Swift Comparison Protocols

Written by Mattt Thompson

Objective-C required us to wax philosophic about the nature of equality and identity. To the relief of any developer less inclined towards handwavy treatises, this is not as much the case for Swift.

In Swift, Equatable is a fundamental type, from which Comparable and Hashable are both derived. Together, these protocols form the central point of comparison throughout the language.


Values of the Equatable type can be evaluated for equality and inequality. Declaring a type as equatable bestows several useful abilities, notably the ability for values of that type to be found in a containing Array.

For a type to be Equatable, there must exist an implementation of the == operator function, which accepts a matching type:

func ==(lhs: Self, rhs: Self) -> Bool

For value types, equality is determined by evaluating the equality of each component property. As an example, consider a Complex type, which takes a generic type T, which conforms to SignedNumberType:

SignedNumberType is a convenient choice for a generic number type, as it inherits from both Comparable (and thus Equatable, as described in the section) and IntegerLiteralConvertible, which Int, Double, and Float all conform to.

struct Complex<T: SignedNumberType> {
    let real: T
    let imaginary: T

Since a complex number is comprised of a real and imaginary component, two complex numbers are equal if and only if their respective real and imaginary components are equal:

extension Complex: Equatable {}

// MARK: Equatable

func ==<T>(lhs: Complex<T>, rhs: Complex<T>) -> Bool {
    return lhs.real == rhs.real && lhs.imaginary == rhs.imaginary

The result:

let a = Complex<Double>(real: 1.0, imaginary: 2.0)
let b = Complex<Double>(real: 1.0, imaginary: 2.0)

a == b // true
a != b // false

As described in the article about Swift Default Protocol Implementations, an implementation of != is automatically derived from the provided == operator by the standard library.

For reference types, the equality becomes conflated with identity. It makes sense that two Name structs with the same values would be equal, but two Person objects can have the same name, but be different people.

For Objective-C-compatible object types, the == operator is already provided from the isEqual: method:

class ObjCObject: NSObject {}

ObjCObject() == ObjCObject() // false

For Swift reference types, equality can be evaluated as an identity check on an ObjectIdentifier constructed with an instance of that type:

class Object: Equatable {}

// MARK: Equatable

func ==(lhs: Object, rhs: Object) -> Bool {
    return ObjectIdentifier(lhs) == ObjectIdentifier(rhs)

Object() == Object() // false


Building on Equatable, the Comparable protocol allows for more specific inequality, distinguishing cases where the left hand value is greater than or less than the right hand value.

Types conforming to the Comparable protocol provide the following operators:

func <=(lhs: Self, rhs: Self) -> Bool
func >(lhs: Self, rhs: Self) -> Bool
func >=(lhs: Self, rhs: Self) -> Bool

What’s interesting about this list, however, is not so much what is included, but rather what’s missing.

The first and perhaps most noticeable omission is ==, since >= is a logical disjunction of > and == comparisons. As a way of reconciling this, Comparable inherits from Equatable, which provides ==.

The second omission is a bit more subtle, and is actually the key to understanding what’s going on here: <. What happened to the “less than” operator? It’s defined by the _Comparable protocol. Why is this significant? As described in the article about Swift Default Protocol Implementations, the Swift Standard Library provides a default implementation of the Comparable protocol based entirely on the existential type _Comparable. This is actually really clever. Since the implementations of all of the comparison functions can be derived from just < and ==, all of that functionality is made available automatically through type inference.

Contrast this with, for example, how Ruby derives equality and comparison operators from a single operator, <=> (a.k.a the “UFO operator”). Here’s how this could be implemented in Swift.

