Java’s Ternary Operator in Three Minutes

    Indrek Ots

    The ternary operator is a form of syntactic sugar for if-then-else statements. It is also known as the conditional operator, which is perhaps a more meaningful name because it evaluates conditions like if does. Provided that the operator is used with care, it can make code more concise without sacrificing readability.

    This article requires you to have a solid understanding of how if-statements work in Java.

    Ternary Operator

    The ternary operator evaluates a condition and chooses one of two branches to execute. Like in many other programming languages, ? and : symbols are used to form it. Other common names you might encounter that refer to the same concept are inline if, ternary if and the conditional operator.


    The name ternary refers to the fact that the operator takes three operands.

    condition ? exprTrue : exprFalse

    The condition is a boolean expression that evaluates to either true or false. Both, exprTrue and exprFalse are also expressions but they can evaluate to anything you want them to (except void). If the condition is true, the ternary operator evaluates exprTrue. Otherwise exprFalse is evaluated.

    The ternary operator is an expression (like price + 20 for example), which means that once executed, it has a value. And that value needs to be further used, for example by assigning it to a variable or returning from a method, or the expression will not compile.

    It’s worth mentioning that the operator is lazy in the sense that only the used expression is evaluated: The ternary operator will not evaluate the unused branch.


    As you can see, the basic structure is very similar to an if-then-else statement but it is condensed to a single line. Let’s have a look at a concrete example. It demonstrates how a simple if-then-else statement can be replaced with a ternary operator.

    int price;
    if (isPremiumMember()) {
        price = 80;
    else {
        price = 100;
    // is equivalent to
    int price = isPremiumMember() ? 80 : 100;

    The price variable gets a value based on whether the user is a premium member or not. As you can see, the ternary operator is succinct and in this case improves readability.

    Since you can use it as an expression, oftentimes it enables you to remove multiple return statements in a method by replacing them with a single expression.

    int price() {
        if (isPremiumMember()) {
            return 80;
        else {
            return 100;

    Can be replaced with

    int price() {
        return isPremiumMember() ? 80 : 100;

    The refactored price method is considerably shorter and as legible as before.

    Nesting Multiple Operators

    Java allows to nest one conditional operator into another one. Be careful when doing that though. Nested conditional operators can hinder readability.

    int amount = 10;
    String result = amount <= 2 ? "couple" : amount > 2 && amount < 5 ? "few" : amount <= 5 ? "several" : "many";

    Although the example can be improved with formatting, sometimes it’s better to avoid using the ternary operator and go with the plain old if-then-else or switch statement route.

    The ternary operator consists of three elements


    You’ve learned that the ternary operator allows you to shorten an if-then-else statement to a single line condition ? exprTrue : exprFalse. If done wisely, it makes the code more concise and improves readability.

    Fewer lines of code is not always better, though. It’s easy to overuse the ternary operator and make your code less readable. Use common sense and keep in mind that programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute. A more readable way to express conditions, particularly if there are many of them, can be the switch statement.

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