0.1 + 0.2

Ask your favorite programming language what 0.1 + 0.2 is. What does it say?

Here are the answers from the three most-used languages, plus a bonus one:

Language 0.1 + 0.2
Python 0.30000000000000004
Java 0.30000000000000004
JavaScript 0.30000000000000004
Roc 0.3

The first time I saw 0.30000000000000004 as the answer to 0.1 + 0.2, I was unpleasantly surprised. Once I got used to seeing it from so many languages, the surprise wore off; now I'm pleasantly surprised if I see 0.3 instead!

So why doesn't every language answer 0.3? Why is the most common answer 0.30000000000000004, and what are the pros and cons of having the answer be 0.3 instead?

The tradeoffs aren't as straightforward as they might seem!

Base-10 and Base-2

Like most programming languages, Python, Java, and JavaScript all compile their decimal number literals into base-2 floating-point form. This runtime representation has serious performance benefits (modern CPUs have dedicated instructions for it), but its imprecise representation of base-10 numbers is a notorious source of bugs—especially when money is involved.

Many fractions can be precisely represented in base-10. For example, the fraction 1 10 can be precisely represented in base-10 as 0.1. However, if we want to represent the fraction 1 3 in base-10 format, we can write down 0.33, or 0.3333, or maybe even 0.3333333—but no matter how many digits we use, whatever decimal number we write down won't equal 1 3 exactly. Some precision has been lost in that conversion from fractional to decimal representation!

It's common knowledge that although 1 3 + 2 3 = 1 , if we convert those fractions to decimal representations before adding them—meaning we end up adding 0.3333 + 0.6666—we end up getting something just short of 1. Using an ordinary calculator app to work with fractions often results in that sort of precision loss.

The same flavor of precision loss that happens when we convert 1 3 to a decimal (resulting in 0.3333…, so not exactly 1 3 ) also happens when we convert 1 10 to base-2: we end up with a number that's not exactly 1 10 even though it might be as close as we could get. This might not be as familiar a source of precision loss as converting 1 3 to decimal (base-10), but it's the same basic idea!

Precision loss outside of calculations

For a long time after I found out about the 0.1 + 0.2 imprecision, I thought that the numbers 0.1 and 0.2 were being represented precisely, and it was the addition that was causing the problem. As it turns out, that's not true; in all of those languages, writing down the numbers 0.1 and 0.2 does not result in 1 10 and 2 10 getting stored in memory. Precision loss has already happened!

Here's what 0.1, 0.2, and 0.3 look like in memory if you ask one of those top three languages to print out base-10 representations of the digits it's storing.

0.1 0.100000000000000005551115123125782702118158340454101562
0.2 0.200000000000000011102230246251565404236316680908203125
0.3 0.299999999999999988897769753748434595763683319091796875

When you add up those approximations of 0.1 and 0.2, the answer is:


Not only is this not the three-tenths we'd like to get from adding one-tenth plus two-tenths (just like how 0.9999999999999 is not the answer we'd like to get from adding one-third plus two-thirds, but that's what a decimal calculator will tell us), it's also not equal to the approximation we saw in the table for the decimal 0.3, which got translated to base-2 representation as 0.29999999...

This is why 0.1 + 0.2 == 0.3 returns false in so many languages. When you ask the program if 0.1 + 0.2 is equal to 0.3, what it's actually comparing is:

0.100000000000000005551115123125782702118158340454101562 +
0.200000000000000011102230246251565404236316680908203125 ==

This evaluates to false because adding the first two numbers gives 0.3000000000000000444089209850062616169452667236328125 and not 0.299999999999999988897769753748434595763683319091796875, which is what the compiler translates the source code of 0.3 into at runtime.

Even knowing what's going on behind the scenes, some results of base-2 floating-point calculations can still be surprising. For example, if you ask one of these same languages whether 0.1 + 0.1 == 0.2, it calculates:

0.100000000000000005551115123125782702118158340454101562 +
0.100000000000000005551115123125782702118158340454101562 ==

You might expect this to also return false, because the last digit of the first two numbers is 2, and there's no way adding a pair of 2s together will equal 5 (the last digit of the third number). However, it returns true!

