Notes on numerics in Swift

Concrete binary floating-point types, part 4

Signed zero, infinity, and NaN


IEEE 32-bit and 64-bit binary floating-point types have no more than one representation of each nonzero finite number, and each representation has only one encoding. (For historical reasons, the extended-precision 80-bit binary floating-point type does support a second, noncanonical encoding of some representations.)

Because the sign is represented independently of the significand, there are two representations of zero: positive zero and negative zero. They compare equal to one another but are not substitutable for all arithmetic operations. For example, the reciprocal of positive zero is positive infinity, but the reciprocal of negative zero is negative infinity. This behavior is specified by the IEEE 754 standard and is common to many languages.

When all the bits used to encode the exponent are nonzero, the encoded value is not finite. Instead, that value is positive infinity, negative infinity, or NaN (“not a number”). The rationale for supporting these values is beyond the scope of this article. Briefly, however:

The result of an operation that is too large in magnitude to be represented as a finite value overflows to positive or negative infinity. (The result of an operation that is too small in magnitude to be represented as a nonzero value underflows to zero.)

Dividing 0.0 by 0.0 is considered “invalid” and the result of that operation is NaN, as specified by the IEEE 754 standard. Other cases in which the result of an operation is NaN are carefully enumerated by the standard; the rationale for such behavior is well beyond the scope of this article.

However, for the present purposes, it’s helpful to know that NaN results can be propagated safely (not unlike “optional chaining” in Swift) through most subsequent floating-point calculations so that it’s generally unnecessary to check whether each intermediate result is NaN during a complicated calculation (if the ultimate result is of a floating-point type that can represent NaN). The behavior of NaN operands can be different if using an alternative floating-point exception behavior; as previously mentioned, it’s not possible to change the floating-point exception behavior in Swift.

NaN values can be counterintuitive for users unfamiliar with floating-point arithmetic. The IEEE 754 standard requires that NaN compare not equal to any value, including itself. Many generic algorithms expect reflexivity of equality–that is, every value should be equal to itself–but this expectation does not hold in the case of NaNs.

Because most bits available to encode a floating-point value are not necessary to indicate that the value is NaN, the IEEE 754 standard specifies that unused bits can encode a payload, which can represent diagnostic information or can be put to some other use that is entirely left to the user’s discretion. The payload is ignored by all required IEEE 754 operations but is propagated when possible. NaNs with different payloads are nonetheless all considered to represent NaN.

Signaling NaNs are a reserved subset of NaNs that are intended to signal an “invalid” floating-point exception when used as input for operations; they are then “quieted” for propagation like other NaNs. As previously mentioned, floating-point exceptions are ignored in the default floating-point exception behavior, and it’s not possible to change the default behavior in Swift.

In Swift, zero and infinity (available as the static property infinity) behave as they do in other languages. The sign of zero or infinity can be changed using the prefix operator -.

Recall that integer literals do not support signed zero (in other words, -0 as Float evaluates to positive zero). Either use parentheses, as in -(0 as Float), or use a float literal, as in -0.0 as Float, to obtain the desired value.

In Swift, the static property nan is a quiet NaN of the corresponding binary floating-point type, and the static property signalingNaN is a signaling NaN of that type. The instance property isNaN evaluates to true for any NaN value, quiet or signaling; the instance property isSignalingNaN evaluates to true only for a signaling NaN.

Always use the expression x.isNaN (or, as is idiomatic in other languages, x != x) instead of using the expression x == .nan to test for the presence of NaN.

It is possible to create a particular encoding of NaN by using the initializer init(nan:signaling:), where the first argument is the payload and the second is a Boolean value to indicate whether the result should be a signaling NaN. To change the sign of NaN, use the prefix operator -.

IEEE 754-2008 specifies that, for encodings of NaN, the most significant bit of the significand field is a flag that is nonzero if the NaN is quiet and zero if the NaN is signaling. All remaining bits of the significand field are part of the payload.

However, Swift also reserves the second-most significant bit of the significand field as a flag; that bit is nonzero when NaN is signaling. (The converse is not true: if the most significant bit of the significand field is nonzero, then NaN is quiet, as required by IEEE 754-2008, regardless of the value of the second-most significant bit.)

Therefore, the maximum bit width of the NaN payload is one less than that specified by IEEE 754-2008. For example, a runtime error results when attempting to use a 51-bit payload for a NaN of type Double:

Double(nan: 1 << 50, signaling: false)
// Fatal error: NaN payload is not encodable

However, if a Double value with such a payload is initialized by other means, Swift does correctly treat the value as a quiet NaN:

let x = Double(bitPattern: 0x7ffc000000000000)
(x.isNaN, x.isSignalingNaN)  // (true, false)

When an operation required by IEEE 754 returns NaN, its exact encoding is not specified by the standard. In Swift, the encoding can vary based on the underlying architecture, and results may not match that obtained in C/C++ on the same machine.

