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Null Safety

Nullable types and Non-Null Types

Kotlin’s type system is aimed at eliminating null references from code, also known as the The Billion Dollar Mistake

One of the most common pitfalls in many programming languages, including Java is that of accessing a member of a null references, resulting in null reference exceptions. In Java this would be the equivalent of a NullPointerException or NPE for short.

Kotlin’s type system is aimed to eliminate NullPointerException’s from our code. The only possible causes of NPE’s may be

  • An explicit call to throw NullPointerException()
  • External Java code has caused it
  • There’s some data inconsistency with regard to initialization (an uninitialized this available in a constructor is used somewhere)

In Kotlin, the type system distinguishes between references that can hold null (nullable references) and those that can not (non-null references). For example, a regular variable of type String can not hold null:

var a: String = "abc"
a = null // compilation error

To allow nulls, we can declare a variable as nullable string, written String?:

var b: String? = "abc"
b = null // ok

Now, if you call a method or access a property on a, it’s guaranteed not to cause an NPE, so you can safely say

val l = a.length

But if you want to access the same property on b, that would not be safe, and the compiler reports an error:

val l = b.length // error: variable 'b' can be null

But we still need to access that property, right? There are a few ways of doing that.

Checking for null in conditions

First, you can explicitly check if b is null, and handle the two options separately:

val l = if (b != null) b.length else -1

The compiler tracks the information about the check you performed, and allows the call to length inside the if. More complex conditions are supported as well:

if (b != null && b.length > 0)
  print("String of length ${b.length}")
else
  print("Empty string")

Note that this only works where b is immutable (i.e. a local variable which is not modified between the check and the usage or a member val which has a backing field and is not overridable), because otherwise it might happen that b changes to null after the check.

Safe Calls

Your second option is the safe call operator, written ?.:

b?.length

This returns b.length if b is not null, and null otherwise. The type of this expression is Int?.

Safe calls are useful in chains. For example, if Bob, an Employee, may be assigned to a Department (or not), that in turn may have another Employee as a department head, then to obtain the name of Bob’s department head, if any), we write the following:

bob?.department?.head?.name

Such a chain returns null if any of the properties in it is null.

Elvis Operator

When we have a nullable reference r, we can say “if r is not null, use it, otherwise use some non-null value x”:

val l: Int = if (b != null) b.length else -1

Along with the complete if-expression, this can be expressed with the Elvis operator, written ?::

val l = b?.length ?: -1

If the expression to the left of ?: is not null, the elvis operator returns it, otherwise it returns the expression to the right. Note that the right-hand side expression is evaluated only if the left-hand side is null.

Note that, since throw and return are expressions in Kotlin, they can also be used on the right hand side of the elvis operator. This can be very handy, for example, for checking function arguments:

fun foo(node: Node): String? {
  val parent = node.getParent() ?: return null
  val name = node.getName() ?: throw IllegalArgumentException("name expected")
  // ...
}

The !! Operator

The third option is for NPE-lovers. We can write b!!, and this will return a non-null value of b (e.g., a String in our example) or throw an NPE if b is null:

val l = b!!.length()

Thus, if you want an NPE, you can have it, but you have to ask for it explicitly, and it does not appear out of the blue.

Safe Casts

Regular casts may result into a ClassCastException if the object is not of the target type. Another option is to use safe casts that return null if the attempt was not successful:

val aInt: Int? = a as? Int