The Null Coalescing Operator (Or how to make Default values sound frightening)

Posted on June 15th, 2007 by kushal


C# 2.0 introduced a little known, and somewhat useful new operator called the Null Coalescing Operator.

Its like the ternary conditional operator, except less powerful (but admittedly a little neater to look at).
Here’s an example of coaless coolesc that new feature:

//assuming formValue is of type string
string nickName = formValue ?? "Dr. Zoidberg";

… which is the same as this:

string nickName = 
        (formValue == null) ? "Dr. Zoidberg" : formValue;

Its just easiest to think of it as the ‘default’ operator. i.e.
nickName is being set to formValue, but with a default.

Note however, that if you try to change this code:

string nickName = 
        string.IsNullOrEmpty(formValue) ? "Dr. Zoidberg" : formValue;

… to sprinkle some freshly-made coalescing goodness, you could be introducing a subtle bug. (Think empty string)


I’ve never quite understood why people have to come up with the most intimidatory name possible for a simple feature.
Maybe the C# developers wanted to stress similarity with the ANSI SQL function which pretty much does the same thing:

SELECT COALESCE(@nickaname, 'Dr. Zoidberg')

… in which case I can somewhat understand. After all, the SQL guys had to spend their time dealing mostly with simplistic sounding keywords like SELECT, CREATE, UPDATE etc … and some guy probably just snapped. Lawyers have their indictments, plaintiffs, subpoenas and what-not. Doctors regularly get to say words like haemoglobin, pericardium and streptokinase. So someone must have looked up the dictionary and come up a random word.


Interestingly enough, even though this feature isn’t supported by Java (as of Java 5), Javascript has long supported this. Of course Javascript really has nothing to do with Java. But its hard not to form an association in one’s head.
Anyway, here’s the equivalent in Javascript:

var nickName = (formValue || "Dr Zoidberg");

While on the topic of Javascript and null coalescence, beware though. Don’t get confused with this Javascript statement:

var returnValue = (myObject && myObject.myProperty);

…which is called the “Guard” operator apparently. You would use this when you really want to return myObject.myProperty, but you aren’t sure if myObject is null or not, and want to avoid a null pointer error1. Kinda hacky, I know.

If you’re wondering how come all this doesn’t conflict with Javacript’s implementation of the logical OR and AND operators, its because they dont necessarily return booleans and Javascript evaluates all objects, non-empty strings and non-zero numbers to true. So both the “guard” and “default” operators are really Javascript’s own peculiar implementation of logical AND and OR operators.
Javascript often strikes me as the Ferris Bueller of programming languages. Not always taken seriously, but still surprisingly inventive and most of all – very, very annoying.

1: The specific error message varies from browser to browser. In IE this would show up as “myProperty is null or not an object”, in Mozilla based browsers the error message would be “myObject has no properties” (which makes a little more sense, no?)

Posted in C#, Javascript | 6 Comments »