Unpacking Modern JavaScript

Optional Chaining and Nullish Coalescing

By Christopher Robison

JavaScript has come a long way since its inception, continuously evolving to meet the demands of modern web development. Two of the most exciting additions to the language are the Optional Chaining Operator (?.) and the Nullish Coalescing Operator (??). These operators simplify the way we write code and handle data that might be undefined or null. Let’s dive in and explore these operators with some practical examples.

Optional Chaining Operator (?.)

Gone are the days of verbose and repetitive checks to avoid the dreaded TypeError: Cannot read property 'x' of undefined. The Optional Chaining Operator allows us to read the value of a property located deep within a chain of connected objects without having to explicitly validate each reference in the chain.


obj?.prop       // Accessing a property
obj?.[expr]     // Accessing a property with an expression
func?.(...args) // Calling a function if it exists

Code Example:

const user = {
  profile: {
    name: 'Chris',
    details: {
      age: 30,
      hobbies: ['Golf', 'Karaoke'],

// Traditional way
const userHobbies = user.profile ? user.profile.details ? user.profile.details.hobbies : null : null;

// With Optional Chaining
const userHobbies = user?.profile?.details?.hobbies;
console.log(userHobbies); // Output: ['Golf', 'Karaoke']

In the above example, if any part of the chain is undefined or null, the expression short-circuits and returns undefined instead of throwing an error.

Nullish Coalescing Operator (??)

The Nullish Coalescing Operator is a logical operator that returns its right-hand side operand when its left-hand side operand is null or undefined, and otherwise returns its left-hand side operand. This is particularly useful for assigning default values.


leftExpr ?? rightExpr

Code Example:

const settings = {
  theme: null,
  fontSize: undefined,

// Traditional way with logical OR operator (||)
const theme = settings.theme || 'dark'; // 'dark' would be the default if settings.theme is falsy
const fontSize = settings.fontSize || 'medium'; // 'medium' would be the default if settings.fontSize is falsy

// With Nullish Coalescing Operator
const theme = settings.theme ?? 'dark';
const fontSize = settings.fontSize ?? 'medium';

console.log(theme); // Output: 'dark'
console.log(fontSize); // Output: 'medium'

The key difference between ?? and || is that ?? does not consider empty strings or the number 0 as nullish values, while || does.

Combining Both Operators

These operators can be combined to provide very concise and readable code when dealing with complex data structures.

Code Example:

const config = {
  header: {
    title: 'New JavaScript Features'

const title = config.header?.title ?? 'Default Title';
console.log(title); // Output: 'New JavaScript Features'

In this example, if config.header is undefined, the title would default to 'Default Title'.

Now let’s delve a bit deeper into the difference between using the Nullish Coalescing Operator (??) and the Logical OR operator (||) to understand their distinct behaviors.

Truthy vs. Nullish

The Logical OR (||) operator has been used in JavaScript for a long time to provide default values. It works based on the truthiness of the expressions. In JavaScript, false, 0, '' (empty string), null, undefined, and NaN are all falsy values. Everything else is truthy. If the left-hand operand is falsy, || will return the right-hand operand.

On the other hand, the Nullish Coalescing Operator (??) is more specific. It only checks for null or undefined. It doesn’t care about the other falsy values like 0 or ''.

Code Comparison:

// Let's assume we have an object that holds settings for a user's profile.
const profileSettings = {
  theme: '', // An empty string, meaning the user wants no theme.
  notifications: 0, // The user has turned off notifications.

// Using Logical OR (||)
const theme = profileSettings.theme || 'dark'; // 'dark' is the default
const notifications = profileSettings.notifications || 10; // 10 is the default

console.log(theme); // Output: 'dark' (not what the user intended)
console.log(notifications); // Output: 10 (not what the user intended)

// Using Nullish Coalescing Operator (??)
const themeCorrect = profileSettings.theme ?? 'dark';
const notificationsCorrect = profileSettings.notifications ?? 10;

console.log(themeCorrect); // Output: '' (exactly what the user intended)
console.log(notificationsCorrect); // Output: 0 (exactly what the user intended)

In the above example, the Logical OR (||) fails to respect the user’s choice of an empty string for theme and 0 for notifications because they are falsy values. It defaults to the provided fallbacks even though the user has made a clear choice.

The Nullish Coalescing Operator (??), however, correctly identifies that the user has set values (even though they are falsy) and doesn’t override them with the defaults.

The choice between using || or ?? should be made based on whether you need to provide a fallback for any falsy value (||) or specifically for null or undefined (??). Understanding this distinction is crucial for writing precise and bug-free code, especially when dealing with configurations, settings, or any data that could intentionally have falsy values other than null or undefined.


The Optional Chaining and Nullish Coalescing operators are excellent examples of JavaScript’s evolution. They offer cleaner, more intuitive ways to handle data that may not always be present, and they can prevent many common errors in code. As browser support for these features becomes ubiquitous, they’re quickly becoming indispensable tools in the modern JavaScript developer’s toolkit.

Remember, while these operators can make your code more concise, clarity should never be sacrificed for brevity. Use these tools wisely to write code that’s not only clever but also maintainable and easy to understand.


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