CodeQL documentation

Working with source locations

You can use the location of entities within Java code to look for potential errors. Locations allow you to deduce the presence, or absence, of white space which, in some cases, may indicate a problem.

About source locations

Java offers a rich set of operators with complex precedence rules, which are sometimes confusing to developers. For instance, the class ByteBufferCache in the OpenJDK Java compiler (which is a member class of contains this code for allocating a buffer:

ByteBuffer.allocate(capacity + capacity>>1)

Presumably, the author meant to allocate a buffer that is 1.5 times the size indicated by the variable capacity. In fact, however, operator + binds tighter than operator >>, so the expression capacity + capacity>>1 is parsed as (capacity + capacity)>>1, which equals capacity (unless there is an arithmetic overflow).

Note that the source layout gives a fairly clear indication of the intended meaning: there is more white space around + than around >>, suggesting that the latter is meant to bind more tightly.

We’re going to develop a query that finds this kind of suspicious nesting, where the operator of the inner expression has more white space around it than the operator of the outer expression. This pattern may not necessarily indicate a bug, but at the very least it makes the code hard to read and prone to misinterpretation.

White space is not directly represented in the CodeQL database, but we can deduce its presence from the location information associated with program elements and AST nodes. So, before we write our query, we need an understanding of source location management in the standard library for Java.

Location API

For every entity that has a representation in Java source code (including, in particular, program elements and AST nodes), the standard CodeQL library provides these predicates for accessing source location information:

  • getLocation returns a Location object describing the start and end position of the entity.
  • getFile returns a File object representing the file containing the entity.
  • getTotalNumberOfLines returns the number of lines the source code of the entity spans.
  • getNumberOfCommentLines returns the number of comment lines.
  • getNumberOfLinesOfCode returns the number of non-comment lines.

For example, let’s assume this Java class is defined in the compilation unit

package pkg;

class SayHello {
    public static void main(String[] args) {
            // Display personalized message
            "Hello, " + args[0];

Invoking getFile on the expression statement in the body of main returns a File object representing the file The statement spans four lines in total (getTotalNumberOfLines), of which one is a comment line (getNumberOfCommentLines), while three lines contain code (getNumberOfLinesOfCode).

Class Location defines member predicates getStartLine, getEndLine, getStartColumn and getEndColumn to retrieve the line and column number an entity starts and ends at, respectively. Both lines and columns are counted starting from 1 (not 0), and the end position is inclusive, that is, it is the position of the last character belonging to the source code of the entity.

In our example, the expression statement starts at line 5, column 3 (the first two characters on the line are tabs, which each count as one character), and it ends at line 8, column 4.

Class File defines these member predicates:

  • getAbsolutePath returns the fully qualified name of the file.
  • getRelativePath returns the path of the file relative to the base directory of the source code.
  • getExtension returns the extension of the file.
  • getStem returns the base name of the file, without its extension.

In our example, assume file is located in directory /home/testuser/code/pkg, where /home/testuser/code is the base directory of the program being analyzed. Then, a File object for returns:

  • getAbsolutePath is /home/testuser/code/pkg/
  • getRelativePath is pkg/
  • getExtension is java.
  • getStem is A.

Determining white space around an operator

Let’s start by considering how to write a predicate that computes the total amount of white space surrounding the operator of a given binary expression. If rcol is the start column of the expression’s right operand and lcol is the end column of its left operand, then rcol - (lcol+1) gives us the total number of characters in between the two operands (note that we have to use lcol+1 instead of lcol because end positions are inclusive).

