What reason is there to use null instead of undefined in JavaScript?


I've been writing JavaScript for quite a long time now, and I have never had a reason to use null. It seems that undefined is always preferable and serves the same purpose programmatically. What are some practical reasons to use null instead of undefined?

Null and undefined are essentially two different values that mean the same thing. The only difference is in the conventions of how you use them in your system. As some have mentioned, some people use null for meaning "no object" where you might sometimes get an object while undefined means that no object was expected (or that there was an error). My problem with that is its completely arbitrary, and totally unnecessary.

That said, there is one major difference - variables that aren't initialized (including function parameters where no argument was passed, among other things) are always undefined.

Which is why in my code I never use null unless something I don't control returns null (regex matching for example). The beauty of this is it simiplifies things a lot. I never have to check if x === undefined || x === null. And if you're in the habit of using == or simply stuff like if(x) ... . Stop it. !x will evaluate to true for an empty string, 0, null, NaN - ie things you probably don't want. If you want to write javascript that isn't awful, always use triple equals === and never use null (use undefined instead). It'll make your life way easier.


I don't really have an answer, but according to Nicholas C. Zakas, page 30 of his book "Professional JavaScript for Web Developers":

When defining a variable that is meant to later hold an object, it is advisable to initialize the variable to null as opposed to anything else. That way, you can explicitly check for the value null to determine if the variable has been filled with an object reference at a later time


undefined is where no notion of the thing exists; it has no type, and it's never been referenced before in that scope; null is where the thing is known to exist, but it has no value.


Everyone has their own way of coding and their own internal semantics, but over the years I have found this to be the most intuitive advice that I give people who ask this question: when in doubt, do what JavaScript does.

Let's say you are working with object properties like options for a jQuery plugin...ask yourself what value JavaScript gives a property that has yet to be defined -- the answer is undefined. So in this context, I would initialize these types of things with 'undefined' to be consistent with JavaScript (for variables, you can do var myVar; instead of var myVar = undefined;).

Now let's say you are doing DOM manipulation...what value does JavaScript assign to non-existent elements? The answer is null. This is the value I would initialize with if you are creating a placeholder variable that will later hold a reference to an element, document fragment, or similar that relates to the DOM.

If you're working with JSON, then a special case needs to be made: for undefined property values, you should either set them to "" or null because a value of undefined is not considered proper JSON format.

With this said, as a previous poster has expressed, if you find that you're initializing stuff with null or undefined more than once in a blue moon, then maybe you should reconsider how you go about coding your app.


You might adopt the convention suggested here, but there really is no good reason to. It is not used consistently enough to be meaningful.

In order to make the convention useful, you first must know that the called function follows the convention. Then you have to explicitly test the returned value and decide what to do. If you get undefined, you can assume that some kind of error occurred that the called function knew about. But if an error happened, and the function knew about it, and it is useful to send that out into the wider environment, why not use an error object? i.e. throw an error?

So at the end of the day, the convention is practically useless in anything other than very small programs in simple environments.


At the end of the day, because both null and undefined coerce to the same value (Boolean(undefined) === false && Boolean(null) === false), you can technically use either to get the job done. However, there is right way, IMO.

  1. Leave the usage of undefined to the JavaScript compiler.

    undefined is used to describe variables that do not point to a reference. It is something that the JS compiler will take care for you. At compile time the JS engine will set the value of all hoisted variables to undefined. As the engine steps through the code and values becomes available the engine will assign respective values to respective variables. For those variables for whom it did not find values, the variables would continue to maintain a reference to the primitive undefined.

  2. Only use null if you explicitly want to denote the value of a variable as having "no value".

    As @com2gz states: null is used to define something programmatically empty. undefined is meant to say that the reference is not existing. A null value has a defined reference to "nothing". If you are calling a non-existing property of an object, then you will get undefined. If I would make that property intentionally empty, then it must be null so you know that it's on purpose.

TLDR; Don't use the undefined primitive. It's a value that the JS compiler will automatically set for you when you declare variables without assignment or if you try to access properties of objects for which there is no reference. On the other hand, use null if and only if you intentionally want a variable to have "no value".

I never explicitly set anything to undefined (and I haven't come across this in the many codebases I've interacted with). Also, I rarely use null. The only times I use null is when I want to denote the value of an argument to a function as having no value, i.e.,:

function printArguments(a,b) {
  console.log(a,b);
}

printArguments(null, " hello") // logs: null hello

A useful property in null that undefined does not qualifies:

> null + 3
3
> undefined + 3
NaN

I use null when I want to 'turn off' a numeric value, or to initialize some. My last use was manipulating css transform:

const transforms = { perspective : null, rotateX : null };
// if already set, increase, if not, set to x
runTimeFunction((x) => { trasforms.perspective += x; });
// still useful, as setting perspective to 0 is different than turning it off
runTimeFunction2((x) => { transforms.perspective = null; });

// toCss will check for 'null' values and not set then at all
runTimeFunction3(() => { el.style.transform = toCss(transforms); });

Not sure if I should use this property thought...


