NULL in operations

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NULL in operations

As many of us have found out to our chagrin, NULL is contagious: use it in a numerical, string or date/time operation, and the result will invariably be NULL. With Boolean operators, the outcome depends on the type of operation and the value of the other operand.

Please remember that in Firebird versions prior to 2.0 it is mostly illegal to use the constant NULL directly in operations or comparisons. Wherever you see NULL in the expressions below, read it as "a field, variable or other expression that resolves to NULL". In Firebird 2 and above this expression may also be a NULL literal.

Mathematical and string operations

The operations in this list always return NULL:

  • 1 + 2 + 3 + NULL
  • 5 * NULL - 7
  • 'Home ' || 'sweet ' || NULL
  • MyField = NULL
  • MyField <> NULL
  • NULL = NULL

If you have difficulty understanding why, remember that NULL means "unknown". You can also look at the following table where per-case explanations are provided. In the table we don't write NULL in the expressions (as said, this is often illegal); instead, we use two entities A and B that are both NULL. A and B may be fields, variables, or even composite subexpressions as long as they're NULL, they'll all behave the same in the enclosing expressions.

Table 1. Operations on null entities A and B
If A and B are NULL, then:Is:Because:
1 + 2 + 3 + ANULLIf A is unknown, then 6 + A is also unknown.
5 * A - 7NULLIf A is unknown, then 5 * A is also unknown. Subtract 7 and you end up with another unknown.
'Home ' || 'sweet ' || ANULLIf A is unknown, 'Home sweet ' || A is unknown.
MyField = ANULLIf A is unknown, you can't tell if MyField has the same value...
MyField <> ANULL...but you also can't tell if MyField has a different value!
A = BNULLWith A and B unknown, it's impossible to know if they are equal.

Here is the complete list of math and string operators that return NULL if at least one operand is NULL:

  • +, -, *, /, and %
  • !=, ~=, and ^= (synonyms of <>)
  • <, <=, >, and >=
  • !<, ~<, and ^< (low-precedence synonyms of >=)
  • !>, ~>, and ^> (low-precedence synonyms of <=)
  • ||
  • [NOT] BETWEEN
  • [NOT] STARTING WITH
  • [NOT] LIKE
  • [NOT] CONTAINING

The explanations all follow the same pattern: if A is unknown, you can't tell if it's greater than B; if string S1 is unknown, you can't tell if it contains S2; etcetera.

Using LIKE with a NULL escape character would crash the server in Firebird versions up to and including 1.5. This bug was fixed in v. 1.5.1. From that version onward, such a statement will yield an empty result set.

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Boolean operations

All the operators examined so far return NULL if any operand is NULL. With Boolean operators, things are a bit more complex:

  • not NULL = NULL
  • NULL or false = NULL
  • NULL or true = true
  • NULL or NULL = NULL
  • NULL and false = false
  • NULL and true = NULL
  • NULL and NULL = NULL

In reality, Firebird SQL doesn't have a Boolean data type; nor are true and false existing constants. In the leftmost column of the explanatory table below, true and false represent expressions (fields, variables, composites...) that evaluate to true/false.

Table 2. Boolean operations on null entity A
If A is NULL, then:Is:Because:
not ANULLIf A is unknown, its inverse is also unknown.
A or falseNULLA or false always has the same value as A which is unknown.
A or truetrueA or true is always true A's value doesn't matter.
A or ANULLA or A always equals A which is NULL.
A and falsefalseA and false is always false A's value doesn't matter.
A and trueNULLA and true always has the same value as A which is unknown.
A and ANULLA and A always equals A which is NULL.

All these results are in accordance with Boolean logic. The fact that you don't need to know X's value to compute X or true and X and false is also the basis of a feature found in various programming languages: short-circuit Boolean evaluation.

The above results can be generalised as follows for expressions with one type of binary Boolean operator (and | or) and any number of operands:

Disjunctions ("A or B or C or D or ...")

  1. If at least one operand is true, the result is true.
  2. Else, if at least one operand is NULL, the result is NULL.
  3. Else (i.e. if all operands are false) the result is false.

Conjunctions ("A and B and C and D and ...")

  1. If at least one operand is false, the result is false.
  2. Else, if at least one operand is NULL, the result is NULL.
  3. Else (i.e. if all operands are true) the result is true.

Or, shorter:

  • TRUE beats NULL in a disjunction (OR-operation);
  • FALSE beats NULL in a conjunction (AND-operation);
  • In all other cases, NULL wins.

If you have trouble remembering which constant rules which operation, look at the second letter: tRue prevails with oR fAlse with And.

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More logic (or not)

The short-circuit results obtained above may lead you to the following ideas:

  • 0 times x equals 0 for every x. Hence, even if x's value is unknown, 0 * x is 0. (Note: this only holds if x's datatype only contains numbers, not NaN or infinities.)
  • The empty string is ordered lexicographically before every other string. Therefore, S >= '' is true whatever the value of S.
  • Every value equals itself, whether it's unknown or not. So, although A = B justifiably returns NULL if A and B are different NULL entities, A = A should always return true, even if A is NULL. The same goes for A <= A and A >= A.
By analogous logic, A <> A should always be false, as well as A < A and A > A.
  • Every string contains itself, starts with itself and is like itself. So, S CONTAINING S, S STARTING WITH S and S LIKE S should always return true.

How is this reflected in Firebird SQL? Well, I'm sorry I have to inform you that despite this compelling logic and the analogy with the Boolean results discussed above the following expressions all resolve to NULL:

  • 0 * NULL
  • NULL >= and <= NULL
  • A = A, A <= A and A >= A
  • A <> A, A < A and A > A
  • S CONTAINING S, S STARTING WITH S and S LIKE S

So much for consistency.

See also:
Comparison operators

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