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Unraveling the Secrets of WordPress' Comments.php File

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Read Time: 13 mins

WordPress seems to be everywhere these days, and it's no wonder with it's ease of use and ease of customization. In this tutorial, I'll be dissecting the default WordPress theme's comments.php structure and giving you various snippets of code to make your skinning easier.

For your reference, I've also included a small table of contents.

  1. The PHP backend
  2. General code
    1. Preventing direct access to comments.php
    2. Is a password required?
  3. Displaying the comments
    1. Basic comment template tags
    2. The final result
  4. The comment form
    1. Conditional statement overview
    2. Inserting the form
  5. Some little tricks
    1. Gravatars
    2. Comment numbers
    3. Comment links
    4. Editing comments
    5. Alternating colors for comments
    6. Displaying the allowed tags
    7. Comments RSS link
  6. Conclusion

1. The PHP Backend

This is the raw PHP code that makes your comments.php file function. To a novice, this might look intimidating. However, do not worry: with this tutorial everything in your comments file will become crystal clear!

2. General Code

Preventing direct access to comments.php

This line of code prevents users from viewing comments.php by accident. This page is meant to be included in a post page, not separately. You could consider this a security measure. Inside the statement, you could insert any message you'd want to be displayed to the person viewing the comments.php file, preferably a die statement.

Is a password required?

This statement (well, 2 actually, but it makes more sense if you view them as one) checks whether a password is required to view the post. Obviously, if you don't have the password to view the post, you're also not allowed to view the comments.

The first if checks whether there is a password set. The second if statement checks whether there is a cookie with a password in place and displays the according message when it's not there. You can customize the error message by placing whatever you choose inside the second if statement.

3. Displaying The Comments

This first conditional statement (if($comments)) checks if there are comments and then loops through them with a foreach statement. Inside the foreach statement, you'll notice the following conditional statement: if($comment->comment_approved == '0'). This checks if the comment has been approved, and shows a message if it's not yet approved.

An example of this would be the following piece of code.

Basic comment template tags

To make this a functional piece of code, you'll need to use the template tags WordPress provides.

Template Tag Description
<?php comment_ID(); ?> the ID of a comment
<?php comment_author(); ?> the author of a comment
<?php comment_author_link(); ?> the author of a comment, wrapped with a link to his website if he specified one
<?php comment_type(); ?> the type of comment; pingback, trackback or a comment
<?php comment_text(); ?> the actual comment
<?php comment_date(); ?> the date it was posted
<?php comment_time(); ?> the time it was posted

The final result

Inserting this into comments.php would give you a ordered list with the comments and the required information or display a message stating that there aren't any comments.

4. The Comment Form

Are you still following me? Good! We're almost there. We just need to process that comment form... Okay, maybe I lied about almost being there. The comment form is actually one of the harder parts of the entire comments.php skin file.

You'll be bombarded with several conditional statements (is a login required, are you logged in, ...). This part is where most starting skinners have the most trouble: misplacing form elements could prevent the form from working at all, without giving a specific PHP error.

To give you an insight into the conditional statements that are involved in the comment form, I'll first be explaining those statements, and include the HTML later on explaining why it should be where it is.

Conditional statement overview

The first conditional statement you encounter is <?php if(comments_open()) : ?> . This basically checks if the comments are open. Obviously, if the comments are closed, you can't post a comment and the comment form is not needed. You can put the message you want to be displayed if the comments are closed between the last <?php else : ?> and
<?php endif; ?>.

The second conditional statement (<?php if(get_option('comment_registration') && !$user_ID) : ?>) checks whether you need to be registred to post a comment and if you are logged in. If the conditional statement is fulfilled, the script should display a link to a place where users can log in. If registration is not required or you are already logged in, the script will continue with the else part and display the form.

Our final conditional statement then checks if you are logged in or not. Obviously, if you're already logged in it's useless to make you fill in your name, email and website again.

Inserting the form

Congratulations, we've plowed through all of the conditional statements in the comments.php file. Now, all that is left is to add the form in there.

The first thing I can hear you think is: where the hell is that form going to start? Well, you just have to follow common sense. The second conditional statement checks whether you have to be logged in or not, therefor you'd have to display no form until after this statement. Thus the entire form is located inside this conditional statement.

I've also thrown in the link to the login page, just as I found it in the default comments.php. As I said before, the last conditional statement checks whether you're logged in or not. Obviously, the name, email and website input fields are only displayed if you're not logged in. Let's throw them in there!

