[Python-Dev] PEP for adding a decimal type to Python

Michael McLay mclay@erols.com
Fri, 27 Jul 2001 01:44:33 -0400

The PEP I posted yesterday, which currently doesn't have a number, addresses 
the syntactic issues of adding a decimal number type to Python and it 
investigates how to safely introduce the new type in a language with a large 
base of legacy code.  The PEP does not address the definition of how decimal 
numbers should be implemented in Python.  This topic has been the subject of 
other PEPs.  

The PEP also proposes the definition of a new language dialect that makes 
some small improvements on the syntax of the classic Python language.  The 
changes to the numerical model is tailored to make the language attractive to 
two very important markets.  Many of the users attracted from these markets 
may initially have little or no interest in classic Python.  They may not 
even know that the Python language exists.  They will happily use a language 
called dpython that works very well for their profession.  The interesting 
thing about the proposed language is how little effort will be required to 
create and maintain it.  The additions to Python were straightforward and the 
total patch was only a few hundred lines.

The prototype implementation uses the following rules when interpreting the 
type to be created from a number literal.

  literal	'.py'		'.dp'		interactive	interactive
  value	file		file		python		dpython

  2.2b	float		float		float		float
    2b	int		int		int		int

   2.2	float		decimal		float		decimal
     2	int		decimal		int		decimal

  2.2d	decimal		decimal		decimal		decimal
    2d	decimal		decimal		decimal		decimal

Based on a comment from Guido I've decided to change the 'f' to 'b' in the 
next version of dpython.  That will be more descriptive of the distinction 
the types.

>> This was a proposal for a mechanism for mingling types safely.  It
>> was not intended as a definition of how decimal numbers should be
>> implemented.  My implementation tests the interaction of the current
>> number types with the decimal type and I only completed enough of
>> the decimal type implementation to support this testing.  I was not
>> expecting to discuss how decimal types should work.  That has been
>> discussed already. I was primarily interested in testing the effects
>> of adding a new number type as I described in the PEP.

> Can you summarize the rules you used for mixed arithmetic?  I forget
> what your PEP said would happen when you add a decimal 1 to a binary
> 1.  Is the result decimal 2 or binary 2?  Why?

The rule is very simple.  You can't mix the types.  You must explicitly cast 
a binary to a decimal or a decimal to a binary.  This introduces the least 
chance of error.  This pedantic behavior is very important in fields like 
accounting.  I want accountants to think of the proposed dpython language as 
the COBOL version of Python:-)  This approach is also the correct one to take 
for newbies.  They will get a nice clean exception if they mix the types.  
This error will be something they can easily look up in the documentation.  
An unexpected answer, like 1/2=0,  will just leave them scratching their head.

This proposal tries to be consistent with what I like about Python and what I 
think makes Python a great language.  The implementation maintains complete 
backwards compatibility and it requires that programmers explicitly state 
that they want to do something rather than have bad things happen 
unexpectedly.  Mixing different types of numbers can lead to bugs that are 
very difficult to identify.  The nature of the errors that would occur 
when binary numbers are used instead of decimals would be particularly 
difficult to detect.  The answers would always be very close, and sometimes 
they would be correct.  Without the use of an explicit cast these errors 
would be silent.  The price paid for being pedantic will be the occasional 
need to add an int() or float() around a decimal number or an decimal() 
around a float or int.

>> What did you think of the idea of adding a new command and file format?

> I don't think that would be necessary. I'd prefer the 'd' and 'f' (or
> maybe 'b'?) suffixes to be explicit, perhaps combined with an optional
> per-module directive to set the default.  This would be more robust
> than keying on the filename extension.  

Why do you think a directive statement would be more robust than using a file 
suffix or command name as the directive? I'll try to explain why I think the 
opposite is true.

Take the example of teaching a newbie to program. They must be told some 
basic things  For instance, they will have only been told to use a specific 
suffix for the file name in order to create a new module. So how do you make 
sure that the newbie always uses decimal numbers? If a directive statement is 
required then the newbie must remember to always add this statement at the 
top of a file.  If they forget they will not get the expected results.  With 
the file suffix based approach they will have to use a '.dp' suffix for the 
file name of a new module.   If the are told to use a '.dp' suffix from the 
outset then the chances of their accidentally typing '.py' instead of '.dp' 
is very unlikely, whereas, forgetting to add a directive would be a silent 
error that they might easily forget.

Your request to have an explicit 'd' and 'f' is already implemented. The 
prototype implementation allows an explicit 'd' or 'f' to be used at anytime. 
The rules on the interpretation of the values that have no suffix were 
defined earlier. The prototype implementation simply uses the suffix of the 
module file and the name of the command as the directive.  This approach 
provides a very natural language experience to someone working in a 
profession that normally uses decimal numbers.  They are not treated as 
second class citizens who must endure the clutter of a magic directive 
statements at the top of every module they create.  They just use their 
special command and the file extension.  

> If you have to change the
> default globally, I'd prefer a command line option.  After all it's
> only the scanner that needs to know about the different defaults,
> right?

I think there would be a problem with only using a command line option.  It 
would work for files that are named on the command line and for code being 
interpreted in an interactive session. However, for imported modules the 
meaning of a number literal must be based on the author intentions when the 
module was created. This means that the interpreter must recognize the type 
of file so it can determine how compile the literals defined in the module. 
If the command line option determines how a scanner is to convert the number 
literals then a module source file could incorrectly be converted if the 
wrong command line option were used.

> I wonder about the effectiveness of the default though.  If you write
> a module for decimal arithmetic, how do you prevent a caller to pass
> in a binary number?

Since the module is written with decimal numbers an exception would be raised 
if a binary number was used where a decimal number was required.  For 

#File spam.py
a = 1.0

#File eggs.dp
import spam
c = a + 1.0


The name 'a' was compiled into a float type object when the spam.py file was 
scanned.  So when the expression being assigned to 'c'  is executed it would 
result in an TypeError being raised because a float was being added to a 

>> decimalobject.c so I could test the impact of introducing an
>> additional command and file format to Python.  I expect this code to
>> be replaced.  As I said in the PEP I also think the decimal number
>> implementation will evolve into a type that supports inheritance.

> Please, please, please, unify all these efforts.  A decimal PEP would
> be a good one, but there should be only one.

Absolutely.  The PEP process is suppose to formalize the capture of ideas so 
they can be reference. This PEP is mostly orthogonal to Aahz's proposal.  
They can be merge, or we can reference each others PEP.  I'm probably not the 
best choice for doing the implement of the decimal number semantics, so I'd 
be happy to work with Aahz.