Tuesday, August 17, 2021

9 Things about null keyword and reference in Java

Java and null are uniquely bonded. There is hardly a Java programmer, who is not troubled by the null pointer exception, it is the most infamous fact about. Even the inventor of the null concept has called it his billion-dollar mistake, then why Java kept it? Null was there from a long time and I believe the Java designer knows that null creates more problems than it solves, but still they went with it. It surprises me even more because Java's design philosophy was to simplify things, that's why they didn't bother with pointers, operator overloading, and multiple inheritance of implementation, they why null? 

Well, I really don't know the answer to that question, what I know is that doesn't matter how much null is criticized by Java developers and the open-source community, we have to live with that.

Instead of ruing about null, it's better to learn more about it and make sure we use it correctly. Why you should learn about null in Java? because If you don't pay attention to null, Java will make sure that you will suffer from dreaded java.lang.NullPointerException and you will learn your lesson the hard way.

Robust programming is an art and your team, customer, and users will appreciate that. In my experience, one of the main reasons for NullPointerException is not enough knowledge about null in Java.

Many of you are already familiar with null but those, who are not, can learn some old and new things about null keywords. Let's revisit or learn some important things about null in Java.

What is Null in Java?

As I said, null is very very important concept in Java. It was originally invented to denote absence of something e.g. absence of user, a resource or anything, but over the year it has troubled Java programmers a lot with nasty null pointer exceptions. In this tutorial, we will learn basic facts about null keyword in Java and explore some techniques to minimize null checks and how to avoid nasty null pointer exceptions.

1. Null as Keyword

First thing, first,  null is a keyword in Java, much like public, static or final. It's case sensitive, you cannot write null as Null or NULL, compiler will not recognize them and give error.

Object obj = NULL; // Not Ok
Object obj1 = null  //Ok

Programmers which are coming from other language have this problem, but use of modern day IDE's has made it insignificant. Now days, IDE like Eclipse or Netbeans can correct this mistake, while you type code, but in the era of notepad, Vim and Emacs, this was a common issue which could easily eat your precious time.

2. Default value and null

Just like every primitive has default value e.g. int has 0, boolean has false, null is the default value of any reference type, loosely spoken to all object as well. Just like if you create a boolean variable, it got default value as false, any reference variable in Java has default value null

This is true for all kind of variables e.g. member variable or local variable, instance variable or static variable, except that compiler will warn you if you use a local variable without initializing them. In order to verify this fact, you can see value of reference variable by creating a variable and them printing it's value, as shown in following code snippet :

private static Object myObj;
public static void main(String args[]){
    System.out.println("What is value of myObjc : " + myObj);

What is value of myObjc : null

This is true for both static and non-static object, as you can see here that I made myObj a static reference so that I can use it directly inside main method, which is static method and doesn't allow non-static variable inside.

3. What is the type of null

Unlike the common misconception, null is not Object or neither a type. It's just a special value, which can be assigned to any reference type and you can typecast null to any type, as shown below :

What is null in JavaString str = null; // null can be assigned to String
Integer itr = null; // you can assign null to Integer also
Double dbl = null;  // null can also be assigned to Double
String myStr = (String) null; // null can be type cast to String
Integer myItr = (Integer) null; // it can also be type casted to Integer
Double myDbl = (Double) null; // yes it's possible, no error

You can see that type casting null to any reference type is fine at both compile-time and runtime, unlike many of you might have thought, it will also not throw NullPointerException at runtime.

4.  Assigning Null to Variables

null can only be assigned to reference type, you cannot assign null to primitive variables e.g. int, double, float, or boolean. The compiler will complain if you do so, as shown below.

int i = null; // type mismatch : cannot convert from null to int
short s = null; //  type mismatch : cannot convert from null to short
byte b = null: // type mismatch : cannot convert from null to byte
double d = null; //type mismatch : cannot convert from null to double
Integer itr = null; // this is ok
int j = itr; // this is also ok, but NullPointerException at runtime

As you can see, when you directly assign null to primitive error it's a compile-time error, but if you assign null to a wrapper class object and then assign that object to the respective primitive type, the compiler doesn't complain, but you would be greeted by null pointer exception at runtime. This happens because of autoboxing in Java, and we will see it in the next point.

