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The Null Coalescing Operator (C#, Ruby, JS, Python)

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Null coalescence allows you to specify what a statement should evaluate to instead of evaluating to null. It is useful because it allows you to specify that an expression should be substituted with some semantic default instead of defaulting on some semantic null (such as null, None or nil). Here is the syntax and behaviour in four languages I use often — C#, Ruby, JavaScript and Python.


Null coalescencing in C# is very straight forward since it will only ever accept first class objects of the same type (or null) as its operator’s arguments. This restriction is one that exists at compile time; it will refuse to compile if it is asked to compare primitives, or objects of differing types (unless they’re properly cast).


<expression> ?? <expression>

(The usual rules apply regarding nesting expressions, the use of semi-colons in complete statements etc..)

A few examples:

DummyNode a = null;
DummyNode b = new DummyNode();
DummyNode c = new DummyNode();

return a ?? b; // returns b
return b ?? a; // still returns b
DummyNode z = a ?? b; // z gets b
return a ?? new DummyNode(); // returns a new dummy node
return null ?? a ?? null; // this code has no choice but to return null
return a ?? b ?? c; // returns b -- the first item in the chain that wasn't null

No, you’d never really have a bunch of return statements in a row like that — they’re only there to demonstrate what you should expect.

Ruby, Python and Javascript

These languages are less straight forward (i.e. possess picky nuances) since they are happy to evaluate any objects of any class with their coalescing operators (including emulated primitives). These languages however disagree about what the notion of null should be when it comes to numbers, strings, booleans and empty collections; adding to the importance of testing your code!

Syntax for Ruby, Javascript:

<expression> || <expression>

Syntax for Ruby, Python:

<expression> or <expression>

(Ruby is operator greedy :P.)

The use of null coalescence in these languages are the same as they are in C# in that you may nest coalescing expressions as function arguments, use them in return statements, you may chain them together, put in an object constructor as a right-operand expression etc.; the difference is in what Ruby, Python or Javascript will coalesce given a left-expression operand. The below table summarizes what left-expression operand will cause the statement to coalesce into the right-expression operand (i.e. what the language considers to be ‘null’-ish in this use).

Expression as a left-operand Does this coalesce in Ruby? Does this coalesce in Python? Does this coalesce in JavaScript?
nil / None / null Yes Yes Yes
[] No Yes No
{} No Yes n/a*
0 No Yes Yes
0.0 No Yes Yes
“” No Yes Yes
No Yes Yes
false / False / false
Yes Yes Yes

*Note that in JavaScript, you’d probably want to use an Object instance as an associative array (hash) so that the field names are the keys and the field values are the associated values — doing so means that you can never have a null associative array.

Contrast the above table to what C# will coalesce: strictly “null” objects only.

The null coalescing operator makes me happy. Hopefully it’ll make you happy too.

Eddie Ma

July 7th, 2010 at 11:00 am