PHP RFC: Saner string to number comparisons


Comparisons between strings and numbers using == and other non-strict comparison operators currently work by casting the string to a number, and subsequently performing a comparison on integers or floats. This results in many surprising comparison results, the most notable of which is that 0 == "foobar" returns true. This RFC proposes to make non-strict comparisons more useful and less error prone, by using a number comparison only if the string is actually numeric. Otherwise the number is converted into a string, and a string comparison is performed.

PHP supports two different types of comparison operators: The strict comparisons === and !==, and the non-strict comparisons ==, !=, >, >=, <, <= and <=>. The primary difference between them is that strict comparisons require both operands to be of the same type, and do not perform implicit type coercions. However, there are some additional differences:

  • Strict comparison compares strings with strcmp() semantics, while non-strict comparison uses a “smart” comparison method that treats strings as numbers if they are numeric.
  • Strict comparison requires that arrays have keys occurring in the same order, while non-strict comparison allows out-of-order keys.
  • Strict comparison compares objects by object identity, while non-strict comparison compares their values.

The current dogma in the PHP world is that non-strict comparisons should always be avoided, because their conversion semantics are rarely desirable and can easily lead to bugs or even security issues. The single largest source of bugs is likely the fact that 0 == "foobar" returns true. Quite often this is encountered in cases where the comparison is implicit, such as in_array() or switch statements. A classic example:

$validValues = ["foo", "bar", "baz"];
$value = 0;
var_dump(in_array($value, $validValues));
// bool(true) WTF???

This is an unfortunate state of affairs, because the concept of non-strict comparisons is not without value in a language like PHP, which commonly deals with mixtures of numbers in both plain and stringified form. Considering 42 and "42" as the same value is useful in many contexts, in part also due to the implicit conversions performed by PHP (e.g. string array keys may be converted to integers). Additionally some constructs (such as switch) only support non-strict comparison natively.

Unfortunately, while the idea of non-strict comparisons has some merit, their current semantics are blatantly wrong in some cases and thus greatly limit the overall usefulness of non-strict comparisons.

This RFC intends to give string to number comparisons a more reasonable behavior: When comparing to a numeric string, use a number comparison (same as now). Otherwise, convert the number to string and use a string comparison. The following table shows how the result of some simple comparisons changes (or doesn't change) under this RFC:

Comparison    | Before | After
 0 == "0"     | true   | true
 0 == "0.0"   | true   | true
 0 == "foo"   | true   | false
 0 == ""      | true   | false
42 == "   42" | true   | true
42 == "42foo" | true   | false

An alternative way to view these comparison semantics is that the number operand is cast to a string, and the strings are then compared using the non-strict “smart” string comparison algorithm. Compare the above table with the following results for string to string comparisons (which are not changed by this RFC):

Comparison      | Result
 "0" == "0"     | true
 "0" == "0.0"   | true
 "0" == "foo"   | false
 "0" == ""      | false
"42" == "   42" | true
"42" == "42foo" | false

This description of the comparison semantics is slightly simplified, and the detailed rules will be outlined in the following, but it should give an intuitive understanding of the new rules and provide a motivation for why they were chosen.


This RFC applies to any operations that perform non-strict comparisons, including but not limited to:

  • The operators <=>, ==, !=, >, >=, <, and <=.
  • The functions in_array(), array_search() and array_keys() with $strict set to false (which is the default).
  • The sorting functions sort(), rsort(), asort(), arsort() and array_multisort() with $sort_flags set to SORT_REGULAR (which is the default).

The precise proposed comparison semantics are as follows. For the $int <=> $string case:

  • If $string is a well-formed numeric string with integer value $string_as_int, then return $int <=> $string_as_int.
  • If $string is a well-formed numeric string with float value $string_as_float, then return (float)$int <=> $string_as_float.
  • Otherwise, return strcmp((string)$int, $string) canonicalized to -1, 0, and 1 return values.

For the $string <=> $int case:

  • Return -($int <=> $string).

For the $float <=> $string case:

  • If $float is NAN, then return 1.
  • If $string is a well-formed numeric string with integer value $string_as_int, then return $float <=> (float)$string_as_int.
  • If $string is a well-formed numeric string with float value $string_as_float, then return $float <=> $string_as_float.
  • Otherwise, return strcmp((string)$float, $string) canonicalized to -1, 0, and 1 return values.

