How to Use WordPress Action Hooks in Theme Customization

WordPress child themes give a relatively easy way to customize the look and feel of a theme. If the theme’s options don’t provide you with adequate design choices, you can just add a new rule to the child theme’s default stylesheet file called style.css. But what happens when you also want to modify the theme’s functionality? That is one of the cases when WordPress actions come to your help.

WordPress has become so popular partly because of its high customizability. The WordPress Core is loaded with different hooks that enable developers to modify or enhance the default functionality. Moreover, we are allowed to include custom hooks in our themes and plugins to help other developers to easily adjust our code to their needs.

About WordPress Hooks

WordPress hooks work somewhat similar to real-life hooks in the sense that you can catch the fish you want at the right spot if you properly use them.

You can remove a caught function (e.g. you can remove the WordPress admin bar for low-level users), you can leave it intact and enhance it with your own functionality (e.g. you can add more menus or widget areas to a theme), or you can override it (e.g. you can modify the behaviour of a core function).

There are two different kind of hooks in WordPress: actions and filters. In this post we will take a look at how we can make use of action hooks in theme customization.

How WordPress Hooks Work

To use a very simple language, actions indicate that something has happened during the WordPress page lifecycle: certain parts of the site have been loaded, certain options or settings have been set up, plugins or widgets have been initialized, and so on.

Filters are different from actions in their nature. They are used to pass data through, and modify, manage or intercept it before rendering it to the screen or saving user data into the database.

At every significant landmark of the WordPress page lifecycle there is either an action or a filter hook to which we can add our custom code to modify the default behaviour to our needs.

The certain actions and filters running during a request depend on which page was requested by the user agent: for example in a single post request hooks related to single posts are available, but hooks related to other parts of the site (e.g. the admin area) aren’t.

Find Action Hooks

The Action Reference of the WordPress Codex gives a detailed overview of the actions running through different requests. The important thing is that if we want to accomplish a task we need to hook into the right place, not before or after it, otherwise the action won’t be completed.

So for example if we want to add our Google Analytics code to a site we need to hook our action right before the footer is loaded.

If we speak about theme customization, action hooks can come from two different places: from WordPress Core and the theme itself. There are themes that don’t have hooks at all, but others provide developers with some or many – it’s always the theme author’s choice. The default Twenty Fifteen Theme has only one action hook for footer customization under the name of ‘twentyfifteen_credits’.

If you like to browse source code, you can also find action hooks easily. Action hooks are added to the code with the do_action() WordPress function.

If you run a quick search for the expression ‘do_action’ in a more advanced code editor – like I did in Eclipse below – you can see a list about the spots where you can hook your custom functionality into the core. I searched in the /wp-includes/ folder, but you can also run a search for the /wp-admin/ folder that contains the action hooks related to the WordPress dashboard (admin area).

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