This article is about how to deal with null values. It follows up on this one. It’s intended for code stylists: people who care a lot about the difference between one line of code and two, or keeping control statements and temporary variables to a minimum. (A code stylist is kind of like the dual of a software architect, although one person can be both.) It’s not about code golf – although you might learn some strokes to use on that – but about keeping the structure of your code, even at the expression level, close to the way you think about the problem, if you think like me.

If you’re not a code stylist – and I’m not saying that being a code stylist, any more than being a prose stylist, is either a good or a bad thing – you might find it baffling that someone would put so much time into such simple topic. I won’t try to convince you otherwise. In that case, you might want to check back next week, when I’ll move back up to the bigger picture. (Specifically, some fun stuff involving how to use meta-object programming to solve race conditions in client-server models.)


A nullable or optional, type is one that might have a value of a certain basis type, but might be null. For example, a nullable array is either an array or null. Even if you don’t use a language with type declarations, you probably use a language with types. If a variable or field (JavaScript property) is expected to hold only arrays, it has type array; if it sometimes ends up holding null as well, it has type nullable array instead.

Haskell has a function fromMaybe that turns a nullable type into a non-nullable type, but replacing it with a default value when it’s null. What would this look like in a more conventional language, and where would you use it?

I’m using JavaScript as an example language here, but the techniques here apply to Ruby and, to a lesser extent, Python as well.

The First Problem Set

Here’s your assignment. It has three parts. In all of them, products is a list of products . In JavaScript, this list is represented by an instance of Array.

First, if products is non-empty, display its first item; otherwise, do nothing. This is easy enough:

if (products.length) {display(products[^0])}

Or, for a more Lisp- or Ruby-like style, with the advantage that it can be nested in an expression:

products.length && display(products[^0])

Second, apply a preload() function to each item in products. This is easy too:1

products.forEach(preload)

Finally, extract the id from each product, and pass the list of ids to a function preloadAll.2

preloadAll(products.pluck('id'))

Raising the Bar

Let’s make this problem harder. This time, products might be an array, but it might be null.

“Hey!” you (ought to) protest. “That’s a stupid design. You’re giving me poorly typed data, and this introduces complexity and its attendant costs (development time, code size, test cases) to deal with it.”

Well, yes. But this is the real world. Maybe you’re reading an attribute from a deserialized XML element. XML schemas allow for this kind of abbreviation, and using it makes documents more concise (and therefore both lower bandwidth and easier to inspect for debugging), so you’ll probably see this at some point. Maybe you’re reading or a property from a JSON object, where the server omits null lists (for the same reasons – message size and debuggability – as for XML). Or maybe you’re reading products from a library that represents empty lists by null – for performance reasons (to avoiding making empty lists), or for backwards compatibility, or just out of laziness. I’ve seen all of the cases, a number of times.

Or maybe you used the technique in Monads on the Cheap to write something like (order||{}).products. Now that you’ve propogated a null order into a null products – to avoid wrapping an if statement around the code that dealt with order – you’ve got to pay the piper. You followed my advice and I dug you into a hole; now I’d better toss you a rope ladder.

Solution 1: Fixing the input on entry

You could fix products before you use it: insert products = products || [] at the top of your function to change a nullable array into a non-null array, by replacing null by a default value. If products is a local variable (as opposed to a function parameter), you could even do this where it’s initialized: replace var products = order.products, say, by var products = order.products || [].3 So the three solutions above become simply:

// products may be null
products = products || [];
// products instanceof Array
if (products.length) {display(products[^0])}

products = products || [];
products.forEach(preload)

products = products || [];
preloadAll(products.pluck('id'))

Raising the Bar Again

Where products is a local variable, “fixing the input” really is the best solution. However, it’s not the most general solution (for reasons I’ll get to). So I’ll move the bar again.

This time, instead of the variable products, it’s the expression offer.products that evaluates to the nullable array. What’s the smallest change required to adapt our code to null values, in this scenario?

