I came across a weird issue.

Say you access a random url, three or more levels deep:


Then is_404() is true. So far so good. But for some reason the last posts are queried.



    FROM wp_posts 
    WHERE 1=1 
        AND wp_posts.post_type = 'post' 
        AND (
            wp_posts.post_status    = 'publish' 
            OR wp_posts.post_status = 'private'
    ORDER BY wp_posts.post_date DESC 
    LIMIT 0, 5

Which then of course makes have_posts() return true and so on. Can someone explain this?

What I found out so far:

The reason that only kicks in at three or more levels deep is that before that WP looks for posts and attachments which somehow results in some other behaviour.

It seems that even though WP recognises the request as a 404 at one point it then fetches the most recent posts. With the help from @kaiser and @G.M. I've tracked this down to somewhere from /wp-includes/class-wp.php:608

  • If you don't add the code of the page is gonna be hard to help you – Tomás Cot Sep 12 '14 at 11:35
  • 3
    This isn't specific to my code. Behaves like this on a brand new install with all default themes as well. – kraftner Sep 12 '14 at 11:40
  • can you name at least one theme, in my custom theme isn't working? are you using specific parameters? have you changed the slugs? which version of WP are you using? – Tomás Cot Sep 12 '14 at 11:47
  • Really any. But try Twenty Eleven if you like. – kraftner Sep 12 '14 at 11:59
  • Sorry for all the question, I thought the posts were showing. – Tomás Cot Sep 12 '14 at 12:40

You may be surprised, but there is nothing strange there.

First of all let's clarify that in WordPress when you visit a frontend URL you trigger a query. Always.

That query is just a standard WP_Query, just like the ones run via:

$query = new WP_Query( $args );

There is only one difference: the $args variables are generated by WordPress using the WP::parse_request() method. What that method does is just look at the URL, and at the rewrite rules, and convert the URL into an array of arguments.

But what happens when that method is not able to do that because the URL is non-valid? The query args is just an array like this:

array( 'error' => '404' );

(Source here and here).

So that array is passed to WP_Query.

Now try to do:

$query = new WP_Query( array( 'error' => '404' ) );
var_dump( $query->request );

Are you surprised that the query is exactly the one in OP? I'm not.


  1. parse_request() builds an array with an error key
  2. That array is passed to WP_Query, that just runs it
  3. handle_404() that runs after the query, looks at the 'error' parameter and sets is_404() to true

So, have_post() and is_404() are not related. The problem is that WP_Query has no system to short-circuit the query when something goes wrong, so once the object is built, pass some args to it and the query will run...


There are 2 ways to overcome this problem:

  • Create a 404.php template; WordPress will load that on 404 URLs and there you don't have to check for have_posts()
  • Force $wp_query to be empty on 404, something like:

    add_action( 'wp', function() {
        global $wp_query;
        if ( $wp_query->is_404() ) {
            $wp_query->is_404 = true; // init() reset 404 too
    } );
  • 4
    I would add that the reason that this doesn't happen typically is that 404 is usually result of query. But in this case it's result of unmatched rewrite rule ($wp->matched_rule), but query is still going through the motions because it doesn't pay attention to that. – Rarst Sep 12 '14 at 12:03
  • +1. Yes, query doesn't pay attention to it, and with current code it can't pay attention, because there is no way to stop it. As example when a non valid taxonomy is queried WordPress set WHERE 1=0 in sql because it can't stop the query so force a query that return nothing... @Rarst – gmazzap Sep 12 '14 at 12:20
  • Okay now I get it. So the real question that remains is why the hell does WP_Query assume a default query of getting posts when passed no reasonable arguments when just returning nothing would make way more sense? – kraftner Sep 12 '14 at 12:21
  • 2
    @kraftner as said WordPress can't avoid the query runs, and when there are no resonable arguments there are 2 choices: run a query that sure returns nothing (like when a non valid taxonomy is queried, see comment above) or run default query. Why in this case WP choose the latter is a Q that should be asked to core devs :) – gmazzap Sep 12 '14 at 12:24
  • @TomásCot Sure but if it fails I'd want it to really fail and not return something totally unrelated. Anyway, things cleared up now and I just need to do an additional is_404() check. – kraftner Sep 12 '14 at 12:42

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