For example, in Swift on x86_64 macOS:

let x = -Double.nan
let y = x + 0

print(x.bitPattern == y.bitPattern)
// Prints "false"

By contrast, in C on x86_64 macOS:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <math.h>

union f64 {
  uint64_t u64;
  double d;

int main(int argc, const char * argv[]) {
  union f64 x;
  x.d = -nan("");
  union f64 y;
  y.d = x.d + 0.;

  printf("%s\n", x.u64 == y.u64 ? "true" : "false");
  return 0;
// Prints "true"

Describing NaN

In Swift, any NaN value is described as “nan”:

Double.nan.description                   // "nan"
(-Double.nan).description                // "nan"
Double.signalingNaN.description          // "nan"
(-Double.signalingNaN).description       // "nan"
Double(nan: 1, signaling: false)
  .description                           // "nan"

The debug description can be used to obtain more information about the sign and payload of NaN values:

Double.nan.debugDescription              // "nan"
(-Double.nan).debugDescription           // "-nan"
Double.signalingNaN.debugDescription     // "snan"
(-Double.signalingNaN).debugDescription  // "-snan"
Double(nan: 1, signaling: false)
  .debugDescription                      // "nan(0x1)"

These debug descriptions round-trip correctly when converted back to the floating-point type:

// true
// true
String(Double("nan(0x1)")!.bitPattern, radix: 16)
// 7ff8000000000001

Minimum, maximum, and total order

The global functions Swift.min(_:_:) and Swift.max(_:_:) are available for comparing two values of any Comparable type. Because these functions rely on semantic guarantees violated by NaN, their behavior is unusual when one of the arguments is NaN:

Swift.min(Double.nan, 0) // NaN
Swift.min(0, Double.nan) // 0

The operations minNum and maxNum are defined in the IEEE 754-2008 standard and favor numbers over quiet NaN. (If any argument is a signaling NaN, however, the result is NaN; in a future version of Swift, the standard library will also favor numbers over signaling NaN.) These operations are available in Swift as the static methods T.minimum(_:_:) and T.maximum(_:_:), where T is a floating-point type:

Double.minimum(.nan, 0) // 0
Double.minimum(0, .nan) // 0

Note that -0.0 and 0.0 are considered substitutable for the purposes of these operations:

Double.minimum(-0.0, 0.0) // -0.0
Double.minimum(0.0, -0.0) // 0.0

Analogous operations to compare the magnitudes of two floating-point values are known as minNumMag and maxNumMag in the IEEE 754-2008 standard and are available in Swift as T.minimumMagnitude(_:_:) and T.maximumMagnitude(_:_:), respectively.

A total order for all possible representations in a floating-point type is defined in IEEE 754-2008. Recall that, using standard operators, NaN compares not equal to, not less than, and not greater than any value, and -0.0 and 0.0 compare equal to each other. The total ordering defined in IEEE 754-2008, however, places -0.0 below 0.0, positive NaN above positive infinity, and negative NaN below negative infinity. It further distinguishes encodings of NaN by their signaling bit and payload. Specifically:

This total order is available in Swift as the method isTotallyOrdered(belowOrEqualTo:). As clarified in the name, x.isTotallyOrdered(belowOrEqualTo: y) returns true if x orders below or equal to y in the total order prescribed in the IEEE 754-2008 standard.

Floating-point remainder


IEEE 754 specifies a remainder operation that has behavior unlike that of the binary integer remainder operation.

In Swift, as in other languages, two similar remainder operations exist for floating-point types:

  Nearest-to-zero remainder Truncating remainder
Swift x.remainder(
dividingBy: y)
dividingBy: y)
C remainder(x, y) fmod(x, y)
C# Math.IEEERemainder(x, y) x % y
Java Math.IEEEremainder(x, y) x % y
Kotlin x.IEEErem(y) x % y

In early versions of Swift, the truncating remainder operation was spelled %. However, it was thought that users often used the operator incorrectly, so it was removed from floating-point types in the Swift Evolution proposal SE-0067: Enhanced floating-point protocols.

A simple example is sufficient to illustrate the difference between the two operations:

(-8).remainder(dividingBy: 5)           // 2
(-8).truncatingRemainder(dividingBy: 5) // -3

The nearest-to-zero remainder of x dividing by y is the exact result r such that x = y × q + r, where q is the nearest integer value to x ÷ y. (The actual computation is performed without intermediate rounding and q does not need to be representable as a value of any type.) Notice that the result could be positive or negative, regardless of the sign of the operands; the magnitude of the result is no more than half of the magnitude of the divisor (y).

The truncating remainder of x dividing by y is the exact result s such that x = y × p + s, where p is the result of x ÷ y rounded toward zero to an integer value. (The actual computation is performed without intermediate rounding and p does not need to be representable as value of any type.) Notice that the sign of the result is the same as that of the dividend (x); the magnitude of the result is always less than the magnitude of the divisor (y).

For both operations, the remainder of dividing an infinite value by any value, or of dividing any value by zero, is NaN.

Significand representation


Recall that the binary floating-point representation of a real number takes the form significand × 2exponent. In the gap between zero and 2emin, where emin is the minimum supported exponent of a binary floating-point type, a set of linearly spaced subnormal (or denormal) values are representable using a different binary representation than that of normal finite values.

The most significant place of the significand (representing its integral part) is always nonzero for normal values, and it is always zero for subnormal values (and for zero). In the IEEE 754 32-bit and 64-bit binary floating-point formats, this most significant place is implicit; for example, the significand of a 32-bit value is 24 bits, but only 23 bits are explicitly stored in memory. By contrast, in the extended-precision Float80 format, all 64 significand bits are explicitly stored in memory.

Any Swift binary floating-point type T has several members related to the significand of a value x:

It has been erroneously documented that T.infinity.significand is 1. Although that may have been the originally intended behavior, Swift’s implementations for concrete types have never behaved in that way.

Concrete binary floating-point types, part 3

Numeric types in Foundation

9 March 2018–29 July 2019