Some notes on Elvis and Other Null-Safe Operators

Reinier Zwitserloot reinier at
Mon May 18 23:06:36 PDT 2009

I agree with you that this 'meh, let's see what happens' attitude  
doesn't exactly sound kosher, but them's the breaks. Presuming, of  
course, that you agree that there's a -big- difference for very small  
utility classes and methods being in java core, and being in a third  
party library. That, or we make guesses about a Utils.elvis() method's  
popularity, which seems similarly objectionable.

But, back on the topic of the elvis operator as a library for a  
moment: Even if some form of it would be added to the core libraries,  
what would that look like? All I can come up with:

with the actual null checking operators:

public void test() {
     Integer x = foo?.bar()?.baz();
     return x ?: 0;

library attempt:

public void test() {
     Integer x = Utils.ifNotNull(new IfNotNullBlock<Integer>() {
         public void run() {

     return Utils.elvis(x, 0);

contrast this to how I'd do this now, without either a library or an  

public void test() {
     Integer x = barBaz(foo);

     return x != null ? x : 0;

private void fooBarBaz(Foo foo) {
     if ( foo == null ) return null;
     Bar bar =;
     if ( bar == null ) return null;
     return bar.baz();

The actual elvis operator could be a library, sure, but a null-safe  
dereferencing operator clearly couldn't be, unless I'm missing  
something. Because elvis looks acceptable without a library, just  
written out with a ternary operator, and because elvis does librarify  
(coining words here!) somewhat nicely, The amount of pain/boilerplate  
you can eliminate with the null safe derefencing operator (?.) is  
considerably bigger than elvis. Though, from anecdotal evidence and  
Ruslan's work, ?: would be useful more often. Personally, I can't  
recall even a single instance of having to write out a chain of method  
calls that all need to be null-safed out (though I admit I tend to  
avoid nulls like the plague in the first place).

The value of a language change for coin is something along the lines  
of (boilerplate eliminated * frequency of use case) / (negative impact  
on the language). The negative impact part is equal, as far as I can  
tell, so it boils down to boilerplate*frequency. I'm not sure which  
one is the winner there - elvis avoids a little boilerplate a lot of  
the time, and null-safe dereference avoids a lot of boilerplate, only  
a few times. Given that introducing related changes in batch form has  
its own advantages, I'm somewhat confused as to why this proposal  
isn't a both or neither kind of deal: Whats the thinking behind  
introducing ?: but not ?. and, possibly, ?[], though where do you draw  
the line? Technically we'd need a synchronized ( foo? ), a throw foo?,  
and a for ( x : foo? ) as well, if you want to cover all the  
situations that can result in NPEs!).

FWIW, the for ( x : foo? ) thing seems more useful to me than ?[],  
because arrays are a niche device compared to the Collections API, and  
the amount of boilerplate involved is bigger (either a lengthy foo ?:  
Collections.emptyList() - which adds an import dependency, or a whole  
new nesting level by prefixing the entire for loop with an if ( foo !=  
null ) {}, compared to just foo != null ? foo[x] : null).

  --Reinier Zwitserloot

On May 19, 2009, at 07:34, Mark Mahieu wrote:

> On 19 May 2009, at 05:13, Reinier Zwitserloot wrote:
>> So, is the elvis operator a good idea? Probably - I'm mostly
>> agnostic*, but if I had to make the final call, sure, why not.
> Can't beat a well-reasoned argument like that ;)
>> However, we clearly cannot say that 'the library path doesn't work' -
>> because we haven't tested the library path yet. Toss it into
>> java.lang.Something, and if people then still won't go for it, THEN  
>> we
>> know it won't fly as a library**.
> Is that language design by Coin-toss?
> Mark

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