Patterns and nulls

Brian Goetz brian.goetz at
Wed Mar 14 16:58:59 UTC 2018

In the message "More on patterns, generics, null, and primitives", Gavin 
outlines how these constructs will be treated in pattern matching.  This 
mail is a refinement of that, specifically, to refine how nulls are 

Rambling Background Of Why This Is A Problem At All

Nulls will always be a source of corner cases and surprises, so the best 
we can likely do is move the surprises around to coincide with existing 
surprise modes.  One of the existing surprise modes is that switches on 
reference types (boxes, strings, and enums) currently always NPE when 
passed a null.  You could characterize switch's current treatment of 
null as "La la la can't hear you la la la."  (I think this decision was 
mostly made by frog-boiling; in Java 1.0, there were no switches on 
reference types, so it was not an issue; when switches on boxes was 
added, it was done by appeal to auto-unboxing, which throws on null, and 
null enums are rare enough that no one felt it was important enough to 
do something different for them.  Then when we added string switch in 7, 
we were already mostly sliding the slippery slope of past precedent.)

The "la la la" approach has gotten us pretty far, but I think finally 
runs out of gas when we have nested patterns.  It might be OK to NPE 
when x = null here:

     switch (x) {
         case String: ...
         case Integer: ...
         default: ...

but it is certainly not OK to NPE when b = new Box(null):

     switch (b) {
         case Box(String s): ...
         case Box(Integer i): ...
         case Box(Object o): ...

since `Box(null)` is a perfectly reasonable box.  (Which of these 
patterns matches `Box(null)` is a different story, see below.)  So 
problem #1 with is that we need a way to match nulls in nested patterns; 
having nested patterns throw whenever any intermediate binding produces 
null would be crazy.  So, we have to deal with nulls in this way.  It 
seems natural, therefore, to be able to confront it directly:

     case Box(null): ...

which is just an ordinary nested pattern, where our target matches 
`Box(var x)` and further x matches null.  Which means `x matches null` 
need to be a thing, even if switch is hostile to nulls.

But if you pull on this string a bit more, we'd also like to do the same 
at the top level, because we'd like to be able to refactor

     switch (b) {
         case Box(null): ...
         case Box(Candy): ...
         case Box(Object): ...


     switch (b) {
         case Box(var x):
             switch (x) {
                 case null: ...
case Candy: ...
case Object: ...

with no subtle semantics changes.  I think this is what users will 
expect, and cutting them on sharp edges here wouldn't be doing them favors.

Null and Type Patterns

The previous iteration outlined in Gavin's mail was motivated by a 
sensible goal, but I think we took it a little too literally. Which is 
that if I have a `Box(null)`, it should match the following:

     case Box(var x):

because it would be weird if `var x` in a nested context really meant 
"everything but null."  This led us to the position that

     case Box(Object o):

should also match `Box(null)`, because `var` is just type inference, and 
the compiler infers `Object` here from the signature of the `Box` 
deconstructor.  So `var` and the type that gets inferred should be 
treated the same.  (Note that Scala departs from this, and the results 
are pretty confusing.)

You might convince yourself that `Box(Object)` not matching `Box(null)` 
is not a problem, just add a case to handle null, with an OR pattern 
(aka non-harmful fallthrough):

     case Box(null): // fall through
     case Box(Object): ...

But, this only works in the simple case.  What if my Box deconstructor 
had four binding variables:

     case Box(P, Q, R, S):

Now, to capture the same semantics, you need four more cases:

     case Box(null, Q, R, S): // fall through
     case Box(P, null, R, S):// fall through
     case Box(P, Q, null, S): // fall through
     case Box(P, Q, R, null): // fall through
     case Box(P, Q, R, S):

But wait, it gets worse, since if P and friends have binding variables, 
and the null pattern does not, the binding variables will not be DA and 
therefore not be usable.  And if we graft binding variables onto 
constant patterns, we have a potential typing problem, since the type of 
merged binding variables in OR patterns should match.  So this is a tire 
fire, let's back away slowly.