Solution 2: Introducing a temporary variable

This one looks absurdly easy too. Changing a line of code to accommodate nullable arrays involves a simple program transformation. Replace offer.products by products, and insert var products = offer.products || [] on the line before. Here are the before cases, where offer.products is not allowed to be null:

// requires products instanceof Array
if (products.length) {display(offer.products[^0])}
offer.products.forEach(preload)
preloadAll(offer.products.pluck('id'))

And here are the after cases, where offer.products is allowed to be null:

// accepts null products
var products = offer.products || [];
if (products.length) {display(products[^0])}

var products = offer.products || [];
products.forEach(preload)

var products = offer.products || [];
preloadAll(products.pluck('id'))

Non-local Transformations

There’s something funny about the “temporary variable” program transformation. offer.products is an expression – you can nest it in another expression: as the argument to a function, before a property accessor, or as part of a conditional. var products = offer.products||[]; ...; ...(products)... is a _ statement sequence_. In fact, it’s a statement sequence with a hole – it doesn’t strictly embed the original code, but it isn’t strictly embedded by it, either; instead, it’s woven in.

These differences – that this transformation changes the syntactic type of the code that you’re applying it to (from an expression to a statement), and that you have to weave it into the existing code – make it non-local.4 Here’s what I mean by this:

To apply this transformation – to change code that expects an array into code that accepts a null – we look for an occurrence of offer.products; we replace it by products; and then we travel up the syntax tree (we look at the expression that contains offer.products, and then the expression that contains that) until we find a statement. Finally we insert var products = offer.products||[] before that statement.

Admittedly, there hasn’t been much to this in the statements so far. We’ve simply replaced the first snippet below (with one line of code) by the second snippet (with two lines). And the lines are adjacent, so it’s easy enough to read them as a unit.

// requires products instanceof Array
preloadAll(offer.products.pluck('id'))

// accepts null products
var products = offer.products || [];
preloadAll(offer.products.pluck('id'))

It gets worse, though. Let’s make offer nullable too, and add some more computation. (I’m trying to get offer.products far enough inside of an expression that we can get a feel for where the problems arise.)

In the first block below (which doesn’t deal with nullable arrays), offer is either an object with a products property (which is always an Array), or null. If it’s not null, we load its products. We then set loaded to true if there was an offer, and if any of its products were already loaded. (preloadAll returns true in this case.) Simple enough:

// accepts null offer; requires products instanceof Array
var loaded = offer && preloadAll(products.pluck('id'));

Now, how do we change this if not only offer, but offer.products, are nullable? We apply the transformation above, inserting the statement var products = ... and changing offer.products to products. But where do we insert the statement? It has to go before the call to preloadAll, but after the test for whether offer is null.5 But in the listing above, there isn’t any such location!

To create one, we have to split the initialization expression in half, in order to get the test for offer and the use of offer.products into separate statements, so that there will be room for a statement (not added yet) between them:

// accepts null offer; requires products instanceof Array
var loaded = false;
if (offer)
  loaded = preloadAll(offer.products.pluck('id'));

And now we can hoist offer.products out of the second new statement, without moving it before the first:

// accepts null offer, offer.products
var loaded = false;
if (offer) {
  var products = offer.products || [];
  if (preloadAll(products.pluck('id'))
    loaded = true;
}

This is awful! Not only did it go from one line to five, but loaded changed from a non-mutable variable with an initializer into a mutable variable with two different assignments, such that its initialization is split across the inside and the outside of a conditional. This is the kind of code that, if I let it take over 5% of my program, takes up 50% or my debugging time.

You might think these problems are because of the distinction between statement and expression in Algol-style languages (C, C++, Java, JavaScript). This is partly right, but it’s only somewhat better in Lisp-style languages (Smalltalk, Lisp itself, Ruby). Here’s a straight translation of the JavaScript code into Ruby:

// before: accepts offer == nil; requires offer.products.is_an? Array
loaded = offer && preloadAll(products.map &:id));

# after: accepts offer == nil, offer.products == nil
loaded = false
if offer
  products = offer.products || []
  loaded = preloadAll(producs.map &:id)
end

Now let’s use the fact that Ruby statements are expressions to re-write the second case:

# also accepts offer == nil, offer.products == nil
loaded = offer && preloadAll(begin products = offer.products || []; products.map &:id));

Sure, this is back down to one line. And it avoids the cascading rewrite of the first transformation (where changing the innermost expression into a statement required changing the expression that contains it into a statement). However it’s far from idiomatic Ruby.

