We have two integers, $n$ and $d$. They are coprime (the only positive integer that is a divisor of both of them is $1$). They may be implemented as something that fits in a machine register, or they may be "big integers". Together, $n$ and $d$ represent the numerator and denominator of a rational number.

The goal is to convert the rational number into the corresponding floating-point number in a fixed-width binary floating-point format (for example, 32-bit binary IEEE 754 floating-point, known as float in the C programming language).

As long as using "big floats" (arbitrary-precision floating-point, for example with the MPFR C library) for implementing the algorithm is allowed, the solution is easy:

  1. convert both $n$ and $d$ to big floats with a precision that is high enough so both integers would be exactly represented
  2. divide the big float numerator with the big float denominator, yielding a big float number
  3. convert the above big float number to the required fixed-precision floating-point format

I wonder, however, what would a more from-first-principles solution look like, one that wouldn't use big floats?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ In 2., is it always possible to find an exact representation of the quotient? $\endgroup$
    – greybeard
    May 6 at 4:21
  • $\begingroup$ @greybeard No, but I'm assuming the result would be correctly rounded, as with MPFR. $\endgroup$ May 6 at 11:15
  • $\begingroup$ (Resisting the temptation to go grab Knuth's TAoCP volume 2 to look it up...) $\endgroup$
    – vonbrand
    May 6 at 18:17
  • $\begingroup$ Could the downvoter perhaps explain the perplexing downvote? $\endgroup$ May 7 at 15:47

1 Answer 1


Big floats are nothing but big ints with a scaling factor, which you can handle by yourself.

If the two numbers are given as big ints and you are only allowed integer division, multiply the numerator by a power of $2$ large enough that the quotient has at least $24$ (resp. $53$) significant bits. Then normalize the result to single (resp. double)-precision floating-point.

If the numbers are given as integers, you will need to resort to extended precision arithmetic, i.e. 64 bits over 32 or 128 over 64. Append a zero word to the numerator, divide and normalize the result.

  • $\begingroup$ The way I'm reading your answer, the algorithm requires performing multiple integer divisions until one of them produces a quotient with the required number of digits. Is there perhaps a way to solve this with a constant number of integer divisions? $\endgroup$ May 7 at 4:17
  • $\begingroup$ You say "multiply the numerator by a power of $2$ large enough that the quotient has at least $24$ significant bits. then normalize". But if I get more than $24$ significant bits, it's not clear to me how to proceed with getting rid of the extra bits. It also seems like a double-rounding problem, the integer division included the first rounding, getting rid of extra bits after that would be a second rounding. $\endgroup$ May 7 at 10:47
  • $\begingroup$ I can build an IEEE representation using ldexp, that's not a problem. $\endgroup$ May 7 at 10:50
  • $\begingroup$ @user2373145: good, solved then. Though I don't see the connection to "from-first-principles" anymore. $\endgroup$ May 7 at 10:50
  • $\begingroup$ This answer is definitely wrong, or at least incomplete, as I supposed it will be above. It sometimes leads to incorrectly rounded results. $\endgroup$ May 7 at 15:45

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