The Story of None: Part 1 - The Beginning

part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5 part 6


I'm going to be talking about None in a series of short articles. It is intended for less experienced developers. We're going to talk about some basic patterns that can clean up your code. Welcome!

If you're an experienced developer what I'm going to say is probably obvious to you. Nothing I'm going to say is particularly new or innovative, so this series of articles is probably not for you. But feel free to follow along and comment anyway!

While I'll focus on Python as an example language, most of this stuff is also applicable to many other programming languages as well. So if you use, say, JavaScript, don't go away, this may be useful to you too! Python is pretty easy to read so you should be able to follow along.


What is None? Python has a special value called None. None in Python is the standard sentinel, though of course other objects could also be used (and sometimes are). Other languages use NULL or null or nil; JavaScript confusingly has two values along these lines, null and undefined.

So what do we use None for? It turns out that when we have some value (attribute, return value, function argument), in many cases we want to be able to signal that the value is not there at all. In other words, the value is maybe there, and maybe not. To signal this we typically use None in Python.

If None is a possible value, it becomes important to make sure you handle the None case. Handling None is what this is all about.


Let's get a bit more concrete and give some simple examples of where None may come in.

A form in a user interface (for instance a web form) could have some fields that are not required to be filled in by the user. These empty fields can be represented as None by the application.

None is also often the default fallback value when no value can be found: the get method on the Python dictionary has such behavior.

Some functions have optional arguments. If they are not given, the value is some default. Often None is used for this default. The function's implementation can then detect this and deal with it accordingly.

A detailed example

Let's look at an example in more detail. This is a validation function:

def validate_end_date_later_than_start(start_date, end_date):
    if end_date <= start_date:
        raise ValidationError(
            "The end date should be later than the start date.")

The idea is that the function passes silently if the arguments (start_date and end_date) are valid, but will fail with a ValidationError if not.

If start_date and end_date may be omitted (for instance in a user interface), this omission can be represented as None. In this case, the function may be called with either two dates as arguments, or None in either one or both of them.

But if the arguments can be None, the implementation of this validation function is buggy, because we've neglected to consider the None case for the arguments. If one of the arguments is None we'll see this:

TypeError: can't compare to NoneType

That's not what we want!

So next we will talk about how to recognize None properly in the first place.

part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5 part 6