Alright! We're almost there! We just need to add in some simple lines of code such as a textarea and a submit button. These go after the last conditional statement, since it's irrelevant for these elements if you are logged in or not.

This code should be pretty self-explanatory. A textarea field for the comment, a submit button, a hidden input field with the comments' future ID and a PHP snippet (<?php do_action('comment_form', $post->ID); ?>) WordPress requires to make the comment form function.

Voila! That's all folks! You've now got your fully ready comments.php file. View this file to get all the PHP and HTML code that is required. You should end up with this (I simply replaced the default skin's comments.php file with ours and added some minor styling to it.)

Comments previewComments previewComments preview

5. Some Little Tricks

Of course, you now only have a basic comments.php file. There's tons of things you could do to further improve it. I'll list some little tips and tricks to help you on your way.


As of WordPress 2.5, there is a custom WordPress template tag to embed gravatars. It pulls the gravatar from the email the visitor entered. The code to do this is very simple.

You can replace $author_email with the nifty get_comment_author_email(); function, $size is the height (and width) of the avatar and $default_avatar is a link to the default avatar image (displayed when the commenter has no gravatar).

Insert this code inside the foreach loop that displays the comments. The output is a image with the classes avatar and avatar-$size (where $size is the size you specified). With some minor CSS editing, you could end up with something like this:

Comment GravatarsComment GravatarsComment Gravatars

Comment numbers

I purposely left out headers in the comments.php file we created later, since I believed they would make for excess code in a learning process that's difficult enough as it is. Obviously, I'm not forgetting them though.

Usually, people have a heading displaying something similar to "3 comments so far". This is really easy to achieve thanks to the template tags WordPress offers.

It's pretty self-explanatory: $zero_comments is the text to display when there are no comments, $one_comment when there is one comment and $more_comments when there are multiple comments. A real life example would be like this:

I used % for multiple comments, since the comments_number function then replaces the % with the number of comments (2, 3, …)

Used in our comments.php file, you'll end up with something like this:

Comment numbersComment numbersComment numbers

To display a link to the comments part (with the number of comments displaying aswell), you simply use the following code.

The first 3 parameters in this function are the same as the above comments_number function. $css_class is, obviously, the css class that you give to the <a> tag and $comments_closed is the text that should be displayed when the comments are closed. When applying this to a theme, this is a possible way to use it.

This would then give you a link with the class comments-link

Editing comments

Sometimes you'll want to immediately edit a comment. Luckily, with the edit_comment_link function, you can easily go to the right page to edit it, instead of having to browse to your admin panel to finally reach that comment. Usage is as such:

You have to put this inside the foreach comment loop. Parameters are quite obvious: $link_text is the anchor text for the edit link, $before_link and $after_link respectively are the text or code to display before or after the link.

This really makes it easy to change a comment; you could simply add a small 'Edit' link to your comment meta information (only viewable by the admin). This is what it could look like:

Comment Edit LinkComment Edit LinkComment Edit Link

Alternating colors for comments

It's possible that you'd want to have alternating row colors for your comments, to make a clearer separation. Doing this is relatively easy. First, add the following code to the top of the page:

Then add the following inside the foreach loop (again). You could simply replace <li id="comment-<?php comment_ID(); ?>"> with this:

This will give every other comment the class alt, thus making it possible to change their appearance through CSS.

I decided to make a function for it, to have less clutter in your actual theme file. You could add the function definition into your functions.php file if you'd like to, but it makes more sense, to me, to have it at the top of your page.

Alternating rows make it easier to distinguish different comments; once implemented you might have something like this:

alternate color commentsalternate color commentsalternate color comments

Displaying the allowed tags

To display the code that visitors are allowed to use in their comments, simply use this little snippet.

Then you'll simply get a list of the tags that are allowed in your comments, like this:

allowed tagsallowed tagsallowed tags

Comments RSS link

To get a link to the RSS feed for the comments of a certain post, simply insert the code below into your comments.php file on the place where you want it to be.

Then simply replace $link_test with the anchor text for the RSS link.

This can come in handy if you want to give your visitors the opportunity to subscribe to the comment feed for a specific article or blog post. You could implement it like this:

comments rss linkcomments rss linkcomments rss link

6. Conclusion

I hope you've enjoyed this *ahem* little article about skinning your WordPress comments.php file. You can get the full code here, with the tricks I showed included in it:

  • gravatars,
  • alternate row colors,
  • edit link,
  • comments rss link.

Obviously, the comments link isn't included since this has to be used inside of the loop.

Best of luck in your WordPress skinning adventures!

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