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The PostgreSQL 9.0 Reference Manual - Volume 1A - SQL Language Reference
by The PostgreSQL Global Development Group
Paperback (6"x9"), 454 pages
ISBN 9781906966041
RRP £14.95 ($19.95)

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2.1.1 Identifiers and Key Words

Tokens such as SELECT, UPDATE, or VALUES in the example above are examples of key words, that is, words that have a fixed meaning in the SQL language. The tokens MY_TABLE and A are examples of identifiers. They identify names of tables, columns, or other database objects, depending on the command they are used in. Therefore they are sometimes simply called “names”. Key words and identifiers have the same lexical structure, meaning that one cannot know whether a token is an identifier or a key word without knowing the language. A complete list of key words can be found in appendix C SQL Key Words.

SQL identifiers and key words must begin with a letter (a-z, but also letters with diacritical marks and non-Latin letters) or an underscore (_). Subsequent characters in an identifier or key word can be letters, underscores, digits (0-9), or dollar signs ($). Note that dollar signs are not allowed in identifiers according to the letter of the SQL standard, so their use might render applications less portable. The SQL standard will not define a key word that contains digits or starts or ends with an underscore, so identifiers of this form are safe against possible conflict with future extensions of the standard.

The system uses no more than NAMEDATALEN-1 bytes of an identifier; longer names can be written in commands, but they will be truncated. By default, NAMEDATALEN is 64 so the maximum identifier length is 63 bytes. If this limit is problematic, it can be raised by changing the NAMEDATALEN constant in ‘src/include/pg_config_manual.h’.

Key words and unquoted identifiers are case insensitive. Therefore:


can equivalently be written as:

uPDaTE my_TabLE SeT a = 5;

A convention often used is to write key words in upper case and names in lower case, e.g.:

UPDATE my_table SET a = 5;

There is a second kind of identifier: the delimited identifier or quoted identifier. It is formed by enclosing an arbitrary sequence of characters in double-quotes ("). A delimited identifier is always an identifier, never a key word. So "select" could be used to refer to a column or table named “select”, whereas an unquoted select would be taken as a key word and would therefore provoke a parse error when used where a table or column name is expected. The example can be written with quoted identifiers like this:

UPDATE "my_table" SET "a" = 5;

Quoted identifiers can contain any character, except the character with code zero. (To include a double quote, write two double quotes.) This allows constructing table or column names that would otherwise not be possible, such as ones containing spaces or ampersands. The length limitation still applies.

A variant of quoted identifiers allows including escaped Unicode characters identified by their code points. This variant starts with U& (upper or lower case U followed by ampersand) immediately before the opening double quote, without any spaces in between, for example U&"foo". (Note that this creates an ambiguity with the operator &. Use spaces around the operator to avoid this problem.) Inside the quotes, Unicode characters can be specified in escaped form by writing a backslash followed by the four-digit hexadecimal code point number or alternatively a backslash followed by a plus sign followed by a six-digit hexadecimal code point number. For example, the identifier "data" could be written as


The following less trivial example writes the Russian word “slon” (elephant) in Cyrillic letters:


If a different escape character than backslash is desired, it can be specified using the UESCAPE clause after the string, for example:

U&"d!0061t!+000061" UESCAPE '!'

The escape character can be any single character other than a hexadecimal digit, the plus sign, a single quote, a double quote, or a whitespace character. Note that the escape character is written in single quotes, not double quotes.

To include the escape character in the identifier literally, write it twice.

The Unicode escape syntax works only when the server encoding is UTF8. When other server encodings are used, only code points in the ASCII range (up to \007F) can be specified. Both the 4-digit and the 6-digit form can be used to specify UTF-16 surrogate pairs to compose characters with code points larger than U+FFFF, although the availability of the 6-digit form technically makes this unnecessary. (When surrogate pairs are used when the server encoding is UTF8, they are first combined into a single code point that is then encoded in UTF-8.)

Quoting an identifier also makes it case-sensitive, whereas unquoted names are always folded to lower case. For example, the identifiers FOO, foo, and "foo" are considered the same by PostgreSQL, but "Foo" and "FOO" are different from these three and each other. (The folding of unquoted names to lower case in PostgreSQL is incompatible with the SQL standard, which says that unquoted names should be folded to upper case. Thus, foo should be equivalent to "FOO" not "foo" according to the standard. If you want to write portable applications you are advised to always quote a particular name or never quote it.)

ISBN 9781906966041The PostgreSQL 9.0 Reference Manual - Volume 1A - SQL Language ReferenceSee the print edition