3.3.4.6. Working with NULL Values

The NULL value can be surprising until you get used to it. Conceptually, NULL means “a missing unknown value” and it is treated somewhat differently from other values. To test for NULL, you cannot use the arithmetic comparison operators such as =, <, or <>. To demonstrate this for yourself, try the following query:

mysql> SELECT 1 = NULL, 1 <> NULL, 1 < NULL, 1 > NULL;
+----------+-----------+----------+----------+
| 1 = NULL | 1 <> NULL | 1 < NULL | 1 > NULL |
+----------+-----------+----------+----------+
|     NULL |      NULL |     NULL |     NULL |
+----------+-----------+----------+----------+

Clearly you get no meaningful results from these comparisons. Use the IS NULL and IS NOT NULL operators instead:

mysql> SELECT 1 IS NULL, 1 IS NOT NULL;
+-----------+---------------+
| 1 IS NULL | 1 IS NOT NULL |
+-----------+---------------+
|         0 |             1 |
+-----------+---------------+

In MySQL, 0 or NULL means false and anything else means true. The default truth value from a boolean operation is 1.

This special treatment of NULL is why, in the previous section, it was necessary to determine which animals are no longer alive using death IS NOT NULL instead of death <> NULL.

Two NULL values are regarded as equal in a GROUP BY.

When doing an ORDER BY, NULL values are presented first if you do ORDER BY ... ASC and last if you do ORDER BY ... DESC.

A common error when working with NULL is to assume that it is not possible to insert a zero or an empty string into a column defined as NOT NULL, but this is not the case. These are in fact values, whereas NULL means “not having a value.” You can test this easily enough by using IS [NOT] NULL as shown:

mysql> SELECT 0 IS NULL, 0 IS NOT NULL, '' IS NULL, '' IS NOT NULL;
+-----------+---------------+------------+----------------+
| 0 IS NULL | 0 IS NOT NULL | '' IS NULL | '' IS NOT NULL |
+-----------+---------------+------------+----------------+
|         0 |             1 |          0 |              1 |
+-----------+---------------+------------+----------------+

Thus it is entirely possible to insert a zero or empty string into a NOT NULL column, as these are in fact NOT NULL. See Section C.5.5.3, “Problems with NULL Values”.

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