Request for Comments: Comparable

This RFC offers a Comparable interface which can be used to implement userspace comparison of objects to other values.


Many other languages offer the ability to provide a method on a class which will be used when instances of that class are compared via comparison or equality operators. For example, Java provides the Comparable interface, while Python provides the __cmp__ magic method.

The need for this has only increased as time has gone past, and particularly with the recent implementation of the spaceship operator.


Given the inspiration that PHP has drawn from Java in other areas of object orientation, the chosen API mirrors that of Java, with the exception of the Java-specific generic functionality. Expressed as a PHP interface, it would look like this:

interface Comparable {
    public function compareTo($other);

This interface intentionally allows variables of any type to be passed to compareTo(): there are use cases where users may want to compare objects to non-object values, such as money and bigint types, where you may want to compare the object to a numeric value.

Sample Code

A minimal class implementing this may look as follows:

class FuzzyException extends Exception {}
class Fuzzy implements Comparable {
    const TOLERANCE = 0.0001;
    public function __construct($value) {
        $this->value = (float) $value;
    public function compareTo($value) {
        if (!$value instanceof Fuzzy) {
            throw new FuzzyException('Can only compare to other Fuzzy values');
        $diff = $this->value - $value->value;
        if ($diff > self::TOLERANCE) {
            return 1;
        elseif ($diff < -self::TOLERANCE) {
            return -1;
        return 0;
$a = new Fuzzy(1.23);
$b = new Fuzzy(2.34);
$c = new Fuzzy(2.340000001);
var_dump($a > $b);      // prints bool(false)
var_dump($a <= $b);     // prints bool(true)
var_dump($c == $b);     // prints bool(true), since it's within the tolerance
var_dump($c == 'foo');  // throws a FuzzyException


The PR linked below implements the Comparable interface by providing a new standard object handler for the compare object handler which checks if the object implements Comparable, and if so, calls the compareTo() method.

The only change to compare_function() is to ensure that the compare handler is called for the IS_NULL/IS_OBJECT pairs (which probably should have happened anyway), and to allow the compare_objects handler to be used if compare fails.


Is only $a checked for Comparable or also $b?

Both $a and $b are checked.

How it is ensured that if $a < $b then $b > $a?

That's up to the userspace developer to get right when they're implementing their compareTo method. I expect the manual would have a dire warning about the possible consequences of not making them equivalent.

Would sorting work with it?


If both $a and $b are objects with different compare functions, how it is determined whose function is used? Note that operators like == are assumed to be commutative, and less/more operators are assumed to be commutative in pairs, like above.

The left operand wins, so $a.

What if the objects are not of the same class? What if one is of a subclass of the other? Is equality not symmetric?

Equality is symmetric to the extent that $a->compareTo($b) should return the inverse of $b->compareTo($a). Equality is not required to be symmetric in terms of both objects sharing the same compareTo() method, and comparisons across different class hierarchies are explicitly allowed.

How does this interact with 'get' and 'cast_object'/'__tostring'?

The tests for whether the operands implement Comparable occur before any potential calls to get and cast_object.

How does this interact with the compare_objects handler?

This will take precedence over a compare_objects handler. This is consistent with the current compare_function() implementation, which calls the compare handler first.

In practice, I think it's unlikely that an internal class (or a class extending such an internal class) with a compare_objects handler would also implement Comparable.


I'll attempt to summarise the key arguments against this below. Please feel free to edit this if you don't feel your position is accurately represented; I'm trying to be impartial, but obviously I also want to see this succeed.

  • It's operator overloading; something PHP has historically avoided as a design choice.
  • Comparison of objects with non-objects may become confusing, particularly if scalar casting is added to the mix.
  • Comparison of objects with objects of a different class may be confusing or ill-defined.
  • Why we use interface instead of magic method. Comparable is not reserved currently, but methods started with __ are always reserved.

Alternative Approaches


Stas suggests the following as an alternative to overloading the operator:

As a side note, if we have traits we might instead think of having Comparable trait or interface or both, which would declare having compareTo() standard feature (as Java does) without messing with the engine and overloading operators. Surely, it would be more verbose, but that might be a good thing.



  • 2015-02-19: Reanimated RFC; developed new patch that uses the compare handler instead of heavily changing compare_function().
  • 2010-10-01: Revised patch to remove SPL dependency; added a few questions and answers from the mailing list and a list of concerns raised.
  • 2010-09-30: Initial proposal.
rfc/comparable.txt · Last modified: 2017/09/22 13:28 by