DOM nodes and elements are not undefined, but may be null.

  • The nextSibling of the last child of an element is null.

  • The previousSibling of the first child is null.

  • A document.getElementById reference is null if the element does not exist in the document.

But in none of these cases is the value undefined; there just is no node there.


Here's a reason: var undefined = 1 is legal javascript, but var null = 1 is a syntax error. The difference is that null is a language keyword, while undefined is, for some reason, not.

If your code relies on comparisons to undefined as if it's a keyword (if (foo == undefined) -- a very easy mistake to make) that only works because nobody has defined a variable with that name. All that code is vulnerable to someone accidentally or maliciously defining a global variable with that name. Of course, we all know that accidentally defining a global variable is totally impossible in javascript...


A few have said that it is ok to initialise objects to null. I just wanted to point out that destructuring argument defaults don't work with null. For example:

const test = ({ name } = {}) => {
  console.log(name)
}

test() // logs undefined
test(null) // throws error

This requires performing null checks prior to calling the function which may happen often.


I'm working through this exact question right now, and looking at the following philosophy:

  1. Any function that is intended to return a result should return null if it fails to find a result
  2. Any function that is NOT intended to return a result implicitly returns undefined.

For me, this question is significant because anyone calling a function that returns a result should have no question as to whether to test for undefined vs null.

This answer does not attempt to address:

  1. Property values of null vs undefined
  2. Variables within your functions being null vs undefined

In my opinion, variables are your own business and not a part of your API, and properties in any OO system are defined and therefore should be defined with value different from what they would be if not defined (null for defined, undefined is what you get when accessing something that is not in your object).


Just wanna add that with usage of certain javascript libraries, null and undefined can have unintended consequences.

For example, lodash's get function, which accepts a default value as a 3rd argument:

const user = {
  address: {
    block: null,
    unit: undefined,
  }
}
console.log(_.get(user, 'address.block', 'Default Value')) // prints null
console.log(_.get(user, 'address.unit', 'Default Value')) // prints 'Default Value'
console.log(_.get(user, 'address.postalCode', 'Default Value')) // prints 'Default Value'

Another example: If you use defaultProps in React, if a property is passed null, default props are not used because null is interpreted as a defined value. e.g.

class MyComponent extends React.Component {
   static defaultProps = {
      callback: () => {console.log('COMPONENT MOUNTED')},
   }
   componentDidMount() {
      this.props.callback();
   }
}
//in some other component
<MyComponent />   // Console WILL print "COMPONENT MOUNTED"
<MyComponent callback={null}/>   // Console will NOT print "COMPONENT MOUNTED"
<MyComponent callback={undefined}/>   // Console WILL print "COMPONENT MOUNTED"

I completely disagree that usage null or undefined is unnecessary. undefined is thing which keeping alive whole prototype chaining process. So compiler only with null can't check if this property just equal to null, or its not defined in endpoint prototype. In other dynamic typed languages(f.e. Python) it throws exception if you want access to not defined property, but for prototype-based languages compiler should also check parent prototypes and here are the place when undefined need most.

Whole meaning of using null is just bind variable or property with object which is singleton and have meaning of emptiness,and also null usage have performance purposes. This 2 code have difference execution time.

var p1 = function(){this.value = 1};
var big_array = new Array(100000000).fill(1).map((x, index)=>{
    p = new p1();
    if(index > 50000000){
       p.x = "some_string";
    }

    return p;
});
big_array.reduce((sum, p)=> sum + p.value, 0)

var p2 = function(){this.value = 1, p.x = null};
var big_array = new Array(100000000).fill(1).map((x, index)=>{
    p = new p2();
    if(index > 50000000){
       p.x = "some_string";
    }

    return p; 
});
big_array.reduce((sum, p)=> sum + p.value, 0)

Unknown variable: undefined.

Known variable yet no value: null.

  1. You receive an object from a server, server_object.
  2. You reference server_object.errj. It tells you it’s undefined. That means it doesn’t know what that is.
  3. Now you reference server_object.err. It tells you it’s null. That means you’re referencing a correct variable but it’s empty; therefore no error.

The problem is when you declare a variable name without a value (var hello) js declares that as undefined: this variable doesn’t exist; whereas programmers mostly mean: “I’ve not given it a value yet”, the definition of null.

So the default behavior of a programmer—declaring a variable without a value as nothing—is at odds with js—declaring it as not existing. And besides, !undefined and !null are both true so most programmers treat them as equivalent.

You could of course ensure you always do var hello = null but most won’t litter their code as such to ensure type sanity in a deliberately loosely-typed language, when they and the ! operator treat both undefined and null as equivalent.