown above by having sub-themes add preprocessors strictly through their theme name as it is shown in the last two examples.

A few notes:

  • There is an unfortunate design flaw/bug in the theme system when a theme is part of a base theme/sub-theme hierarchy. Any preprocess functions prefixed with engineName_preprocess will be run multiple times (once for each theme in the hierarchy) instead of just once. Not only is this wasting resources, it can also cause difficult-to-debug errors.
  • The theme name (9 & 10) should always be used for themes. This minimizes any chance of a sub-theme redeclaring a function with an engineName_preprocess prefix and causing fatal PHP errors due to duplicate functions.

Note that nothing should be returned from these functions and the variables have to be passed by reference indicated by the ampersand before variables, e.g., &$variables.

Since the variables set early on are run through all the latter preprocessors due to references, be careful that you do not inadvertently reset any added before your theme. It is fine to reset them, but doing so accidentally can keep you guessing what went wrong.

Example set from a module implementing the hook of "foo":

function template_preprocess_foo(&$variables) {
  $variables['foo_list'] = array(
    'list item 1',
    'list item 2',
    'list item 3',

And the preprocessor created from the theme to add to the variable set above:

function drop_preprocess_foo(&$variables) {
  // Do not do this unless you mean to:
  $variables['foo_list'] = array('list item 4');
  // Instead do this:
  $variables['foo_list'][] = 'list item 4';

The variables that end up in the template file are the keys set within $variables. So, with the above example, the variable in the template would result in $foo_list.

When using a preprocessor not specific to a theming hook, a second parameter can be used which always passes the current hook. Using a more specialized preprocess function like the one shown above is easier to maintain but if there will be shared code for multiple theming hooks, you may want to opt for this instead.

function drop_preprocess(&$variables, $hook) {

  // Shared between the 'foo' and 'bar' theming hooks.
  if ($hook == 'foo' || $hook == 'bar') {
    $variables['foobar_item'] = 'foobar item';

  // Specific to 'foo'.
  if ($hook == 'foo') {
    $variables['foo_item'] = 'foo item';
  // Specific to 'bar'.
  elseif ($hook == 'bar') {
    $variables['bar_items'] = 'bar item';

In Drupal 7, there are two sets of variable process functions. The first is the existing "preprocess" functions. The second is "process" functions which are run after preprocessors. All the various prefixes and suffixes apply to this second phase in the exact same way. This is useful when certain variables need to be worked on in two phases. For example, adding classes into an array for the "preprocess" phase then flattening them into a string in the "process" phase, so it's ready to print within a template.

So effectively they are the same thing but called in different phases. Preprocess functions are called first and changes are made then Process functions are then called at a later phase and allowed for changes to be made.

Related HowTos and code snippets:

Looking for support? Visit the forums, or join #drupal-support in IRC.

Comments’s picture

A preprocess functions signature needs to be


The following is useful

datarazor’s picture

Hello, i've been using drupal now for a year and made some great sites with it, but this whole hooks and preprocessor thing still gets me confused. And i can't seem to really find any documentation to help. This is the "best" article i can find, but it still leaves me more confused than helped.

Here are some of my questions that I am still left with:

* are function hooks used in modules the same as theme hooks used in the theme?

* if a contrib module uses a "hook" is this something i can over-ride or extend in my theme?

* if a contrib module uses a hook, say: hook_block() can I then hook the hook to change the module's output?


inside the contribmodule.module file:

contribmodule_block() { $variables['foobar_item'] = 'foobar item'; }

can this be overriden by the following in the template.php file?

contribmodule_preprocess_block() { $variables['foobar_item'] = 'new item'; }

* where is the documentation on preprocess? or on module hooks? i can't find it and i can't seem to search for it. Is there a guide for all the fundamental concepts? All i can find is the API for hooks, but that says really nothing at all about it other than giving a list of available hooks; zero theory there.

* if a contrib module has a function which I can NOT override with a hook onto a hook, then how do i change what the contrib module does for my theme? am i forced to hack the code of the contrib module?

