Understanding Approximate Numeric Datatypes

Approximate numeric datatypes, used to store floating-point numbers, are inherently slightly inaccurate in their representation of real numbers—hence the name “approximate numeric.” To use these datatypes, you must understand their limitations.

When a floating-point number is printed or displayed, the printed representation is not quite the same as the stored number, and the stored number is not quite the same as the number that the user entered. Most of the time, the stored representation is close enough, and software makes the printed output look just like the original input, but you must understand the inaccuracy if you plan to use floating-point numbers for calculations, particularly if you are doing repeated calculations using approximate numeric datatypes—the results can be surprisingly and unexpectedly inaccurate.

The inaccuracy occurs because floating-point numbers are stored in the computer as binary fractions (that is, as a representative number divided by a power of 2), but the numbers we use are decimal (powers of 10). This means that only a very small set of numbers can be stored accurately: 0.75 (3/4) can be stored accurately because it is a binary fraction (4 is a power of 2); 0.2 (2/10) cannot (10 is not a power of 2).

Some numbers contain too many digits to store accurately. double precision is stored as 8 binary bytes and can represent about 17 digits with reasonable accuracy. real is stored as 4 binary bytes and can represent only about 6 digits with reasonable accuracy.

If you begin with numbers that are almost correct, and perform computations with them using other numbers that are almost correct, you can easily end up with a result that is not even close to being correct. If these considerations are important to your application, use an exact numeric datatype.