So, we want at least some type patterns to match null, at least in 
nested contexts.  Got it.

This led us to: a type pattern `T t` should match null.  But clearly, in 
the switch

     switch (aString) {
         case String s: ...

it NPEs (since that's what it does today.)  So we moved the null 
hostility to `switch`, which involved an analysis of whether `case null` 
was present.  As Kevin pointed out, that was pretty confusing for the 
users to keep track of.  So that's not so good.

Also not so good: if type patterns match null, then the dominance order 
rule says you can't put a `case null` arm after a type pattern arm, 
because the `case null` will be dead.  (Just like you can't catch 
`IOException` after catching `Throwable`.)  Which deprived case null of 
most of its remaining usefulness, which is: lump null in with the 
default.  If users want to use `case null`, they most likely want this:

     switch (o) {
         case A: ...
         case B: ...
         case null: // fall through
             // deal with unexpected values

If we can't do that -- which the latest iteration said we can't -- its 
pretty useless.  So, we got something wrong with type patterns too.  
Tricky buggers, these nulls!

Some Problems With the Current Plan

The current plan, even though it came via a sensible path, has lots of 
problems.  Including:

  - Its hard to reason about which switches throw on null and which 
don't.  (This will never be easy, but we can make it less hard.)
  - We have asymmetries between nested and non-nested patterns; if we 
unroll a nested pattern to a nested switch, the semantics shift subtly 
out from under us.
  - There's no way to say "default including null", which is what people 
would actually want to do if they had explicit control over nulls.  
Having `String s` match null means our ordering rules force the null 
case too early, depriving us of the ability to lump it in with another 

Further, while the intent of `Box(var x)` matches `Box(null)` was right, 
and that led us to `Box(Object)` matches `Box(null)`, we didn't pull 
this string to the end.  So let's break some assumptions and start over.

Let's assume we have the following declarations:

     record Box(Object);
     Object o;
     String s;
     Box b;

Implicitly, `Box` has a deconstruction pattern whose signature is 
`Box(out Object o)`.

What will users expect on the following?

     Box b = new Box(null);
     switch (b) {
         case Box(Candy x): ...
         case Box(Frog f): ...
         case Box(Object o): ...

There are four non-ridiculous possibilities:
  - NPE
  - Match none
  - Match Box(Candy)
  - Match Box(Object)

I argued above why NPE is undesirable; I think matching none of them 
would also be pretty surprising, since `Box(null)` is a perfectly 
reasonable element of the value set decribed by the pattern 
`Box(Object)`.  If all type patterns match null, we'd match `Box(Candy)` 
-- but that's pretty weird and arbitrary, and probably not what the user 
expects.  It also means -- and this is a serious smell -- that we 
couldn't freely reorder the independent cases `Box(Candy)` and 
`Box(Frog)` without subtly altering behavior.  Yuck!

So the only reasonable outcome is that it matches `Box(Object)`.  We'll 
need a credible theory why we bypass the candy and the frog buckets, but 
I think this is what the user will expect -- `Box(Object)` is our 
catch-all bucket.

A Credible Theory

Recall that matching a nested pattern `x matches Box(P)` means:

     x matches Box(var alpha) && alpha matches P

The theory by which we can reasonably claim that `Box(Object)` matches 
`Box(null)` is that the nested pattern `Object` is _total_ on the type 
of its target (alpha), and therefore can be statically deemed to match 
without additional dynamic checks.  In

         case Box(Candy x): ...
         case Box(Frog f): ...
         case Box(Object o): ...

the first two cases require additional dynamic type tests (instanceof 
Candy / Frog), but the latter, if the target is a `Box` at all, requires 
no further dynamic testing.  So we can _define_ `T t` to mean:

     match(T t, e : U) === U <: T ? true : e instanceof U

In other words, a total type pattern matches null, but a partial type 
pattern does not.  That's great for the type system weenies, but does it 
help the users?  I claim it does. It means that in:

     Box b = new Box(null);
     switch (b) {
         case Box(Candy x): ...
         case Box(Frog f): ...
         case Box(Object o): ...