* intuitively it feels like changing a contrib module is not part of theming, but more of module extending / modifying, but it is also theme-specific, so it's confusing to know if this topic is indeed related to the above or not.

* what is really missing in the documentation is the fundamental concepts explained from start-to-finish NOT broken down per area of interest [admin, theming, developing] but just rather how this whole system ties together so that if i want to understand anything about it, i know where to go and i can find it. The api should be more for code snippets AND examples of using the code [which are severely lacking in the API docs as they generally have zero examples]. I should be able to understand how a page is built step-by-step from the documentation and each step should point me to a page that describes that part in further detail.

* it is very hard to search documentation because your search only searches ALL documentation, rather than sections. If your guides used a standard URL structure like:[title][titile]

then I could search in specific guides very easily like this:

google query:

site: hooks
site: hooks

but as such I have to search all of google as many of your pages are still node/[NID] or content/[title]

If someone replies to this, thank you for your help in providing clarification and considering my suggestions for the documentation.

p.s. it should be standard practice to always write which file a snippet of code comes from, all too often I see some code but no mention if it is an example that goes into template.php, tpl.php, modulename.module or some other file... that makes understanding examples extra complicated for beginners.

Ralt’s picture


Your article helped me a lot, but there was something incomplete.

Actually, what gave me a headache was that following your example, all I got was "Array" displayed on my page.

The good syntax I used in Drupal 6 was :

function template_preprocess_foo(&$vars) {
  // populate $var_to_fill
  $vars['foo_item'] = $var_to_fill;

$vars['foo_item'][] = $var_to_fill or $vars['foo_item'] = array($var_to_fill) just gave me the message "Array".

But $vars['foo_item'] = $var_to_fill works like a charm.

TikaL13’s picture

Hello guys,

I am using the Omega theme framework and I would really like to create a custom date format. my question and confusion is where do I write this? and where does this live? is it a php file with function writing between ?

Thanks any help would be much appreciated.

dilipsingh02’s picture

You can create easily custom date formate using php.

function ago($timestamp) {

	$difference = time() - $timestamp;

  $periods = array("second", "minute", "hour", "day", "week", "month", "years", "decade");

  $lengths = array("60", "60", "24", "7", "4.35", "12", "10");

  for($j = 0; $difference >= $lengths[$j]; $j++)

    $difference /= $lengths[$j];

   	$difference = round($difference);

   	if ($difference != 1) 

   	  $periods[$j].= "s";

   	$text = "$difference $periods[$j] ago";

  return $text;


There are $timestamp is a variable where u pass you date-time in unix formate or use php date formate.

For reference:

SameerJ’s picture

If in the preprocess or process function, you have $variables['name']='some html string', then in the template file, print $name will result in the string being inserted. I think you could also do print $variables['name'] to get the same result.

henkdevries’s picture

How can one see which hooks are there? For instance, a list per page what hooks get called in correct order. Is that possible?

Junesun’s picture

I'm trying to define a new variable that I can display in my node.tpl.php . I'm using theme scaccarium and Drupal 6 (which still has better i18n support than 7).

I opened that theme's template.php . I didn't find a scaccarium_preprocess_node function, so I created one. This function is very simple, for test purposes.

function scaccarium_preprocess_node(&$vars) {
  $vars['test'] = "Testing";
  $vars['node']['test'] = "Testing";

In the template's node.tpl.php I have added

<span class="test"><?php print $test ?></span>

This gives an empty span. How the heck am I supposed to define variables???

pfrenssen’s picture

Clear the cache.

thamizhchelvan’s picture

Try like this:

$vars['node']->test = "Testing";
tajdar’s picture

1. In template.php put this code
function mytheme_preprocess_node(&$variables){
  $variables['is_node'] = "I am Tajdar Khan Afridi";
2.  In node.tpl.php put this code 
<div style="background:red;">  <?php print render($is_node); ?></div>
3.  After that clear the cache.