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Everything about null in JavaScript

Posted September 22, 2020

JavaScript has 2 kinds of types: primitives (strings, booleans, numbers, symbols) and objects.

Objects are complex data structures. The simplest object in JavaScript is the plain object — a collection of keys and associated values:

let myObject = {
name: 'Eric Cartman'

But there are situations when an object cannot be created. For such cases, JavaScript provides a special value null — which indicates a missing object.

let myObject = null;

In this post, you'll learn everything about null in JavaScript: its meaning, how to detect it, the difference between null and undefined, and why using null extensively creates code maintenance difficulties.

1. The concept of null

The JavaScript specification says about null:

null is a primitive value that represents the intentional absence of any object value.

If you see null (either assigned to a variable or returned by a function), then at that place should have been an object, but for some reason, an object wasn't created.

For example, the function greetObject() creates objects, but also can return null when an object cannot be created:

function greetObject(who) {
if (!who) {
return null;
return { message: `Hello, ${who}!` };
greetObject('Eric'); // => { message: 'Hello, Eric!' }
greetObject(); // => null

When invoking the function with a string argument like greetObject('Eric'), as expected, the function returns an object { message: 'Hello, Eric!' }.

However, when invoking the function with no arguments — greetObject() — the function returns null. Returning null is reasonable because who parameter has no value, and the greeting object cannot be created.

1.1 Real-world analogy of null

Thinking about a real-world analogy, you can imagine a variable as being a box. Just like a variable can hold an object, the box can contain objects like a teapot.

But once you receive a box and open it... and nothing there! Someone made a mistake and sent you an empty box. The box contains nothing, or, saying it differently, contains a null value.

2. How to check for null

The good way to check for null is by using the strict equality operator:

const missingObject = null;
const existingObject = { message: 'Hello!' };
missingObject === null; // => true
existingObject === null; // => false

missingObject === null evaluates to true because missingObject variable contains a null value.

If the variable contains a non-null value, like an object, the expression existingObject === null evaluates to false.

2.1 null is falsy

null, alongside false, 0, '', undefined, NaN, is a falsy value. If a falsy value is encountered in conditionals, then JavaScript coerces falsy to false.

Boolean(null); // => false
if (null) {
console.log('null is truthy');
} else {
console.log('null is falsy'); // logs 'null is falsy'

2.2 typeof null

typeof value operator determines the type of value. For example typeof 15 is 'number' and typeof { prop: 'Value' } evaluates to 'object'.

Interestingly, to what value type null evaluates to?

typeof null; // => 'object'

Hm... how could the type of a missing object evaluate to 'object'? Turns out typoef null being 'object' was a mistake in the early JavaScript implementation.

Do not use typeof operator to detect a null value. As mentioned previously, use the strict equality operator myVar === null.

If you'd like to check whether a variable contains an object using typeof operator, you have to check againts null too:

function isObject(object) {
return typeof object === 'object' && object !== null;
isObject({ prop: 'Value' }); // => true
isObject(15); // => false
isObject(null); // => false

3. The trap of null

null might appear, often unexpectedly, in situations when you expect an object. Then if you try to extract a property from null, JavaScript throws an error.

Let's use again greetObject() function and try to access message property from the returned object:

let who = '';
// throws "TypeError: greetObject() is null"

Because who variable is an empty string, the function returns null. When accessing message property from null, a TypeError error is thrown.

You can handle null by either using the optional chaining with nullish coalescing:

let who = '';
greetObject(who)?.message ?? 'Hello, Stranger!';
// => 'Hello, Stranger!'

or use 2 alternatives described in the next section.

4. Alternatives to null

It's tempting to return null when you cannot construct an object. But this practice has downsides.

As soon as null appears within your execution stack, you always have to check for it.

I try to avoid returning null in favor of:

  • returning a default object instead of null
  • throwing an error instead of returning null

Let's recall the greetObject() function that returns greeting objects.

Instead of returning null when the argument is missing, you could either return a default object:

function greetObject(who) {
if (!who) {
who = 'Stranger';
return { message: `Hello, ${who}!` };
greetObject('Eric'); // => { message: 'Hello, Eric!' }
greetObject(); // => { message: 'Hello, Stranger!' }

either throw an error:

function greetObject(who) {
if (!who) {
throw new Error('"who" argument is missing');
return { message: `Hello, ${who}!` };
greetObject('Eric'); // => { message: 'Hello, Eric!' }
greetObject(); // => throws an error

These practices let you avoid dealing with null at all.

5. null vs undefined

undefined is the value of an uninitialized variable or object property.

For example, if you declare a variable without assigning an initial value, accessing such variable evaluates to undefined:

let myVariable;
myVariable; // => undefined

The main difference between null and undefined is that null represents a missing object, while undefined represents an uninitialized state.

The strict equality operator === distinguishes null from undefined:

null === undefined; // => false

While loose equality operator == considers null and undefined equal:

null == undefined; // => true

I use the loose equality operator to check whether a variable is null or undefined:

function isEmpty(value) {
return value == null;
isEmpty(42); // => false
isEmpty({ prop: 'Value' }); // => false
isEmpty(null); // => true
isEmpty(undefined); // => true

6. Summary

null is a special value in JavaScript that represents a missing object.

The strict equality operator determines whether a variable is null: variable === null.

typoef operator is useful to determine the type of a variable (number, string, boolean). However, typeof is misleading in case of null: typeof null evaluates to 'object'.

null and undefined are somehow equivalent, still, null represents a missing object, while undefined uninitialized state.

Avoid if possible returning null or setting variables to null. This practice leads to the spread of null values and verifications for null. Instead, try to use objects with default properties, or even throw errors.

Having mastered null, why not master undefined? Follow my post 7 Tips to Handle undefined in JavaScript.

What condition do you use to check for null?

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Dmitri Pavlutin

About Dmitri Pavlutin

Software developer and sometimes writer. My daily routine consists of (but not limited to) drinking coffee, coding, writing, overcoming boredom 😉. Living in the sunny Barcelona. 🇪🇸