We match `Box(Object)`, which is the catch-all `Box` handler. We can 
freely reorder the first two cases, because they're unordered by 
dominance, but we can't reorder either of them with `Box(Object)`, 
because that would create a dead case arm.  `Box(var x)` and `Box(T x)` 
mean the same thing when `T` is the type that inference produces.

So `Box(Candy)` selects all boxes known to contain candy; `Box(Frog)` 
all boxes known to contain frogs; `Box(null)` selects a box containing 
null, and `Box(_)` or `Box(var x)` or `Box(Object o)` selects all boxes.

Further, we can unroll the above to:

     Box b = new Box(null);
     switch (b) {
         case Box(var x):
switch (x) {
case Candy c: ...
case Frog f: ...
case Object o: ...

and it means _the same thing_; the nulls flow into the `Object` catch 
basin, and I can still freely recorder the Candy/Frog cases. Whew. This 
feels like we're getting somewhere.

We can also now flow the `case null` down to where it falls through into 
the "everything else" bucket, because type patterns no longer match 
nulls.  If specified at all, this is probably where the user most wants 
to put it.

Note also that the notion of a "total pattern" (one whose applicability, 
possibly modulo null, can be determined statically) comes up elsewhere 
too.  We talked about a let-bind statement:

    let Point(var x, var y) = p

In order for the compiler to know that an `else` is not required on a 
let-bind, the pattern has to be total on the static type of the target.  
So this notion of totality is a useful one.

Where totality starts to feel uncomfortable is the fact that while null 
_matches_ `Object o`, it is not `instanceof Object`.  More on this later.

This addresses all the problems we stated above, so what's the problem?

Default becomes legacy

The catch is that the irregularity of `default` becomes even more 
problematic.  The cure is we give `default` a gold watch, thank it for 
its services, and grant it "Keyword Emeritus" status.

What's wrong with default?  First, it's syntactically irregular.  It's 
not a pattern, so doesn't easily admit nesting or binding variables.  
And second, its semantically irregular; it means "everything else (but 
not null!)"  Which makes it a poor catch-all.  We'd like for our 
catch-all case -- the one that dominates all other possible cases -- to 
catch everything.  We thought we wanted `default` to be equivalent to a 
total pattern, but default is insufficiently total.

So, let's define a _constant switch_ as one whose target is the existing 
constant types (primitives, their boxes, strings, and enums) and whose 
labels are all constants (the latter condition might not be needed).  In 
a constant switch, retcon default to mean "all the constants I've not 
explicitly enumerated, except null."  (If you want to flow nulls into 
the default bin too, just add an explicit `case null` to fall into 
default, _or_ replace `default` with a total pattern.)  We act as if 
that constant switches have an implicit "case null: NPE" _at the 
bottom_.  If you don't handle null explicitly (a total pattern counts as 
handling it explicitly), you fall into that bucket.

Then, we _ban_ default in non-constant switches.  So if you want 
patterns, swap your old deficient `default` for new shiny total 
patterns, which are a better default, and are truly exhaustive (rather 
than modulo-null exhaustive).  If we can do a little more to express the 
intention of exhaustiveness for statement switches (which are not 
required to be exhaustive), this gives us a path to "switches never 
throw NPE if you follow XYZ rules."

There's more work to do here to get to this statically-provable 
null-safe switch future, but I think this is a very positive direction.  
(Of course, we can't prevent NPEs from people matching against `Object 
o` and then dereferencing o.)

Instanceof becomes instanceof

The other catch is that we can't use `instanceof` to be the spelling of 
our `matches` operator, because it conflicts with existing `instanceof` 
treatment of nulls.  I think that's OK; `instanceof` is a low-level 
primitive; matching is a high-level construct defined partially in terms 
of instanceof.

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