This number includes the length of the operator itself, which we need to subtract out. For this, we can use predicate getOp, which returns the operator string, surrounded by one white space on either side. Overall, the expression for computing the amount of white space around the operator of a binary expression expr is:

rcol - (lcol+1) - (expr.getOp().length()-2)

Clearly, however, this only works if the entire expression is on a single line, which we can check using predicate getTotalNumberOfLines introduced above. We are now in a position to define our predicate for computing white space around operators:

int operatorWS(BinaryExpr expr) {
    exists(int lcol, int rcol |
        expr.getNumberOfLinesOfCode() = 1 and
        lcol = expr.getLeftOperand().getLocation().getEndColumn() and
        rcol = expr.getRightOperand().getLocation().getStartColumn() and
        result = rcol - (lcol+1) - (expr.getOp().length()-2)

Notice that we use an exists to introduce our temporary variables lcol and rcol. You could write the predicate without them by just inlining lcol and rcol into their use, at some cost in readability.

Find suspicious nesting

Here’s a first version of our query:

import java

// Insert predicate defined above

from BinaryExpr outer, BinaryExpr inner,
    int wsouter, int wsinner
where inner = outer.getAChildExpr() and
    wsinner = operatorWS(inner) and wsouter = operatorWS(outer) and
    wsinner > wsouter
select outer, "Whitespace around nested operators contradicts precedence."

See this in the query console on This query is likely to find results on most projects.

The first conjunct of the where clause restricts inner to be an operand of outer, the second conjunct binds wsinner and wsouter, while the last conjunct selects the suspicious cases.

At first, we might be tempted to write inner = outer.getAnOperand() in the first conjunct. This, however, wouldn’t be quite correct: getAnOperand strips off any surrounding parentheses from its result, which is often useful, but not what we want here: if there are parentheses around the inner expression, then the programmer probably knew what they were doing, and the query should not flag this expression.

Improving the query

If we run this initial query, we might notice some false positives arising from asymmetric white space. For instance, the following expression is flagged as suspicious, although it is unlikely to cause confusion in practice:

i< start + 100

Note that our predicate operatorWS computes the total amount of white space around the operator, which, in this case, is one for the < and two for the +. Ideally, we would like to exclude cases where the amount of white space before and after the operator are not the same. Currently, CodeQL databases don’t record enough information to figure this out, but as an approximation we could require that the total number of white space characters is even:

import java

// Insert predicate definition from above

from BinaryExpr outer, BinaryExpr inner,
    int wsouter, int wsinner
where inner = outer.getAChildExpr() and
    wsinner = operatorWS(inner) and wsouter = operatorWS(outer) and
    wsinner % 2 = 0 and wsouter % 2 = 0 and
    wsinner > wsouter
select outer, "Whitespace around nested operators contradicts precedence."

See this in the query console on Any results will be refined by our changes to the query.

Another source of false positives are associative operators: in an expression of the form x + y+z, the first plus is syntactically nested inside the second, since + in Java associates to the left; hence the expression is flagged as suspicious. But since + is associative to begin with, it does not matter which way around the operators are nested, so this is a false positive. To exclude these cases, let us define a new class identifying binary expressions with an associative operator:

class AssociativeOperator extends BinaryExpr {
    AssociativeOperator() {
        this instanceof AddExpr or
        this instanceof MulExpr or
        this instanceof BitwiseExpr or
        this instanceof AndLogicalExpr or
        this instanceof OrLogicalExpr

Now we can extend our query to discard results where the outer and the inner expression both have the same, associative operator:

import java

// Insert predicate and class definitions from above

from BinaryExpr inner, BinaryExpr outer, int wsouter, int wsinner
where inner = outer.getAChildExpr() and
    not (inner.getOp() = outer.getOp() and outer instanceof AssociativeOperator) and
    wsinner = operatorWS(inner) and wsouter = operatorWS(outer) and
    wsinner % 2 = 0 and wsouter % 2 = 0 and
    wsinner > wsouter
select outer, "Whitespace around nested operators contradicts precedence."

See this in the query console on

Notice that we again use getOp, this time to determine whether two binary expressions have the same operator. Running our improved query now finds the Java standard library bug described in the Overview. It also flags up the following suspicious code in Hadoop HBase:

KEY_SLAVE = tmp[ i+1 % 2 ];

Whitespace suggests that the programmer meant to toggle i between zero and one, but in fact the expression is parsed as i + (1%2), which is the same as i + 1, so i is simply incremented.