18 Most Important SQL Functions to Learn in 2018

Mastering the basics for a smooth start to SQL

Learning a new programing language can seem intimidating. Like any other language, a programming language has a large vocabulary that you need to master. In this article, we’ll look at some of the most important SQL functions that you need to know.

SQL is a rich language with many useful functions for working with different data types. Once you practice with some of the most important SQL functions, you’ll gain enough confidence to move on to more advanced material. Let’s examine some of these functions in greater detail.


A string is just a series of one or more characters that have been strung together. Quite simply, string functions deal with strings!


The most simple string function is length. As its name suggests, length returns the number of characters that a given string contains (including spaces and punctuation). Let’s look at a simple PostgreSQL select statement and feed it with the string ‘Hello, my name is’:

select length('Hello, my name is');

The result of running this query is 17. If you manually count the number of characters, spaces included, in the above string, you’ll find that 17 is a precise match! While length may at first seem like a trivial function, you will actually use it very frequently.


Let’s trim some fat! Simply put, the trim function eliminates excess spaces and tabs from the beginning and end of a string that we pass in as its argument. For instance, if we pass in the string ‘ Hello, my name is ‘, we will receive the same string but without all those leading and trailing spaces. Here’s a basic query with that string:

select length('  Hello, my name is  ');

As expected, the above query returns 'Hello, my name is'.


The concat function combines (concatenates) two or more strings that we pass in as its arguments. Here’s an example of string concatenation in action:

select concat(' Hello, ', 'my name is ', 'Paul');

This query returns the string 'Hello, my name is Paul'.


Given a string, upper returns the same string but with all its characters cast to uppercase. So, if you’d like everyone to hear you loud and clear, you can write the following query:

select upper('Hello, my name is Paul');

This returns the string 'HELLO, MY NAME IS PAUL'.


The function lower is the direct opposite of upper — it takes a string and returns the same string with all its characters cast to lowercase. Here’s a query that uses lower:

select lower('Hello, my name is Paul');

Predictably, we get the string 'hello, my name is paul'.


This function capitalizes the first (initial) letter of each word in a given string. For example, you can use initcap to ensure that the name someone has provided adheres to proper capitalization rules. Here’s an example of the function in use:

select initcap('paul anderson');

The result of the above query is 'Paul Anderson'.

Of course, there are many more useful string functions in SQL, like replace, substr, and others. To learn more about these, check out Vertabelo Academy’s Standard SQL Functions course!


Numerical functions simply work with numbers, and there are quite a lot of useful functions in this category. Let’s discuss a few of these.


Trimming? Abs? Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, but this isn’t a workout program. Abs is shorthand for absolute; the function calculates the absolute value of a numeric value we pass in as its argument. In other words, abs returns the positive version of a given number. Here’s an example:

select abs(-22),abs(22);

If you’ve been paying attention in math class, you’ll know that both of these calls to abs return the number 22.


The round function takes a floating-point (decimal) number and rounds it just like you normally would on paper. Take a look at this simple example:

select round(5.4),round(5.5),round(5.6);

We would get 5 (next smallest integer), 6 (next largest integer), and 6 (next largest integer), respectively, for the above three calls to round.


The ceil function returns the ceiling of a number—the first integer greater than or equal to that number. To visualize this process, place the number in question (say -0.5) on a standard number line and move left to right, searching for the next largest integer (in this case, that’s 0). Here’s an additional example:

select ceil(5.4),ceil(5.5),ceil(6);

We receive the numbers 6, 6, and 6 for these three calls.


Floor is the reverse of the ceil function; it returns the floor of the decimal number we pass in as its argument — the first integer that is less than or equal to that number. For example, the floor of -0.5 is -1, as that is the first integer that is less than -0.5. With the number line visualization, you start at the given number and move right to left in search of an integer. If we repeat the above calls with the floor function instead:

select floor(5.4),floor(5.5),floor(6);

We receive these three numbers after running the above query: 5, 5, and 6.


One of the simpler functions on this list, sign takes a number as its argument and returns -1 if the number is negative, 0 if the number is 0, and 1 if the number is positive. It’s as easy as that! Here’s an example:

select sign(-5),sign(0),sign(5);

This query returns the following numbers: -1, 0, and 1.


Mod stands for modulo, and it is a very powerful function that returns the remainder of the first argument divided by the second argument. For example, dividing 5 by 2 results in a remainder of 1. Thus, the function call mod(5, 2) returns the number 1!

The modulo operator has many useful applications, and one of its common uses is determining whether a given number is even or odd. Recall that if a number is even, the remainder of dividing that number by 2 is 0. Otherwise, the remainder is 1. Thus, given a number n, you can perform mod(n, 2) to determine whether n is even or odd!

There are many more useful numerical functions you should know, such as trunc, trigonometric, logarithmic, power, root, and more. The best place to master these is Vertabelo Academy’s Standard SQL Functions course. If you haven’t already, go ahead and check it out!


As this category’s name suggests, date functions work with dates! We’ll take a look at some of the most useful functions in this section.


First on our list is current_date, an extremely useful function that … returns the current date! Here’s an example query:

select current_date;

For us, this will return 2018-01-04.


This function allows you to extract certain parts of a date (such as the day, month, or year) that you pass in as an argument. Here’s an example of all three uses:

select extract(day from date'2017-1-1'),extract(month from date'2017-1-1'),extract(year from date'2017-1-1');

The above query returns the following three numbers: 1, 1, and 2017.


The date_trunc function truncates the values of a given date to a specific granularity. Let’s say you have a date, but you want to have only the first day of the month of that date you would truncate the date value to a ‘month’ parameter. Let’s look at an example:

select date_trunc('month',date'2017-4-2') 

This would return the date of 04-01-2017. If we would feed the year value as a granularity:

select date_trunc('year',date'2017-4-2')

We would receive the first day of the inputted year, 01-01-2017.


In addition to the functions we’ve covered so far, there are a couple miscellaneous functions that are commonly used in SQL programming.


Sometimes, you’ll come across null values when working with tabular data. These represent absent or missing information. Unfortunately, any calculation involving a null value will return null, and this is not always ideal.

The COALESCE function takes a list of arguments and returns the first of these that does not contain a value of null. In other words, if SQL finds that the first argument you provided is null, it will move on to evaluate the second argument, repeating the process until it either finds one that isn’t null or simply runs out of arguments.

For example, suppose we’re working with a table that has a numeric column named potentially_null_column. Let’s say this column has several values—some that are null and others that are not. Suppose we execute the following code:

select COALESCE(potentially_null_column, 0);

Here, the query will use a value of 0 whenever a cell in the potentially_null_column stores a value of null. For cells in that column that are not null, the query will simply use their values. This is most useful in calculations involving columns that may contain null values, as it prevents unexpected behavior. To learn more about COALESCE and its uses, check out this useful article.


Greatest takes a list of expressions and returns the largest of them. Here’s an example of it being used:

select greatest(1,2,3,5,6);

Naturally, this query returns 6, as that is the greatest value in the list we provided.


Least is the direct inverse of greatest. If we write the following query:

select least(1,2,3,5,6);

This query returns 1, as that is the smallest value in the list we provided.

Next steps

SQL offers a variety of useful functions for manipulating strings, numbers, dates, and other data types. Now that you’ve learned a bit about the basics, you should consider delving deeper into these subjects to expand on what you already know. For that, there’s simply no better place to start than Vertabelo Academy’s Standard SQL Functions course.

Data Warehouse Architect