Posts Tagged ‘groovy


The Safe Dereference Operator

Once again, I have gone months without writing, and I’m sure all two of my faithful readers are quite disappointed. Personally, I’m just shocked that summer is over already. If I’m being truthful, I thought about writing several times, but I could never come up with something that I learned that wasn’t so specific to my work that it was nearly irrelevant to anything else. (Though, as I write that, I think that I should put together a post about debugging. I do a lot of that, and there are a lot of things to learn there.) Today, however, I am inspired. I ran across this little gem while reviewing a coworker’s code:


At first I thought that the file might have been corrupted by the code review tool that we use. But just as I was about to open my mouth, I realized what was going on here. I have discovered a new operator, called the “safe dereference” operator, as it turns out, and I am in love.

If that syntax looks foreign to you, you’re in good company, or at least mine. Basically, that ?. checks if the preceding value is null, and, if it is, returns nullinstead of attempting dereference and throwing a NullPointerException. Because it returns null, you can chain these suckers and just check the final result for null before moving on with your code. Pretty neat, huh? I only see two possible, minor disadvantages. First, there’s no early out. If you have eighteen safe derefs chained, your statement will check for null eighteen times. If you have seventeen safe derefs followed by a regular deref, you may still get a NullPointerException. Second, it could potentially facilitate some really nasty code. Would you want to try to figure out which of those seventeen derefs returned null? Neither would I? That said, there are plenty of situations where you might not have to.

However, before you run off screaming, “I’m going to do this all the time now!” I do have some bad news. Shockingly, this amazingly useful operator isn’t present in every single language in the world. So far, I’ve only seen it in Groovy (a scripting language that compiles to JVM bytecode), and my coworker had previously used it in CoffeeScript (a language that compiles to JavaScript). So that’s very disappointing, but this feature is so useful, I have no doubt we’ll start seeing it pop up all over the place.

For more information, check out the Groovy documentation.


My name is Maitland Lederer, and I’m a video game developer. I learn stuff you probably already knew and have opinions you've probably already heard. I figured it might be a good idea for me to start writing down the stuff I've learned so I don't have to relearn it. It's not, like, great wisdom or anything. It's just things I happened to learn, usually today.

Header photo by D Sharon Pruitt, used under a Creative Commons License.