Worse, like the JavaScript snippet (and this is another problem with temporary variables), it introduces a products into the surrounding environment, or overwrites the existing value of products if there’s already a variable with that name there – a subtle source of bugs, especially when you apply this transformation more than once.

Solution 2: Ifs and Ands

You could use conditional statements to transform the original solutions from these:

// requires non-null product
if (offer.products.length) {display(offer.products[^0])}
offer.products.forEach(preload)
preloadAll(offer.products.pluck('id'))

into these:

// accepts null product
if (offer.products && offer.products.length) {display(offer.products[^0])}
if (offer.products) offer.products.forEach(preload)
if (offer.products) preloadAll(offer.products.pluck('id'))

The first line (if (products) {...}) already had a conditional, so we stuck the new test into the existing conditional. The other two lines didn’t, so we wrapped the original code in new conditionals to hold the new test.

Scalability

The “ifs and ands” solution works, but it doesn’t scale. (“Doesn’t scale” is Enterprise for “I don’t like it.” In this case, I’ll rationalize define “scale” as “grows linearly and compositionally with the number of variables and/or the complexity of the syntactic context”.)

First, like the “temporary variable” solution, it’s non-local – it involves changing an expression into a statement, and therefore the expression that contains that expression into a statement, and so on up the line.

It’s also non-linear (in the sense of linear logic6, not linear algebra). Where an expression occurs once in the original code, it occurs twice in the new code. It evaluates offer.products three times instead of twice in the first case, and twice instead of once in the other two.

To see why this is bad, imagine if instead of offer.products it were offer.getProducts, or customer.offer.products, or ((customer||{}).offer||{}).products. Or imagine if it were an expression that had side effects – then the first example wouldn’t have worked anyway, but we would have just broken the other two.

To get another taste of how the expressions replicate with this strategy, take a look at what happens when here’s more than one of them. What if there are two such properties, offer.products and offer.merchants, and we only want to execute our code if they’re both non-empty? Here’s the case for non-nullable arrays:

// offer.products and offer.merchants are non-null
if (offer.products.length && offer.merchants.length) {...}

This code transforms into this:

// offer.products and offer.merchants may each be null
if (offer.products && offer.products.length &&
    offer.merchants && offer.merchants.length) {...}

Or let’s say we wanted to sum the lengths of two properties, offer.ordered and offer.saved. The code for the non-nullary case is simply offer.ordered.length + offer.saved.length. The nullary case balloons into a statement sequence:

// offer.products and offer.merchants may each be null
var count = 0;
if (offer.ordered) count += offer.ordered.length;
if (offer.saved) count += offer.ordered.length;

Or we could use the ternary operator, but still at the cost of typing (and evaluating) each nullable subexpression twice:

// offer.ordered and offer.saved can each be null
(offer.ordered ? offer.ordered.length : 0) : (offer.saved ? offer.saved.length : 0)

The problem with all of these is that we’ve had to write out each variable name twice, inviting defects. In fact, I made a paste-o in one of the examples above. I could fix it, but I bet I’d make it again if I later changed the code to include offer.wishlist in the count.

Solution 3: Inlined fromMaybe

Here’s an alternative. To change code that expects a non-nullable array to a nullable array, change array to array||[]. This is a local transformation: it changes an expression into an expression (not a statement), so you don’t need to re-write the code that contains it. It’s also a linear transformation (again, in the sense of linear logic, not linear algebra): an expression that only occurs once before the transformation, only occurs once after it.

The original solutions transform thus:

// offer.products can be null
if ((offer.products||[]).length) {...}
(offer.products||[]).forEach(...)
if ((offer.products||[]).length || (offer.saved|[]).length) {...}

Note that each transformation is local: no new control structures are introduced, so there’s no cascade of expression -> statement transformations up the syntax tree. We can see that by the fact that the troublesome loaded case remains largely intact.