This happens because even the printouts in the table above (which were taken directly from programming language printouts) have lost some precision compared to what's in memory! When languages print out base-2 numbers as base-10 decimals, they typically round off the last digit.

So not only is there precision loss when converting from the source code representation of "0.1" to the in-memory base-2 representation (which is only an approximation of one-tenth), there's also additional precision loss when converting that in-memory base-2 representation back into a base-10 format for printing to the screen.

All this precision loss contributes to the general recommendation to avoid using base-2 floats for base-10 calculations involving money, even though most languages make base-2 the default.

Hiding precision loss

Earlier, we saw how adding the base-2 representations of 0.1 and 0.2 led to this answer in memory:


However, none of the languages we looked at earlier printed out that entire number. Instead they all printed a truncated version of it: 0.30000000000000004—so, an approximation of the approximation, meaning even more precision loss.

Other languages truncate even more digits during printing. For example, in C# if you print the answer to 0.1 + 0.2, it will show 0.3. Same with C++. This is not because they're getting a more precise answer—it's the same floating-point operation that Python, Java, and JavaScript are doing, and it puts the same imprecise answer in memory—it's that they hide so many digits when printing out 0.3000000000000000444089209850062616169452667236328125 that only the 0.3 part is visible.

Hiding this many digits obscures the fact that any precision was lost at all! This results in self-contradictory output like (0.1 + 0.2) printing out 0.3, yet (0.1 + 0.2 == 0.3) evaluating to false. (This happens in both C++ and C#.) You can always opt into printing more digits after the decimal point, which can reveal the precision loss, but this default formatting can give you an an inaccurate mental model of the relationships between these numbers in the program.

Compile-time vs. runtime

Go takes a different approach. When you write 0.1 + 0.2 in Go, that expression gets evaluated to 0.3 at compile time with no precision loss. If you evaluate 0.1 + 0.2 == 0.3, you'll get true. However, if you use variables instead of constants—that is, set a := 0.1 and b := 0.2 and print a + b—you'll once again see 0.30000000000000004. This is because Go evaluates variables at runtime differently from constants at compile time; constants use precise (but slower) base-10 addition, whereas variables use the same base-2 floating-point math as Python, Java, JavaScript, and so on.

In contrast to all these designs, when Roc prints 0.3, it's because the 0.1 + 0.2 operation is consistently doing base-10 arithmetic rather than the more common base-2. The reason you aren't seeing precision loss is that there isn't any.

Floating-Point versus Fixed-Point

It's not that Roc only supports base-10 arithmetic. It also supports the typical base-2 floating-point numbers, because in many situations the performance benefits are absolutely worth the cost of precision loss. What sets Roc apart is its choice of default; when you write decimal literals like 0.1 or 0.2 in Roc, by default they're represented by a 128-bit fixed-point base-10 number that never loses precision, making it reasonable to use for calculations involving money.

In Roc, floats are opt-in rather than opt-out.

C#'s floating-point base-10 System.Decimal

The C# standard library has its own 128-bit decimal type, although it isn't used by default when you write normal decimal literals. (The same is true of F#, which is a functional language that shares part of its standard library with C#.) This type is called System.Decimal, and it has some important differences to Roc's base-10 Dec type.

One difference is that whereas Roc's Dec type uses a fixed-point representation instead of floating-point, System.Decimal is still floating-point—just base-10 floating-point instead of base-2 floating-point. One difference between fixed-point and floating-point is how many digits each can represent before and after the decimal point.

Type Representation Digits
Dec (Roc) fixed-point, base-10 20 before the dot,

18 after the dot

System.Decimal (C#) floating-point, base-10 28-29 total
64-bit float (aka double) floating-point, base-2 ~15-17 total

It's possible to have a fixed-point, base-2 representation, but we won't discuss that combination because it's so rarely used in practice.

Roc's fixed-point base-10 Dec

Fixed-point decimals have a hardcoded number of digits they support before the decimal point, and a hardcoded number of digits they support after it.

