Getting my head around what things aren't comparable in Go

May 13, 2020

It started with Dave Cheney's Ensmallening Go binaries by prohibiting comparisons (and earlier tweets I saw about this), which talks about a new trick for making Go binaries smaller by getting the Go compiler to not emit some per-type internally generated support function that are used to compare compound types like structs. This is done by deliberately making your struct type incomparable, by including an incomparable field. All of this made me realize that I didn't actually know what things are incomparable in Go.

In the language specification, this is discussed in the section on comparison operators. The specification first runs down a large list of things that are comparable, and how, and then also tells us what was left out:

Slice, map, and function values are not comparable. However, as a special case, a slice, map, or function value may be compared to the predeclared identifier nil. [...]

(This is genuinely helpful. Certain sorts of minimalistic specifications would have left this out, leaving us to cross-reference the total set of types against the list of comparable types to work out what's incomparable.)

It also has an important earlier note about struct values:

  • Struct values are comparable if all their fields are comparable. Two struct values are equal if their corresponding non-blank fields are equal.

Note that this implicitly differentiates between how comparability is determined and how equality is checked. In structs, a blank field may affect whether the struct is comparable at all, but if it is comparable, the field is skipped when actually doing the equality check. This makes sense since one use of blank fields in structs is to create padding and help with alignment, as shown in Struct types.

The next important thing (which is not quite spelled out explicitly in the specification) is that comparability is an abstract idea that's based purely on field types, not on what fields actually exist in memory. Consider the following struct:

type t struct {
  _ [0]byte[]
  a int64
}

A blank zero-size array at the start of a struct occupies no memory and in a sense doesn't exist in the actual concrete struct in memory (if placed elsewhere in the struct it may have effects on alignment and total size in current Go, although I haven't looked for what the specification says about that). You could imagine a world where such nonexistent fields didn't affect comparability; all that mattered was whether the actual fields present in memory were comparable. However, Go doesn't behave this way. Although the blank, zero-sized array of slices doesn't exist in any concrete terms, that it's present as a non-comparable field in the struct is enough for Go to declare the entire struct incomparable.

As a side note, since you can't take the address of functions, there's no way to manufacture a comparable value when starting from a function. If you have a function field in a struct and you want to see which one of a number of possible implementations a particular instance of the struct is using, you're out of luck. All you can do is compare your function fields against nil to see whether they've been set to some implementation or if you should use some sort of default behavior.

(Since you can compare pointers and you can take the address of slice and map variables, you can manufacture comparable values for them. But it's generally not very useful outside of very special cases.)

Written on 13 May 2020.
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Last modified: Wed May 13 23:29:19 2020
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