// offer and offer.products can each be null
var loaded = offer && preloadAll(offer.products||[]).length);

Here’s the summation code:

// offer.ordered and offer.saved can each be null
count = (offer.products||[]).length || (offer.saved||[]).length;

Beyond Arrays and JavaScript

This technique works in any language where arbitrary values can be used in a boolean context (that is, practically every language except Java) and where null is considered false, and for any type whose values test true. This includes Object and Array in JavaScript, additionally Number and String in Ruby (since 0 and “” are considered true in that language), and – well, the moral equivalent of Object types in Python, since Python collections implement nonzero() or len().

But actually we can go ahead and use the technique even with types that contain a false value, where we want to replace that false value by a default anyway (either the same false value, or a different value that tests as true). For example, even though JavaScript "" tests false, we can use inputString || "" to coerce a nullable string to a non-null string, since it will null and "" are the only two values that it will change to ""

Here are some examples that go beyond arrays. First, using the ternary operator. (Which isn’t so bad here, since the expression is in a variable already – bear with me and pretend the expressions are more complex):

var count = products ? products.length : 0; // the original example: an array
var value = inputString ? parseInt(inputString, 10) : 0; // string
var option = options ? options.key : 'default'; // Object used as dictionary
var result = fn ? fn(argument) : defaultValue; // Function
sprite.moveTo(x ? x : 0, y ? y : 0); // number

And now, using the inlined fromMaybe technique, in JavaScript, Ruby, and Python:

    // JavaScript
    var count = (products || []).length;
    var value = parseInt(inputString || '0', 10);
    var option = ({key:'default'}.key;
    var result = (fn || Function.K(defaultValue))(argument);
    sprite.moveTo(x || 0, y || 0);
    # Ruby
    count = (products || []).length
    value = (inputString || '0').to_i
    option = (options || {:key => 'default'})[:key]
    sprite.move_to(x || 0, y || 0)
    # Python
    count = (products or []).length
    value = int(inputString or '0')
    option = (options or {'key': 'default'})['key']
    sprite.moveTo(x or 0, y or 0)

The Real Thing

For reference, here’s how these examples look in Haskell.

let count = length (fromMaybe [] products)
let value = read (fromMaybe "0" inputString)
let option = lookup (fromMaybe [["key", "default"]] options) "key"
moveTo sprite (fromMaybe 0 x) (fromMaybe 0 y)

This is fairly unidiomatic Haskell. You can do a lot better, by modifying the functions instead of the values:

let count = maybe 0 length products

Scala also has a nullable type (Option), with a getOrElse method.

val count = (products getOrElse List()).length

Although, as with Haskell, you’d write this differently in idiomatic Scala:

val count = products.map(_.length) getOrElse 0

  1. forEach was added in JavaScript 1.6, and works in Firefox. You can get cross-browser implementations from Dean Edwards or the Mozilla Developer Center or with frameworks such as the JQuery (in the jQuery collection plugin), Prototype (where it’s called each), or MochiKit (where it’s a top-level function).

  2. anArray.pluck is from Prototype. In pure JavaScript 1.6 (or another library that extends JavaScript with the 1.6 collection functions), this would be products.map(function(product) { return product.id }). Or in Functional, it’s map('_.id', products)

  3. In conjunction with monads on the cheap, in the scenario where products might be null because order might be null, the code looks like this: var products = (order||{}).products || []. In fact, this is simply an extension of monads, where the default value is the empty array, instead of {}.

  4. This disruption is in addition to the fact that now you’ve got to come up with a variable name (usually easy), and make sure that if you do this to two different pieces of code in the same scope you use two different variables (harder), and hold a larger set of variable names in your head when you’re reading this code a year later (hardest).

  5. In this particular case, we could instead use the cheap monads idiom (offer||{}).products. But not every embedding expression is a test for nullity.

  6. Linear logic is just a system where you can’t replace once occurrence of an expression by two. I didn’t link to the wikipedia page in the text because it’s written for logicians, not programmers, and makes it look scary-complicated, but here it is. Failing linearity is what goes wrong in C macros.