A common task when selecting data from a
database is to take a set of values a query returns and format it
as a comma delimited list. Another task that’s almost as common is
the need to do the reverse: Take a comma delimited list of values
in a single string and use it as a table of values.

Many scripting languages, such as Perl and
Python, provide functions that do this with their own
language-specific list of values; so it’s surprising that, as of
yet, this functionality isn’t a standard part of SQL functions.
I’ve seen some pretty ugly looking code that involved complex
declarations with MAX and DECODE, but that solution usually only
returns a limited set of values. With some of the new Oracle9i and above features, it’s
possible to do this yourself.

I’d like to use a “join” functionality to
specify a query that returns a single column and a delimiter, and
then receive a simple string that contains a list of those values
separated by my delimiter. The query part can be passed to the
function as a REF CURSOR using the new SQL CURSOR function. The
delimiter should default to a comma, since that is the most
commonly used delimiter. So, the syntax should be:

SQL> select join(cursor(select ename from emp))
from dual;


The following code will perform this

create or replace function join
    p_cursor sys_refcursor,
    p_del varchar2 := ‘,’
) return varchar2
    l_value   varchar2(32767);

    l_result  varchar2(32767);
        fetch p_cursor
into l_value;
        exit when
        if l_result is not
null then
:= l_result || p_del;
        end if;
        l_result :=
l_result || l_value;
    end loop;
    return l_result;
end join;
show errors;

The PL/SQL User’s Guide says you always have to
declare a package that defines a ref cursor; however, the database
already defines this as SYS_REFCURSOR in the STANDARD package. The
PL/SQL code should be fairly straightforward. There is a limit of
32,767 characters on the output string and the input column.

Since all datatypes can be automatically
converted to character strings, you can use any datatype in the
cursor–as long as it’s one column. For example:

SQL> select join(cursor(select
trunc(hiredate,’month’) from emp),’|’) from


There’s another extra benefit. Since the cursor is part of the SQL statement, you can easily join the query inside the join with the outer query. Here is a query that returns each
table and a list of the columns that make up its primary key:

SQL> select table_name,join(cursor(select
column_name from user_cons_columns
constraint_name = user_constraints.constraint_name
by position)) columns
       from user_constraints where
constraint_type = ‘P’;

View the output in Table A.

You can also use this “join” function to
compare two sets of ordered data. For example, the following query
will check that an index has been created on a foreign key (which
helps prevent locking the table and aids master-detail

column status format a7
column table_name format a30
column columns format a40 word_wrapped

select decode(indexes.table_name,null,’missing’,’ok’)

    (select table_name,



constraint_name = user_constraints.constraint_name
       where constraint_type =
       ) constraints,
    (select table_name, index_name,


index_name = user_indexes.index_name
      from user_indexes)
    where constraints.table_name =
indexes.table_name (+)
      and constraints.columns =
indexes.columns (+);

This query works by executing two subqueries:
one that queries foreign keys and another that queries indexes. The
join between these two queries is on the table name and the list of
columns used in creating the foreign key and the index, taken as an
ordered list of values.

We’d also like the reverse functionality: to
have the ability to take a single comma-delimited value and treat
it as if it were a column in a table. We can take advantage of the
TABLE SQL function and PL/SQL function tables to do this quite
easily, but first, we must define the result type to be a TABLE
type of the largest possible string.

create or replace type split_tbl as table of
show errors;

create or replace function split
    p_list varchar2,
    p_del varchar2 := ‘,’
) return split_tbl pipelined
    l_idx    pls_integer;

    l_list    varchar2(32767)
:= p_list;
    l_value    varchar2(32767);

        l_idx :=
        if l_idx > 0
:= substr(l_list,l_idx+length(p_del));


        end if;
    end loop;
end split;
show errors;

With this function, I can run a query like

SQL> select * from


The PL/SQL procedure will parse its argument
and return each part through a PIPELINE; the TABLE function allows
it to be used in the FROM statement, so it appears to SQL as if it
is a table with one column and three rows. (Remember that the
column being returned is named COLUMN_VALUE if you want to use the
value elsewhere.)

Here’s an example query, which shows a dynamic
IN condition in a query. The split function generates a table of
values, which can be used on a row-by-row basis.

SQL> select ename from emp
      where to_char(hiredate,’YY’)
         in (select
column_value from table(split(‘81,82’)));

View the output in Table B.

If you want, you can join a column and then
split it, too:

SQL> select * from
table(split(join(cursor(select ename from emp))));

And, you can use this method to merge sets of

create table t(a varchar2(200));
insert into t values(‘81,82’);
insert into t values(‘84,85’);

SQL> select * from table(split(join(cursor(select a from


These are just simple example functions. You
could extend join to enclose values in quotes and escape quotes
inside the values. You could extend split to allow a REF CURSOR
parameter instead of a single VARCHAR2, so it could split up sets
of columns as well.

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