IEEE floating-point arithmetic

This chapter describes functions for examining the representation of floating point numbers and controlling the floating point environment of your program. The functions described in this chapter are declared in the header file cml/ieee.h.

Representation of floating point numbers

The IEEE Standard for Binary Floating-Point Arithmetic defines binary formats for single and double precision numbers. Each number is composed of three parts: a sign bit (s), an exponent (E) and a fraction (f). The numerical value of the combination (s,E,f) is given by the following formula,

(-1)^s (1 \cdot fffff\dots) 2^E

The sign bit is either zero or one. The exponent ranges from a minimum value E_{min} to a maximum value E_{max} depending on the precision. The exponent is converted to an unsigned number e, known as the biased exponent, for storage by adding a bias parameter,

e = E + \hbox{\it bias}

The sequence fffff... represents the digits of the binary fraction f. The binary digits are stored in normalized form, by adjusting the exponent to give a leading digit of 1. Since the leading digit is always 1 for normalized numbers it is assumed implicitly and does not have to be stored. Numbers smaller than 2^{E_{min}} are be stored in denormalized form with a leading zero,

(-1)^s (0 \cdot fffff\dots) 2^{E_{min}}

This allows gradual underflow down to 2^{E_{min} - p} for p bits of precision. A zero is encoded with the special exponent of 2^{E_{min}-1} and infinities with the exponent of 2^{E_{max}+1}.

The format for single precision numbers uses 32 bits divided in the following way:


s = sign bit, 1 bit
e = exponent, 8 bits  (E_min=-126, E_max=127, bias=127)
f = fraction, 23 bits

The format for double precision numbers uses 64 bits divided in the following way:


s = sign bit, 1 bit
e = exponent, 11 bits  (E_min=-1022, E_max=1023, bias=1023)
f = fraction, 52 bits

It is often useful to be able to investigate the behavior of a calculation at the bit-level and the library provides functions for printing the IEEE representations in a human-readable form.

void cml_ieee754_fprintf_float(FILE * stream, const float * x)
void cml_ieee754_fprintf_double(FILE * stream, const double * x)

These functions output a formatted version of the IEEE floating-point number pointed to by x to the stream stream. A pointer is used to pass the number indirectly, to avoid any undesired promotion from float to double. The output takes one of the following forms,


the Not-a-Number symbol

Inf, -Inf

positive or negative infinity

1.fffff...*2^E, -1.fffff...*2^E

a normalized floating point number

0.fffff...*2^E, -0.fffff...*2^E

a denormalized floating point number

0, -0

positive or negative zero

The output can be used directly in GNU Emacs Calc mode by preceding it with 2# to indicate binary.

void cml_ieee754_printf_float(const float * x)
void cml_ieee754_printf_double(const double * x)

These functions output a formatted version of the IEEE floating-point number pointed to by x to the stream stdout.

The following program demonstrates the use of the functions by printing the single and double precision representations of the fraction 1/3. For comparison the representation of the value promoted from single to double precision is also printed.

#include <stdio.h>
#include <cml.h>

        float f = 1.0/3.0;
        double d = 1.0/3.0;

        double fd = f; /* promote from float to double */

        printf(" f = ");

        printf("fd = ");

        printf(" d = ");

        return 0;

The binary representation of 1/3 is 0.01010101.... The output below shows that the IEEE format normalizes this fraction to give a leading digit of 1:

 f = 1.01010101010101010101011*2^-2
fd = 1.0101010101010101010101100000000000000000000000000000*2^-2
 d = 1.0101010101010101010101010101010101010101010101010101*2^-2

The output also shows that a single-precision number is promoted to double-precision by adding zeros in the binary representation.

References and Further Reading

The reference for the IEEE standard is,

  • ANSI/IEEE Std 754-1985, IEEE Standard for Binary Floating-Point Arithmetic.

A more pedagogical introduction to the standard can be found in the following paper,

  • David Goldberg: What Every Computer Scientist Should Know About Floating-Point Arithmetic. ACM Computing Surveys, Vol.: 23, No.: 1 (March 1991), pages 5–48.
  • Corrigendum: ACM Computing Surveys, Vol.: 23, No.: 3 (September 1991), page 413. and see also the sections by B. A. Wichmann and Charles B. Dunham in Surveyor’s Forum: “What Every Computer Scientist Should Know About Floating-Point Arithmetic”. ACM Computing Surveys, Vol.: 24, No.: 3 (September 1992), page 319.

A detailed textbook on IEEE arithmetic and its practical use is available from SIAM Press,

  • Michael L. Overton, Numerical Computing with IEEE Floating Point Arithmetic, SIAM Press, ISBN 0898715717.