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&& and || aren't just for booleans

Posted on:April 28, 2023 at 03:16 AM in US/Central
5 min read

A lot of people think that && (and) and || (or) are just logical operators on booleans, but they’re more than that in some languages.

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The simplest definition of “and” and “or” is logical operators, which means they operate on boolean values (true or false).

ABA && BA || B

As with all things simplified, this doesn’t tell teh whole story.

In boolean algebra, the “and” operator happens before the “or” operator, much like multiplication happens before addition in regular algebra. Operators of the same type happen left-to-right. I looked at the operation precedence for C, C++, Java, JavaScript, Python, and Rust, and they all follow this order.

With math, you simplifying the expressions make them easier to solve. We can apply some of those tricks when evaluating expressions with ”&&” and ”||“. We also need to consider what happens when the values aren’t booleans themselves.


true || ambiguous value will always equal true, and false && ambiguous value will always equal false.

Most programming languages exploit this fact to reduce computation time by not evaluating anything once it’s in a guaranteed state. This is known as short-circuit evaluation, (probably) based on short circuits in electronics where current likes to flow where there is the least resistance.

If A and B are functions that return a boolean,

A()B()A() && B()A() || B()
falsefalseonly A()evaluate both
falsetrueonly A()evaluate both
truefalseevaluate bothonly A()
truetrueevaluate bothonly A()

If you had code like

const A = () => {
  console.log("A() called");
  return true;
  // return false;
const B = () => {
  console.log("B() called");
  return true;
  // return false;

then “A() called” will always be printed to the console, but depending on the value it returns “B() called” may or may not be printed.

This is valuable if you want to avoid nested if’s or ternaries.

Let’s say that you’re checking if a string is lowercase. One possible implementation of that is

const isLowercase = (str) => str.toLowerCase() === str;

When you try to use it in your code,

if (isLowercase(myString)) {
  console.log("Yay! It's lowercase!");

you run into an annoying bug: myString is null or undefined, so when isLowercase calls toLowerCase you get a TypeError.

You could change this to

if (myString != undefined) {
  if (isLowercase(myString)) {
    console.log("Yay! It's lowercase!");

but that’s ugly.

Instead, harness the power of short-circuiting

if (myString != undefined && isLowercase(myString)) {
  console.log("Yay! It's lowercase!");

If you had control over isLowercase, you could change it to return false/undefined/null when there’s a non-string input, which would allow you to take advantage of newer features such as optional chaining, which will only continue the property access if str (in this case) is not null or undefined. (== is needed, since optional chaining evaluates to undefined when the object is null or undefined, and undefined === null is false while undefined == null is true)

const isLowercase = (str) => str?.toLowerCase() == str;

It’s also useful when you have a deeply nested object that might have null/undefined values. If obj.a.b.c.d might fail, you can do obj && obj.a && obj.a.b.c && obj.a.b.c.d to avoid any runtime errors. It’s essentially equivalent to obj?.a?.b?.c?.d.

Non-boolean Inputs

This is pretty boring when just working with booleans, so what happens if you don’t? My initial thought would be that it just casts it to a boolean, so 5 && 6 would be true and 0 || 0 would be false.

In Java, Go, and Rust, it’s just not possible. You can only use && and || on booleans.

In C/C++, the operands are automatically converted to either 0 or 1 (in C++, the bool type). If the operand is the number 0 (of any simple number type) or a null pointer, it becomes the number 0, otherwise it becomes the number 1. The operation returns 0 or 1 based on the rules above, so it’s probably what you expected.

Enter JavaScript and Python. If a value is truthy it’s treated as true/True, if it’s falsy it’s treated as false/False.

In JavaScript, falsy values are false, 0, -0, 0n, "", null, undefined, and NaN. In Python, falsy values are None, False, numbers equal to 0, empty sequences & collections (such as "", [], and {}), objects where obj.__bool__() returns False, and objects where obj.__len__() returns 0 when obj.__bool__() is not defined. Everything else is truthy.

&&/and returns the first non-truthy value, or the last operand if both are truthy. ||/or returns the first truthy value, or the last operand if both are falsy.

ABA && BA || B

Nullish Coalescing

There’s an operator similar to || in some languages that returns the right value if and only if the left side is null/undefined. Like && and ||, it short-circuits.

ABA ?? B


This gives you some special powers, such as if you want to have a default value when something is falsy.

const printGreeting = (name) => console.log(`Hello ${name || "reader"}!`);

(this will have a default value when name is an empty string, since that’s a falsy value. In JavaScript, if you want to only have a default value for null/undefined, use [ullish coalescing name ?? "reader")

Using a short-circuited && with non-boolean values is a common pattern in React. Here’s a simple component that toggles displaying a paragraph when a button is clicked:

const MyComponent = () => {
  const [shouldShowParagraph, setShouldShowParagraph] = useState(false);

  return (
      <button onClick={() => setShouldShowParagraph((curr) => !curr)}></button>
      {shouldShowParagraph && (
          Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do
          eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.

When shouldShowParagraph is falsy, the && expression short circuits, returning shouldShowParagraph, otherwise it returns what’s after the &&. In React, whenever you return true/false/null/undefined it renders nothing.

If you wanted to display something different depending on the value of shouldShowParagraph, you’d use a ternary.

  {shouldShowParagraph ? (
      Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod
      tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.
  ) : (
    <h1>Something else</h1>