Java Language Expression Basics


Expressions in Java are the primary construct for doing calculations. Here are some examples:

1                 // A simple literal is an expression
1 + 2             // A simple expression that adds two numbers
(i + j) / k       // An expression with multiple operations
(flag) ? c : d    // An expression using the "conditional" operator
(String) s        // A type-cast is an expression
obj.test()        // A method call is an expression
new Object()      // Creation of an object is an expression
new int[]         // Creation of an object is an expression

In general, an expression consists of the following forms:

  • Expression names which consist of:
    • Simple identifiers; e.g. someIdentifier
    • Qualified identifiers; e.g. MyClass.someField
  • Primaries which consist of:
    • Literals; e.g. 1, 1.0, 'X', "hello", false and null
    • Class literal expressions; e.g. MyClass.class
    • this and <TypeName> . this
    • Parenthesized expressions; e.g. ( a + b )
    • Class instance creation expressions; e.g. new MyClass(1, 2, 3)
    • Array instance creation expressions; e.g. new int[3]
    • Field access expressions; e.g. obj.someField or this.someField
    • Array access expressions; e.g. vector[21]
    • Method invocations; e.g. obj.doIt(1, 2, 3)
    • Method references (Java 8 and later); e.g. MyClass::doIt
  • Unary operator expressions; e.g. !a or i++
  • Binary operator expressions; e.g. a + b or obj == null
  • Ternary operator expressions; e.g. (obj == null) ? 1 : obj.getCount()
  • Lambda expressions (Java 8 and later); e.g. obj -> obj.getCount()

The details of the different forms of expressions may be found in other Topics.

  • The Operators topic covers unary, binary and ternary operator expressions.
  • The Lambda expressions topic covers lambda expressions and method reference expressions.
  • The Classes and Objects topic covers class instance creation expressions.
  • The Arrays topic covers array access expressions and array instance creation expressions.
  • The Literals topic covers the different kinds of literals expressions.

The Type of an Expression

In most cases, an expression has a static type that can be determined at compile time by examining and its subexpressions. These are referred to as stand-alone expressions.

However, (in Java 8 and later) the following kinds of expressions may be poly expressions:

  • Parenthesized expressions
  • Class instance creation expressions
  • Method invocation expressions
  • Method reference expressions
  • Conditional expressions
  • Lambda expressions

When an expression is a poly expression, its type may be influenced by the expression's target type; i.e. what it is being used for.

The value of an Expression

The value of an expression is assignment compatible with its type. The exception to this is when heap pollution has occurred; e.g. because "unsafe conversion" warnings have been (inappropriately) suppressed or ignored.

Expression Statements

Unlike many other languages, Java does not generally allow expressions to be used as statements. For example:

public void compute(int i, int j) {
    i + j;   // ERROR

Since the result of evaluating an expression like cannot be use, and since it cannot affect the execution of the program in any other way, the Java designers took the position that such usage is either a mistake, or misguided.

However, this does not apply to all expressions. A subset of expressions are (in fact) legal as statements. The set comprises:

  • Assignment expression, including operation-and-becomes assignments.
  • Pre and post increment and decrement expressions.
  • Method calls (void or non-void).
  • Class instance creation expressions.