As I was reading around on StackOverflow, digging through other peoples source code, I spotted multiple methods returning null in a variety of circumstances. I also found rather imaginative ways to handle null-values.

Although there is nothing wrong with null, the concept of null-pointers seems to be somewhat misunderstood. Let’s change that.

What are null-pointers?

Wikipedia has the following to say:

A null pointer has a value reserved for indicating that the pointer does not refer to a valid object.

In Java, there are two types of variables: value-types and reference-types. The first group includes the primitive data-types like int, float, char and byte. The second contains objects.

Since only reference-types can be null (a reference to nothing), it’s not possible to set a value-type to null. Side-Note: In Java, you can set a value-type to null, by using the appropriate boxing-type (e.g. Integer, which is a reference-type) and setting it to null.

When invoking a method or accessing a field on an object with a null reference, a NullPointerException will be thrown.

When to use null

A value of null should only be used when effectively saying nothing. For example, it might be important that there is a difference between an empty message (string ""), and no message at all (as in the BufferedReader.readLine()-method).

A more practical example is given in “C# in Depth” by Jon Skeet, Chapter 4, “Saying nothing with nullable types”:

[…] an example might be an e-commerce application where users are looking at their account history. If an order has been placed but not delivered, there may be a purchase date but no dispatch date […]

In those cases, where there is just nothing to say about the value, you should use null.

The dangers of null

Let’s take a look at some common anti-patterns where null is used inappropriately.

Never use null to indicate an error

Quite often, developers tend to return null when something went wrong in the method. Here is a classic example:

// Anti-pattern. DON'T DO THIS!
public Foo readFoo(File file){
    try {
        // Try reading the contents from the given file
        return actualReadData;
    } catch (IOException e){
        return null;

This code will (given that the reading part is actually implemented) read the contents from the passed file-argument, create a new Foo-object and return it. If however the method fails to read the contents from the file, it will return null.

This pattern is problematic, as it has to be explicitly documented under which circumstances the method returns null. Otherwise, it’s unclear what the returned null actually means. Does it mean the file is empty? Does the file not exist? Was the content not parseable?

Additionally, it might be possible to recover from certain failure cases, but you can’t differentiate between them when they all just return null (which only tells you that something went wrong). Last but not least, returning null does not force any handling of the error-condition. All those drawbacks can be overcome by throwing an exception instead.

Yoda Conditions

As cool as the name sounds, “Yoda Conditions” are a danger because they completely defeat the purpose of making a value null. Here is an example:

String possiblyNull = possiblyReturnsNull();
if ("constant".equals(possiblyNull)){
    // it equals!
} else {
    // it doesn't.

Let’s assume that possiblyReturnsNull() does not return null to indicate an error but actually, to return nothing. Using the “Yoda Condition” avoids a possible NullPointerException. But this also indicates that: “null is the same as everything which is not constant”.

Since there’s probably a reason why possiblyReturnsNull() returns null instead of an actual value, you should test for this specifically. If it doesn’t make a difference if the value is null or anything which is not “constant”, the decision to return null in this case was probably a design-error.

Never return null for arrays/collections

Let’s say you have a function which returns all Unicorn-toys still in stock:

// Anti-pattern. DON'T DO THIS!
public List<Unicorns> getUnicorns(){
    if (unicornList.size() == 0){
        return null;
    // ...

This case is special because we want to say that there are currently no unicorns in stock. So why is this bad?

Consider a world in which the hypothetical shop usually always has Unicorn-toys in stock. When the calling code does not explicitly check for a null return value, it might run as expected for years. Until somebody buys up the entire stock and now the shop is crashing.

So in this case, nothing is the same as empty. Therefor, you can (and should) return an empty array/collection, instead of null:

// Return empty arrays/collections instead of null
public List<Unicorns> getUnicorns(){
    if (unicornList.size() == 0){
        return Collections.emptyList();
    // ...

This enables the caller of the method to simply iterate over the returned list, without needing to fear a NullPointerException.

You don’t even need to instantiate a new collection, as the Collections-class provides the methods emptySet(), emptyList() and emptyMap() to return an empty, immutable collection for the given type of collection.


To sum it all up:

  • Use null when the value is nothing
  • Don’t return null to indicate an error!
  • Check for null, if it indicates a different result then “not what you’re looking for”
  • Don’t return null for empty arrays/collections