5.  Null and Wrapper Class

Any wrapper class with value null will throw java.lang.NullPointerException when Java unbox them into primitive values. Some programmer makes wrong assumption that, auto boxing will take care of converting null into default values for respective primitive type e.g. 0 for int, false for boolean etc, but that's not true, as seen below.

Integer iAmNull = null;
int i = iAmNull; // Remember - No Compilation Error

but when you run above code snippet you will see Exception in thread "main" java.lang.NullPointerException  in your console. This happens a lot while working with HashMap and Integer key values. Code like shown below will break as soon as you run.

import java.util.HashMap;
import java.util.Map;

 * An example of Autoboxing and NullPointerExcpetion
 * @author WINDOWS 8

public class Test {

    public static void main(String args[]) throws InterruptedException {
      Map numberAndCount = new HashMap<>();

      int[] numbers = {3, 5, 7,9, 11, 13, 17, 19, 2, 3, 5, 33, 12, 5};
      for(int i : numbers){
         int count = numberAndCount.get(i);
         numberAndCount.put(i, count++); // NullPointerException here


Exception in thread "main" java.lang.NullPointerException
 at Test.main(Test.java:25)

This code looks very simple and innocuous. All you are doing is finding how many times a number has appeared in an array, a classic technique to find duplicates in a Java array. A developer is getting the previous count, increasing it by one and putting it back into Map.

He might have thought that auto-boxing will take care of converting Integer to int , as it doing while calling put method, but he forgets that when there is no count exist for a number, get() method of HashMap will return null, not zero because the default value of Integer is null not 0, and autoboxing will throw null pointer exception while trying to convert it into an int variable.

Imagine if this code is inside an if loop and doesn't run in QA environment but as soon as you put into production, BOOM :-)

6) Null and InstanceOf in Java

instanceof operator will return false if used against any reference variable with null value or null literal itself, e.g.

Integer iAmNull = null;
if(iAmNull instanceof Integer){
   System.out.println("iAmNull is instance of Integer");                             

   System.out.println("iAmNull is NOT an instance of Integer");

Output : iAmNull is NOT an instance of Integer

This is an important property of instanceof operation which makes it useful for type casting checks.

7.  Calling Methods on a null reference

You may know that you cannot call a non-static method on a reference variable with a null value, it will throw NullPointerException, but you might not know that you can call the static method with reference variables with null values. Since static methods are bonded using static binding, they won't throw NPE. Here is an example :           

public class Testing {             
   public static void main(String args[]){
      Testing myObject = null;
   private static void iAmStaticMethod(){
        System.out.println("I am static method, can be called by null reference");
   private void iAmNonStaticMethod(){
 System.out.println("I am NON static method, don't date to call me by null");

I am static method, can be called by null reference
Exception in thread "main" java.lang.NullPointerException
               at Testing.main(Testing.java:11)

8. Passing null to method arguments

You can pass null to methods, which accepts any reference type like public void print(Object obj) can be called as print(null). This is Ok from the compiler's point of view, but behavior is entirely depends upon method. Null safe method, doesn't throw NullPointerException in such case, they just exit gracefully. It is recommended to write null safe method if business logic allows.

9.  Comparing nulls in Java

You can compare null value using ==  (equal to ) operator and !=  (not equal to) operator, but cannot use it with other arithmetic or logical operator e.g. less than or greater than. Unlike in SQL, in Java null == null will return true, as shown below :

public class Test {

    public static void main(String args[]) throws InterruptedException {
       String abc = null;
       String cde = null;
       if(abc == cde){
           System.out.println("null == null is true in Java");
       if(null != null){
           System.out.println("null != null is false in Java"); 
       // classical null check
       if(abc == null){
           // do something
       // not ok, compile time error
       if(abc > null){

null == null is true in Java

That's all about null in Java. With some experience in Java coding and by using simple tricks to avoid NullPointerExcpetion, you can make your code null safe. Since null can be treated as an empty or uninitialized value it's often a source of confusion, that's why it's more important to document the behavior of a method for null input. Always remember, null is the default value of any reference variable and you cannot call any instance method, or access an instance variable using null reference in Java.