As a more complex example, consider a CSSSelector struct, which implements cascade ordering of selectors:

import Foundation

struct CSSSelector {
    let selector: String

    struct Specificity {
        let id: Int
        let `class`: Int
        let element: Int

        init(_ components: [String]) {
            var (id, `class`, element) = (0, 0, 0)
            for token in components {
                if token.hasPrefix("#") {
                } else if token.hasPrefix(".") {
                } else {

            self.id = id
            self.`class` = `class`
            self.element = element

    let specificity: Specificity

    init(_ string: String) {
        self.selector = string

        // Naïve tokenization, ignoring operators, pseudo-selectors, and `style=`.
        let components: [String] = self.selector.componentsSeparatedByCharactersInSet(NSCharacterSet.whitespaceCharacterSet())
        self.specificity = Specificity(components)

Where as CSS selectors are evaluated by specificity rank and order, two selectors are only really equal if they resolve to the same elements:

extension CSSSelector: Equatable {}

// MARK: Equatable

func ==(lhs: CSSSelector, rhs: CSSSelector) -> Bool {
    // Naïve equality that uses string comparison rather than resolving equivalent selectors
    return lhs.selector == rhs.selector

Instead, selectors are actually compared in terms of their specificity:

extension CSSSelector.Specificity: Comparable {}

// MARK: Comparable

func <(lhs: CSSSelector.Specificity, rhs: CSSSelector.Specificity) -> Bool {
    return lhs.id < rhs.id ||
        (lhs.id == rhs.id && lhs.`class` < rhs.`class`) ||
        (lhs.id == rhs.id && lhs.`class` == rhs.`class` && lhs.element < rhs.element)

// MARK: Equatable

func ==(lhs: CSSSelector.Specificity, rhs: CSSSelector.Specificity) -> Bool {
    return lhs.id == rhs.id &&
           lhs.`class` == rhs.`class` &&
           lhs.element == rhs.element

Bringing everything together:

For clarity, assume CSSSelector conforms to StringLiteralConvertible.

let a: CSSSelector = "#logo"
let b: CSSSelector = "html body #logo"
let c: CSSSelector = "body div #logo"
let d: CSSSelector = ".container #logo"

b == c // false
b.specificity == c.specificity // true
c.specificity < a.specificity // false
d.specificity > c.specificity // true


Another important protocol derived from Equatable is Hashable.

Only Hashable types can be stored as the key of a Swift Dictionary:

struct Dictionary<Key : Hashable, Value> : CollectionType, DictionaryLiteralConvertible { ... }

For a type to conform to Hashable, it must provide a getter for the hashValue property.

protocol Hashable : Equatable {
    /// Returns the hash value.  The hash value is not guaranteed to be stable
    /// across different invocations of the same program.  Do not persist the hash
    /// value across program runs.
    /// The value of `hashValue` property must be consistent with the equality
    /// comparison: if two values compare equal, they must have equal hash
    /// values.
    var hashValue: Int { get }

Determining the optimal hashing value is way outside the scope of this article. Fortunately, most values can derive an adequate hash value from an XOR of the hash values of its component properties.

The following built-in Swift types implement hashValue:

  • Double
  • Float, Float80
  • Int, Int8, Int16, Int32, Int64
  • UInt, UInt8, UInt16, UInt32, UInt64
  • String
  • UnicodeScalar
  • ObjectIdentifier

Based on this, here’s how a struct representing Binomial Nomenclature in Biological Taxonomy:

struct Binomen {
    let genus: String
    let species: String

// MARK: Hashable

extension Binomen: Hashable {
    var hashValue: Int {
        return genus.hashValue ^ species.hashValue

// MARK: Equatable

func ==(lhs: Binomen, rhs: Binomen) -> Bool {
    return lhs.genus == rhs.genus && lhs.species == rhs.species

Being able to hash this type makes it possible to key common name to the “Latin name”:

var commonNames: [Binomen: String] = [:]
commonNames[Binomen(genus: "Canis", species: "lupis")] = "Grey Wolf"
commonNames[Binomen(genus: "Canis", species: "rufus")] = "Red Wolf"
commonNames[Binomen(genus: "Canis", species: "latrans")] = "Coyote"
commonNames[Binomen(genus: "Canis", species: "aureus")] = "Golden Jackal"

Questions? Corrections? Issues and pull requests are always welcome — NSHipster is made better by readers like you.

This article uses Swift version 1.2. Find status information for all articles on the status page.

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