C# 8 Nullable Reference Types

A reference type refers to an object that is on the heap. The value is null when there is no object to refer to. In some cases, you can expect a null value, but the often null value is problematic that leads to exceptions.

  • Mostly developers assumed that reference type is meant to accept both null and non-null.
  • There was not any explicit handling required and unfortunately it is one of the reasons for `NullReferenceException.

In C# 8.0, nullable reference types and non-nullable reference types are introduced that enable you to make important statements about the properties for reference type variables.

Rules for Non-nullable Reference Type

When a variable is not supposed to be null, the compiler enforces some rules to make sure that it is safe to dereference that variable without checking that it is not a null.

  • The variable must be initialized to a non-null value.
  • The variable can never be assigned the null value.

Rules for Nullable Reference Type

When a variable can be a null, in this case, the compiler enforces different rules to make sure that you have correctly checked for a null reference.

  • The variable may only be dereferenced when the compiler can guarantee that the value is not null.
  • It may be initialized with the default null value and may be assigned the value null in other code.

C# 8.0 allows you to specify whether a variable should be null, and when it cannot be null. Based on these annotations, the compiler will warn you when you are potentially using a null reference or passing a null reference to a function that will not accept it.

The nullable annotation context and nullable warning context can be set for a project using the <Nullable>enable</Nullable> element in your .csproj file.

<Project Sdk="Microsoft.NET.Sdk">

You can also use directives to set the nullable context anywhere in your project file. To enable per file, you can use #nullable enable where you want to enable the functionality and #nullable disable where you want to disable it.

By default, everything is non-nullable and if you want to declare a type as accepting null values, you need to add ? after the type.

Let's consider the following simple example without a #nullable annotations context.

string Name = "Mark";
string? Autobiography = null;    // Warning CS8632  The annotation for nullable reference types should only be used in code within a '#nullable' annotations context.
string Address = null;

You can see a warning because the #nullable annotations context is disabled by default, let's add the #nullable enable at the start of the file.

string Name = "Mark";
string? Autobiography = null;    
string Address = null;          // Warning CS8600  Converting null literal or possible null value to non - nullable type.

Now you can see that the first warning disappears but now you will see another warning of converting the null value to a non-nullable type.

Let's take a look into another example where a nullable reference is passed as a parameter.

private static string? ToNiceString(string? value)
    return value.Replace(" ", "-"); // warning CS8602: Dereference of a possibly null reference

You will see a warning of the dereference of a possibly null reference.