Instanceofjava said...

can we decrease the null checking for every on which may throw a nullpointerexception in future? lets see
nice conversation of null .

Anonymous said...

From Java 8 onwards, It's better to use Optional over null to denote absense of something, because Optional allows you to set decent default value, which null doesn't. By returning Optional from method, instead of null, you can get rid of dreaded NullPointerExceptions.

eddie said...

Nice post!

On Firefox 34, the java code is not correctly rendered in the post, I get overfull lines.

Anonymous said...

What is the use case for (String) null or (Integer) null or (Double) null ? Where do we use these ?

Unknown said...

Also, to Anonymous, the castability of null deals with the way that javac's parser works. If we can cast a reference, which can be null, to a specific class; then we must be able to cast its literal value, possibly null, to that class. Thus, if Number n = null; and Integer I = (Integer)n; then Integer i = (Integer)null. I'm not sure if there's a place to directly use it, but if someone knows better, my ears are open.

Mike said...

Can anyone tell me why null pointer is missing in Scala? Not that I am not happy, but just curious if Scala can do it then why Java 8 couldn't.

Sam said...

The biggest irony in Java world is, they don't have pointer but they still suffer from NULL POINTER :)

Unknown said...

The 10th thing about null in Java : "When casting null is required"

interface A {
void callMe(B b);
void callMe(C c);

A a = new ...
a.callMe(null); // the method is ambiguous for the type
// cast is required
a.callMe((B) null); // ok
a.callMe((C) null); // ok

Anonymous said...

NPE is one of the easiest exception to solve: you the the line where it occures. If you use a variable, it might be null, eg. not initialised. If it came from a function call, check the doc if it can return null and what this means. Add a check condition if null is possible.

Anonymous said...

Your Autoboxing and NullPointerException example code is flawed. "Map numberAndCount" means it is a raw Map and thus you should get a Type mismatch compiler error on the "int count = numberAndCount.get(i);"statement. Secondly if you did type the Map you should get the NPE on the assignment as indicated in your text, not on the statement marked in the example

Anonymous said...

About 7 - it won't throw npe, because this static method has nothing to do with this object. It doesn't make any sense to even try to use static nethod on object reference.

Anonymous said...

how can yu say that null is a keyword it is a literal

Anonymous said...

is null realy a keyword or a reserve word first first find it out ?

Anonymous said...

null is not a keyword.. its a literal treated specially by compiler to denote absence of something like value, reference, object etc.

Unknown said...

here is full code to explain nullpointerexecption

public class NullPointer {
static Object obj;
public static void main(String[] args)
// TODO Auto-generated method stub
String s1="";
String s2=null;
String s3=s2;
System.out.println(s1 instanceof String);
System.out.println(s2 instanceof String);
System.out.println(s3 instanceof String);
String s4 = (String) null;
Integer s5=null;
// int s6=s5;
int a[]=null;
String s[]=null;
// a[0]=1;
System.out.println("value obj reference is"+obj);

NullPointer nl=new NullPointer();

static void iamstaticmethod(){
System.out.println("i am static method can be call by null reference");
void iamnonstaticmethod(){
System.out.println("i am static method can be call by null reference");

Anonymous said...

null is not keyword in java. Reference stackoverflow

Anonymous said...

Nice post!

About 7): sure you can call static methods from a null reference, but it is a discouraged practice. That's probably why you put the "can" in italic in your post. For the beginer reader, you could add that you should call static methods from the class itself directly instead.

@Philippe Poulard: funny example of null casting. Thanks! :)

Unknown said...

null is not a keyword in java

Anonymous said...

int count = (int) numberAndCount.get(i);
You will have to do casting also

Unknown said...

Really well explained

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