For example, Dec can always represent 20 full digits before the decimal point and 18 full digits after it, with no precision loss. If you put 11111111111111111111.111111111111111111 + 22222222222222222222.222222222222222222 into roc repl, it happily prints out 33333333333333333333.333333333333333333. (Each of those numbers has 20 digits before the decimal point and 18 after it.) You can even put 20 nines followed by 18 nines after the decimal point! However, if you try to put 21 nines before the decimal point, you'll get an error.

In contrast, System.Decimal is floating-point. This means it cares about the total number of digits in the number, but it doesn't care how many of those digits happen to be before or after the decimal point. So you can absolutely put 21 nines into a C# System.Decimal, with another 7 nines after the decimal point if you like. For that matter, you can also put 7 nines before the decimal point and then 21 nines after it. Dec's fixed-point representation doesn't support either of those numbers!

Precision loss in floating-point base-10

This upside of System.Decimal's floating-point representation comes at the cost of potential precision loss in some arithmetic operations. Here's what 11111111111111111111.11111111111111111 + 44444444444444444444.44444444444444444 evaluates to in the two different representations:

Dec (fixed-point) 55555555555555555555.55555555555555555
System.Decimal (floating-point) 55555555555555555555.555555555

Silent precision loss strikes again! This happens because System.Decimal has a hardcoded limit on how many total digits it can represent, and this answer requires more total digits than it supports. The extra digits are truncated.

Of course, there are also numbers too big for Dec to represent. It supports adding 11111111111111111111.11111111111111111 + 22222222222222222222.22222222222222222 with no problem, but if you add 99999999999999999999.99999999999999999 + 99999999999999999999.99999999999999999 instead, you'll get the same outcome you would if you added two integers that together formed an answer too big for that integer size: an overflow runtime error.

This demonstrates a tradeoff between fixed-point versus floating-point representations, which is totally separate from base-2 versus base-10: fixed-point means addition overflow is necessarily an error condition, whereas floating-point can reasonably support two potential designs: overflowing to an error, or to silent precision loss. (System.Decimal could have treated addition overflow as an error, but it goes with the silent precision loss design instead.)

Precision loss in fixed-point base-10

Silent precision loss can happen in fixed-point too. For example, both fixed-point and floating-point typically choose precision loss over crashing when division gives an answer that can't be represented precisely. If you divide 1.0 by 3.0, basically any base-10 or base-2 number system will quietly discard information regardless of fixed-point or floating-point. (There are number types which can support dividing 1 by 3 without precision loss, such as Clojure's Ratio or Scheme's rational, which of course have their own tradeoffs.)

Fortunately, there's a generally high awareness of the edge case of precision loss during division—even compared to other common edge cases like division by zero—so it tends not to result in as many bugs in practice as edge cases where there isn't as much awareness.

That said, it can happen in multiplication too; if you put 0.000000001 * 0.0000000001 into roc repl, it will print 0 because the 18 digits after the decimal point are all zeroes, and it only retains 18 digits after the decimal point. The more times a decimal gets multiplied by another decimal, the more likely it is that precision loss will occur—and potentially in ways where the answer varies based on order of operations. For example:

0.123456789 * 100000000000 * 0.00000000001
0.123456789 * 0.00000000001 * 100000000000

If you put these both into roc repl, the first correctly returns 0.123456789 (100000000000 * 0.00000000001 equals 1). However, the second returns 0.1234567 instead; it lost some precision because it first multiplied by such a small number that it ran out of digits after the decimal point and lost information. Multiplying by a larger number after the fact can't bring that lost information back!

This might sound like a situation where "crash rather than losing precision" would be preferable, but then you'd end up in situations where dividing a number by 3 works fine (at the cost of imprecision) but multiplying by (1/3) crashes. There are many cases where that isn't an improvement!

Situations like this can come up in practice when multiplying many very small (or very large) numbers, such as in scientific computing. In these cases, floating-point can be preferable to fixed-point because the number of digits after the decimal point can expand to avoid precision loss. However, base-10 tends not to be a relevant improvement over base-2 in scientific computing, so base-2 floating-point is usually preferable over Dec there anyway for its hardware-accelerated performance.