For the $string <=> $float case:

  • If $float is NAN, then return 1.
  • Otherwise, return -($float <=> $string).

There are a few subtleties involved here, which are discussed in the following.

Well-formed numeric strings

While a precise definition is given in the language specification, a well-formed numeric string may be briefly described as optional whitespace followed by a decimal integer or floating-point literal. A non well-formed numeric string may have additional trailing characters. All other strings are non-numeric.

Under this proposal well-formed numeric strings have exactly the same comparison semantics as previously. This means that not only are trivial cases like 42 == "42" true, but also cases where the numbers are given in different formats:

// Before *and* after this RFC
var_dump(42 == "000042");        // true
var_dump(42 == "42.0");          // true
var_dump(42.0 == "+42.0E0");     // true
var_dump(0 == "0e214987142012"); // true

It should be noted that this is also consistent with performing the same (non-strict) comparisons in string form:

// Before *and* after this RFC
var_dump("42" == "000042");        // true
var_dump("42" == "42.0");          // true
var_dump("42.0" == "+42.0E0");     // true
var_dump("0" == "0e214987142012"); // true

Different comparison semantics only appear once either non well-formed or non-numeric strings are involved:

                         // Before | After | Type
var_dump(42 == "   42"); // true   | true  | well-formed
var_dump(42 == "42   "); // true   | false | non well-formed (*)
var_dump(42 == "42abc"); // true   | false | non well-formed
var_dump(42 == "abc42"); // false  | false | non-numeric
var_dump( 0 == "abc42"); // true   | false | non-numeric
// (*) Becomes well-formed if saner numeric strings RFC passes

A notable asymmetry under the new semantics is that " 42" and "42 " compare differently. This inconsistency is being addressed by the saner numeric strings RFC.


The reason why the comparison semantics are not simply defined in terms of casting the number to string and performing a non-strict string comparison (even though that is a good way to think about it for most purposes), is that floating-point to string conversions in PHP are subject to the precision ini directive.

Comparisons with well-formed numeric strings are handled separately to be independent of this runtime setting. However, it does have an effect if we fall back to binary string comparison. For example:

$float = 1.75;
ini_set('precision', 14); // Default
var_dump($float < "1.75abc");
// Behaves like
var_dump("1.75" < "1.75abc"); // true
ini_set('precision', 0); // Degenerate case
var_dump($float < "1.75abc");
// Behaves like
var_dump("2" < "1.75abc"); // false

An alternative approach to this issue would be to define that the float to string conversion used for comparisons always uses automatically determined precision (precision=-1).

Special values

Floating-point numbers have a number of special non-finite values, which compare as follows:

                             // Before | After
var_dump(INF == "INF");      // false  | true
var_dump(-INF == "-INF");    // false  | true
var_dump(NAN == "NAN");      // false  | false
var_dump(INF == "1e1000");   // true   | true
var_dump(-INF == "-1e1000"); // true   | true

There are two notable behaviors here: First, infinities now compare equal to "INF" or "-INF" respectively, because these are the string representations of INF and -INF.

However, NAN does not compare equal to "NAN", or any other string. All two-way comparison operators involving NAN and a string will return false. The <=> operator returns 1 regardless of which side the NAN is on: This is PHP's internal way of signaling that a value is non-comparable.

The special semantics of NAN follow IEEE-754, under which comparisons involving NAN are always false.

Backward Incompatible Changes

This change to the semantics of non-strict comparisons is backwards incompatible. Worse, it constitutes a silent change in core language semantics. Code that worked one way in PHP 7.4 will work differently in PHP 8.0. Use of static analysis to detect cases that may be affected is likely to yield many false positives.

Testing with a warning on comparison result change suggests that the practical impact of this change is much lower than one might intuitively expect, but this likely heavily depends on the type of tested codebase.


Voting starts 2020-07-17 and ends 2020-07-31. A 2/3 majority is required.

Change string to number comparison semantics as proposed?
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Final result: 44 1
This poll has been closed.
rfc/string_to_number_comparison.txt · Last modified: 2020/07/31 12:55 by nikic