A Whole Lot Of Nothing


I get questions from people who are confused over the semantics of data that are not
even there
. Usually they've written
code something like

If Blah
= Nothing Then


If Blah
= Empty Then


If Blah
= Null Then

three of which almost certainly do not correctly express the actual intention of the
programmer. Why does VBScript have Null, Nothing and Empty,
and what are the differences between them?

start with Empty. When you declare a
variable in C, the variable's value before the first assignment is undefined:

int index;

index); /* could print any integer */

C, the declaration reserves space for the variable, but does not clear
the contents of that space
. After
all, why would it need to? You're just going to initialize it to some value yourself,
right? Why should the compiler waste
time by initializing it only to have that initialization overwritten?

might seem like a sensible attitude if you are one of those people who prefers that
your program be twenty or even thirty nanoseconds faster
in exchange for causing any accidental use of uninitialized memory to make your program's
behaviour completely random.

designers of VB knew that their users were not hard core bit twiddling performance
wonks, but rather line-of-business developers who prefer a predictable programming
environment. Thus, VB initializes variables
as they are declared and eats a few processor cycles here and there. When
you declare an integer in VB, it's initialized to zero, strings are initialized to
empty strings, and so on.

what about variants? Should an uninitialized
variant be initialized to zero? That
seems bogus; why should an uninitialized variant automatically become a number? Really
what we need is a special of-no-particular-type "I'm an uninitialized variant"
value, and that's Empty. And
since in VBScript, all variables are variants, all variables are initialized to Empty.

if in VB you compare an uninitialized variant to an uninitialized integer? It
seems sensible that the comparison would return True,
and it does. Empty compares
as equal to 0 and the empty string, which might cause false positives in our example
above. If you need to detect whether
a variable actually is an empty variant and not a string or a number, you can use IsEmpty. (Alternatively,
you could use TypeName or VarType,
but I prefer IsEmpty.)

Nothing is
similar to Empty but
subtly different. Empty says
"I am an uninitialized variant", Nothing says
"I am an object reference that refers to no object". Since
the equality operator on objects checks for equality on the default property of an
object, any attempt to say If
Blah = Nothing Then  is
doomed to failure -- Nothing does
not have a default property, so this will produce a run-time error. To
check to see if an object reference is invalid, use If
Blah Is Nothing Then.

Null is
weirder still. The semantics of Null are
very poorly understood, particularly amongst people who have little experience with
relational databases. Empty says
"I'm an uninitialized variant", Nothing says
"I'm an invalid object" and Null says
"I represent a value which is not known."

me give an example. Suppose you have
a database of sales reports, and you ask the database "what
was the total of all sales in August
?" but one of the sales staff has not reported
their sales for August yet. What's the
correct answer? You could design the
database to ignore the fact that data is missing and give the sum of the known sales,
but that would be answering a different question. The
question was not "what was the total of all
known sales in August, excluding any missing data
?" The
question was "what was the total of all sales
in August
?" The answer to that question
is "I don't know -- there is data missing",
so the database returns Null.

happens when you say

If Blah
= Null Then

? Well,
try this:

= 123

Sales = Null

get not True,
not False,
but Null! Why's
that? Well, think about the semantics
of it. You're saying "is the unknown
quantity equal to 123?" The answer to
that is not "yes", it's not "no", it's "I don't know what the unknown quantity is,
so, uh, maybe?"

propagate themselves
. Any time
you numerically manipulate a Null,
you get a Null right
back. Any sum containing an unknown addend
has an unknown sum, obviously! The correct
way to check for Null is
much as you'd do for Empty:
use IsNull (or TypeName or VarType.)


sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that I never actually answered
the question. What does happens when you say

Blah = Null Then

does VBScript run the consequence block or the (optional) "else" block?
Obviously it has to do one of the two. When it comes right down to it,
VBScript will assume falsity in this situation.


way JScript and JScript .NET handle nulls is a little bit weird; I'll talk about that
in my next entry.