All of these are examples of why there isn't an obvious "best" one-size-fits-all choice for decimal numbers. No matter what you choose, there are always relevant tradeoffs!

the Heap

A design that often comes up in discussions of overflow and precision loss is "arbitrary-size" numbers, which switch to using heap allocations on overflow in order to store larger numbers instead of crashing.

Of course, "arbitrary-size" numbers can't actually represent arbitrary numbers because all but a hilariously small proportion of numbers in mathematics are too big to fit in any computer's memory. Even 1 divided by 3 can't be represented without precision loss in base-10 or base-2 format, no matter how much memory you use in the attempt.

Still, overflowing to the heap can raise the maximum number of digits from "so high that overflow will only occur if you're working with numbers in the undecillion range or there's an infinite loop bug or something" to "a whole lot higher than that, just in case." Naturally, how often that distinction comes up in practice varies by use case.

A major reason not to allow numbers to automatically overflow to the heap is that supporting this slows down all arithmetic operations, even if the overflow never comes up in practice. So to be worth that cost, the overflow has to come up often enough—and the overflow-to-heap has to be beneficial enough when it does come up—in practice to compensate for slowing down all arithmetic.

This is one reason many languages (including Roc) choose not to support it: essentially all programs would pay a performance cost, and only a tiny number of outlier programs would see any benefit.


Speaking of performance, how do fixed-point and floating-point base-10 and base-2 numbers perform?


Here, performance depends on how things are represented. Let's look at these three types from earlier:

Type Representation Digits
Dec (Roc) fixed-point, base-10 20 before the dot,

18 after the dot

System.Decimal (C#) floating-point, base-10 28-29 total
64-bit float (aka "double") floating-point, base-2 ~15-17 total

Many guides have been written about the base-2 floating-point representation; I personally like https://floating-point-gui.de, but there are plenty of others. Likewise, there are various articles about how System.Decimal is represented in memory; I liked this one.

Without going into the level of depth those articles cover, the main thing these floating-point numbers have in common is that they store:

The way these two stored values get translated into a single number is basically one of these two calculations, depending on whether it's base-2 or base-10:

coefficient * (10 ^ exponent)
coefficient *  (2 ^ exponent)

(When reading about floating-point numbers, the term "mantissa" or "significand" is often used instead of "coefficient." All three words are pretty fun.)

Floating-point numbers which follow the IEEE 754 specification include special values of NaN, Infinity, and -Infinity. NaN is defined in the specification to be not equal to NaN, which can cause various bugs. As such, Roc gives a compile-time error if you try to compare two floating-point numbers with == (although it's allowed for Dec and integers).

Neither System.Decimal nor Dec have NaN, Infinity, or -Infinity; calculations like division by zero give a runtime error instead, just like they do for integers.

Base-10 arithmetic

Doing arithmetic on the base-10 version generally involves converting things to integer representations, doing integer arithmetic, and then converting those answers back into coefficient and exponent. This makes essentially every arithmetic operation on System.Decimal involve several CPU instructions. In contrast, base-2 floating-point numbers benefit from dedicated individual CPU instructions, making arithmetic much faster.

Roc's Dec implementation (largely the work of Brendan Hansknecht—thanks, Brendan!) is essentially represented in memory as a 128-bit integer, except one that gets rendered with a decimal point in a hardcoded position. This means addition and subtraction use the same instructions as normal integer addition and subtraction. Those run so fast, they can actually outperform addition and subtraction of 64-bit base-2 floats!

Multiplication and division are a different story. Those require splitting up the 128 bits into two different 64-bit integers, doing operations on them, and then reconstructing the 128-bit representation. (You can look at the implementation to see exactly how it works.) The end result is that multiplication is usually several times slower than 64-bit float multiplication, and performance is even worse than that for division.

