Create a gist now

Instantly share code, notes, and snippets.

@CodaFi / Secret
Last active Jul 26, 2016

Formalized Ordering


This proposal cleans up the semantics of ordering relations in the standard library. Our goal is to formalize the total ordering semantics of the Comparable protocol and still provide accessible ordering definitions for types without total ordering semantics.


The standard comparison operators have an intuitive meaning to programmers. Swift encourages encoding that in an implementation of Comparable that respects the rules of a total order. The standard library takes advantage of these rules to provide consistent implementations for sorting and searching generic collections of Comparable types.

Not all types behave so well in this framework, unfortunately. There are cases where the semantics of a total order cannot apply and still maintain the traditional definition of “comparison” over these types. Take, for example, sorting an array of Float s. Today, Float ‘s instance of Comparable follows IEEE-754 and returns false for all comparisons of NaN . In order to sort this array, NaN s are considered outside the domain of < , and the order of a “sorted” array containing them is undefined.

In addition, generic algorithms in the Swift Standard Library that make use of the current Comparable protocol may have to make twice as many comparisons to request the ordering of values with respect to each other than they should. Having a central operation to return information about the ordering of values once should provide a speedup for these operations.

In the interest of cleaning up the semantics of Comparable types of all shapes and sizes and their uses in the Swift Standard Library, this proposal is going to re-arrange the requirements of the Comparable and Equatable protocols.

Proposed solution

  • Equatable

The Equatable protocol will now dispatch through a static function, spelled ===(_:_:) that is meant to respect the rules of an equivalence relation - reflexivity, transitivity, and symmetry. The semantics of ===(_:_:) are exactly the required semantics of == today.

The == operator will now be a free function that dispatches through ===(_:_:) by default. If semantics other than a total order are needed, == can be defined specifically for those types.

  • Comparable

The Comparable protocol will now require a single operator definition: <=> - the comparison operator. From this, all other comparison operators will be derived so as to respect the total order semantics of Comparable .

  • Standard Library

The Swift Standard Library has a number of functions whose semantics will change for FloatingPoint types to accommodate the new total ordering guarantees. In addition, functions that take an ordering predicate by: (Self, Self) → Bool will have an overload by: (Self, Self) → Ordering that will provide a - potentially - more efficient implementation.

Detailed design

The Comparable protocol will be amended to substitute the existing operator requirements for the ordering operator <=> that makes use of the Ordering enum defined below.

enum Ordering: Equatable {
  case ascending
  case same
  case descending

infix operator <=> { associativity none; precedence 130 }

public protocol Comparable: Equatable {
  static func <=>(lhs: Self, rhs: Self) -> Ordering

extension Comparable {
  public static func ===(lhs: Self, rhs: Self) -> Bool {
    return (lhs <=> rhs) == .same

This operator defines a relationship between ===(_:_:) and <=> such that T.===(a, b) iff (a <=> b) == .same . There is, however, no such relationship between the compare operator <=> and == or ===(_:_:) and == . For Comparable types, == is equally decoupled from the ordering operators.

The introduction of true total order semantics for Comparable means the default definitions of comparison operators can be derived from the compare operator alone.

// Derives a `<` operator for any `Comparable` type.
func < <T: Comparable>(l: T, r: T) -> Bool {
  return (l <=> r) == .ascending
func > <T: Comparable>(l: T, r: T) -> Bool {
  return r < l
func <= <T: Comparable>(l: T, r: T) -> Bool {
  return !(r < l)
func >= <T: Comparable>(l: T, r: T) -> Bool {
  return !(l < r)

In addition, Foundation code will now bridge NSComparisonResult to Ordering allowing for a fluid, natural, and safe API.

Impact on existing code

Existing Equatable types that define an equivalence relation with == will need to implement ===(_:_:) and should remove their existing implementation of == . All other existing Equatable types should implement an ===(_:_:) that provides an equivalence relation, or should drop their Equatable conformance.

Existing Comparable types that define a total ordering with < will need to implement <=> and should remove their existing implementation of any comparison operators . All other existing Comparable types should implement <=> that provides a total ordering, or should drop their Comparable conformance.


struct Date: Comparable {
  let year: Int
  let month: Int
  let day: Int

func ==(lhs: Date, rhs: Date) -> Bool {
  return lhs.year == rhs.year
    && lhs.month == rhs.month
    && ==

func <(lhs: Date, rhs: Date) -> Bool {
  if lhs.year != rhs.year {
    return lhs.year < rhs.year
  } else if lhs.month != rhs.month {
    return lhs.month < rhs.month
  } else {
    return <


struct Date: Comparable {
  let year: Int
  let month: Int
  let day: Int

func <=>(lhs: Date, rhs: Date) -> Ordering {
  let yearResult = lhs.year <=> rhs.year
  guard case .equal = yearResult else {
    return yearResult
  let monthResult = lhs.month <=> rhs.month
  guard case .equal = monthResult else {
    return monthResult
  return <=>

Alternatives considered

An alternative design that better matches the existing arithmetic-related protocols in Swift is one that uses a member function.

public protocol Comparable: Equatable {
  func compare(to: Self) -> Ordering

However, while this API does read better than an operator, we believe that this imposes a number of artificial restrictions (especially in light of SE-0091)

  1. There is no way to use as a higher-order function in a non-generic context.
  2. If a member is desired, it can be provided in a protocol extension and defined in terms of the ordering operator; to each according to their need.
  3. The existing tuple overloads cannot be expressed with a member function.

One other that Rust has adopted is the inclusion of PartialEquatable and PartialComparable as ancestors of their flavor of Equatable and Comparable . Having protocols to organize and catalogue types that can only guarantee partial equivalence and ordering relations is a good approach for modularity but clutters the standard library with two new protocols for which few useful algorithms could be written against.

Sign up for free to join this conversation on GitHub. Already have an account? Sign in to comment