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Last active Sep 15, 2017
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Notes on how min/max might be defined.

Defining min and max

Most definitions of floating-point min and max are badly flawed; this note explains what axioms these functions should have, illustrates the problems with existing definitions, and explores the options for fixing the situation.

Note: min and max should be symmetric, so it suffices to restrict our attention to one of them. For most of the rest of this document, I'll explain everything using min. The appropriate modifications to get max should generally be pretty clear.

Desired axioms

The first two axioms capture the meaning of minimum; they will likely seem completely obvious (possible the point of absurdity).

  1. min(a, b) is either a or b.

  2. If x = min(a, b), then x !> a and x !> b (read !> as "not greater than").0

An immediate consequence of these two axioms is that if a < b, then min(a, b) = a and vice-versa. The behavior is not yet fully-specified, however; we have not defined the result if a == b1 or a and b are incomparable2.

With only these two axioms, a skeleton pseudo-code implementation of min(a,b) looks like the following:

T min(T a, T b) {
  if a < b { 
    return a
  else if b < a {
    return b
  else {
    // behavior is undefined

The next two axioms we would like to have make it easier to write bug-free programs and efficient reductions, and allow compilers to make useful simplifications on min and max:

  1. min(a, b) = min(b, a) (min is commutative)
  2. min(a, min(b, c)) = min(min(a, b), c) (min is associative)

For the mathematically-inclined, these two properties make the set of floating-point numbers together with min into a "commutative semigroup". For the not-mathematically-inclined, why do we care? Because we eventually want to be able to take the min of not just two numbers, but of entire sets or arrays of numbers.

These two properties let us build up the minimum over a set out of pairwise operations; no matter what order the elements appear in, or how they are bracketed, we will get the same result, which allows us to define the operation unambiguously, and allows a compiler to re-arrange the operations for maximum efficiency.

We noted above that axioms 1 and 2 fully specified the function if a < b or a > b. What do axioms 3 and 4 tell us about the remaining cases? Axiom 3 tells us that we can't define min to do something like return a when a and b are incomparable. Instead, we need to define the result without appealing to the operand order.

How do we pick a result, then? One natural choice is what IEEE 754 does in minNum(a, b); if one of a or b is NaN and the other is a number, the number is returned (754 messed this up by having different behavior for sNaN, see below for details). Another natural choice is to have min(a, b) return NaN if either a or b is NaN. Still a third option would be to make min trap on NaN inputs, or statically require that programs prove both inputs are non-NaN before calling min.


0: Why don't I just say "less than or equal to" and use <=? Because trichotomy doesn't hold for floating-point numbers (see 2).

1: In IEEE 754 binary floating-point, there are two ways for a and b to be equal but not actually be "the same": first, +0 and -0 have different representations but compare equal. Second, some formats admit non-canonical encodings--multiple bit representations of a single number. The only widely used case where this happens are x87 pseudo denormals. In IEEE 754 decimal floating-point, we will also need to deal with cases like a = 1.0e1, b = 10.0e0.

2: If a is NaN, then a == b, a < b, and a > b are all false for any b, even if b is the same as a.

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