Some operations, such as sine, cosine, tangent, and square root, have not yet been implemented for Dec. (If implementing any of those operations for a fixed-point base-10 representation sounds like a fun project, please get in touch! People on Roc chat always happy to help new contributors get involved.)

Choosing a Default

So if a language supports both base-2 floating-point and base-10 fixed-point decimals, which should be used when you put in 0.1 + 0.2? Which is the better default for that language?

Type inference

Many languages determine what numeric types to use based on syntax. For example, in C#, 5 is always an integer, 5.0 is always a float, and 5.0m is always a decimal. This means that if you have a function that takes a float, you can't write 5 as the argument; you have to write 5.0, or you'll get an error. Similarly, if a function takes a decimal, you can't write 5 or 5.0; you have to write 5.0m.

Roc doesn't have this requirement. If a function takes a number—whether it's an integer, a floating-point base-2 number, or a Dec—you can always write 5 as the number you're passing in. (If it's an integer, you'll get a compiler error if you try to write 5.5, but 5.5 will be accepted for either floats or decimal numbers.)

Because of this, it's actually very rare in practice that you'll write 0.1 + 0.2 in a .roc file and have it use the default numeric type of Dec. Almost always, the type in question will end up being determined by type inference—based on how you ended up using the result of that operation.

For example, if you have a function that says it takes a Dec, and you pass in (0.1 + 0.2), the compiler will do Dec addition and that function will end up receiving 0.3 as its argument. However, if you have a function that says it takes F64 (a 64-bit base-2 floating-point number), and you write (0.1 + 0.2) as its argument, the compiler will infer that those two numbers should be added as floats, and you'll end up passing in the not-quite-0.3 number we've been talking about all along. (You can also write number literals like 12.34f64 to opt into F64 representation without involving type inference.)

Constant expressions

Earlier, we noted that Go does something different than this. Go always evaluates constant expressions (like "0.1 + 0.2", which can be computed entirely at compile time with no need to run the program) using full decimal precision. So even if a Go function says it takes a float, the compiler will end up treating the source code of "0.1 + 0.2" as if the source code had been "0.3" when calling that function.

An upside of this design is that there's less precision loss. A downside is that it sacrifices substitutability; if you have some Go code that takes user inputs of 0.1 and 0.2 and computes an answer, and you try to substitute hardcoded values of 0.1 and 0.2 (perhaps in a particular special-case path that can improve performance by skipping some operations), you'll potentially get a different answer than the user-input version. A substitution that might seem like a harmless refactor can actually change program behavior.

It's for this exact reason that Roc's design intentionally does the same thing regardless of whether the numbers are known at compile time.

When the default comes up

So given that, and given that Roc usually infers which operation to do based on type information anyway…when does the default actually come up? When are you ever writing 0.1 + 0.2 in a situation where type inference wouldn't override the default anyway?

One situation is where your whole program doesn't have type annotations, and none of your fractional numbers end up being used with outside code (such as libraries, which might request specific fractional types like Dec or F64). Roc has full type inference, so you never need to write type annotations, and although it's common practice to annotate top-level functions, you don't have to.

If you're writing a quick script, you might choose not to annotate anything. In that scenario, Dec seems like the best default because it involves the least precision loss, and arithmetic performance is very unlikely to be noticeable. (If it is, you can of course opt into floats instead.)

Another situation is for beginners who are new to programming. If they've learned decimal math in school but have never encountered base-2 math, they would be in for some confusing experiences early on if they were playing around in the REPL and encountered unexpected inequalities like 0.1 + 0.2 not being equal to 0.3. Choosing Dec as the default means decimal math in Roc works by default the way most people know from using calculators, and beginners can learn about other representations and their tradeoffs later on.

For these reasons, Dec seems like the best choice for Roc's default representation of fractional numbers!

Try Roc

If you're intrigued by these design choices and want to give Roc a try for yourself, the tutorial is the easiest way to get up and running. It takes you from no Roc experience whatsoever to building your first program, while explaining language concepts along the way.

I also highly recommend dropping in to say hi on Roc Zulip Chat. There are lots of friendly people on there, and we love to help beginners get started!