What does it mean to escape a string?

Escaping a string means to reduce ambiguity in quotes (and other characters) used in that string. For instance, when you’re defining a string, you typically surround it in either double quotes or single quotes:

"Hello World."

But what if my string had double quotes within it?

"Hello "World.""

Now I have ambiguity – the interpreter doesn’t know where my string ends. If I want to keep my double quotes, I have a couple options. I could use single quotes around my string:

'Hello "World."'

Or I can escape my quotes:

"Hello \"World.\""

Any quote that is preceded by a slash is escaped, and understood to be part of the value of the string.

When it comes to queries, MySQL has certain keywords it watches for that we cannot use in our queries without causing some confusion. Suppose we had a table of values where a column was named “Select”, and we wanted to select that:

SELECT select FROM myTable

We’ve now introduced some ambiguity into our query. Within our query, we can reduce that ambiguity by using back-ticks:

SELECT `select` FROM myTable

This removes the confusion we’ve introduced by using poor judgment in selecting field names.

A lot of this can be handled for you by simply passing your values through mysql_real_escape_string(). In the example below you can see that we’re passing user-submitted data through this function to ensure it won’t cause any problems for our query:

// Query
$query = sprintf("SELECT * FROM users WHERE user='%s' AND password='%s'",

Other methods exist for escaping strings, such as add_slashesaddcslashesquotemeta, and more, though you’ll find that when the goal is to run a safe query, by and large developers prefer mysql_real_escape_string or pg_escape_string (in the context of PostgreSQL.

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