Chapter 34 – Sorting Search Results

In SQL, you can only sort search results returned by a Cursor. However, when you’re using Direct SQL, you’re always using an implied Cursor, and so we’ll describe the ORDER BY clause now.

Table of Contents


The required syntax for the ORDER BY clause is:

<query expression> [ ORDER BY <sort specification list> ]

   <sort specification list> ::=
   <sort specification> [ {,<sort specification> }... ]

      <sort specification> ::=
      <sort key> [ COLLATE <Collation name> ] [ {ASC | DESC} ]

         <sort key> ::= scalar_expression

An ORDER BY clause may optionally appear after a <query expression>: it specifies the order rows should have when returned from that query (if you omit the clause, your DBMS will return the rows in some random order). The query in question may, of course, be a VALUES statement, a TABLE statement or (most commonly) a SELECT statement. (For now, we are ignoring the possibility that the SQL statement is DECLARE CURSOR, since that is strictly a matter for “SQL in Host Programs”, a later chapter.)

The ORDER BY clause provides your DBMS with a list of items to sort, and the order in which to sort them: either ascending order (ASC, the default) or descending order (DESC). It must follow a <query expression> because it operates on the final Table that results from the evaluation of the query; it cannot operate on any interim result Tables at all. The <sort key> you specify can be any expression that evaluates to a single value that identifies a Column of the final result Table – this is almost always a <Column name>. Here’s a simple example:

SELECT   column_1
FROM     Table_1
ORDER BY column_1;

This SQL statement retrieves all COLUMN_1 values from TABLE_1, returning them in ascending order. This SQL statement does exactly the same:

SELECT   column_1
FROM     Table_1
ORDER BY column_1 ASC;

This SQL statement also retrieves all COLUMN_1 values from TABLE_1 – but returns them in descending order:

SELECT   column_1
FROM     Table_1
ORDER BY column_1 DESC;

The optional sort <keyword>s ASC and DESC stand respectively for “ascending order” and “descending order”. Some examples of ascending order are {1,2,3} and {'A','B','C'}; examples of descending order are {3,2,1} and {'C','B','A'}. If you omit the sort <keyword>, it defaults to ASC.

Note that, because ORDER BY may operate only on a final result, you can’t put it in a subquery or before a set function – that is, these two SQL statements are illegal:

SELECT column_1
FROM   Table_1
WHERE  column_1 > ANY
     (SELECT   column_1
      FROM     Table_2
      ORDER BY column2);

SELECT   column_1
FROM     Table_1
ORDER BY column_1
SELECT   column_1
FROM    Table_2;

An ORDER BY <sort key> is normally the name of a Column in the query’s select list. It cannot be a <literal> – the SQL-92 option of putting an integer after ORDER BY, to identify a Column by its ordinal position in the result Table, is not allowed in SQL3. The <sort key> can, however, be an expression that evaluates to a Column of the result Table (even if that Column isn’t in the select list). Since this is the case, it is useful to remember that such Column expressions may be given explicit names using “[AS <Column name>]” clauses. The “[AS <Column name>]” clause can also be useful for “unioned” SELECTs. For example:

SELECT   column_1 AS column_1_or_column_2
FROM     Table_1
SELECT   column_2 AS column_1_or_column_2
FROM     Table_2
ORDER BY column_1_or_column_2;

Whatever way you identify the result Columns you want to sort though, they may not have a <data type> of BLOB, CLOB or NCLOB. For a <sort key> with a character string <data type>, you may also specify an explicit Collation for your DBMS to use when sorting that Column’s values.

If ORDER BY contains multiple <sort key>s, the primary ordering is by the first <sort key>, the secondary ordering is by the second <sort key> and so on – this is called major-to-minor ordering. For example, here’s an extract from a telephone book:

Dunbar L 11407 141 Ave 456-4478
Duncan J 9419 101A Ave 423-0541
Duncan J 14705 103 Ave 452-9565
Duncan J 4911 40 Ave 450-6289
Duncan L 9110 150 St 486-2075

As one would expect in a telephone book, the entries are sorted (a) by surname and then (b) by first initial. In SQL, this order would be accomplished with a SELECT statement like this one:

SELECT   surname, initial, address, phone
FROM     Clients
ORDER BY surname, initial;

Sorting NULLs

It isn’t usually possible to make meaningful comparisons with null values, so the following comparison rules are applicable only in the context of an ORDER BY clause:

  • A NULL is “equal” to a NULL for sorting purposes.
  • [NON-PORTABLE] Either a NULL is greater than all non-null values or a NULL is less than all non-null values – it’s non-standard because the SQL Standard requires implementors to define whether NULLs sort high or low. Most vendors say “NULLs are greater than all non-null values” – in this case, a Table with these rows: {7,5,-1,NULL} will end up in this order: {-1,5,7,NULL} if you ask for an ascending sort.

[OCELOT Implementation] The OCELOT DBMS that comes with this book sorts NULLs low: a NULL is less than all non-null values.

The Effect of DESC

We’ve already said that if you put the <keyword> DESC after a <sort key>, the ordering will be reversed for that <sort key>. Unfortunately, we have to belabor what appears to be an obvious and simple fact, because some pundits have mis-stated it. The following statements, taken from SQL books available at your book store, are drivel:

  • DESC is a sticky flag, so if you say “ORDER BY a DESC, b” then both a and b will appear in descending order.” If anyone knows how this myth got started, please write to us: we’re curious.
  • “If a vendor says that NULLs are greater than non-NULLs, then (for standard SQL) they should appear last, even if DESC is specified.” In other words – taking the example we used in the last section – if you asked for an ascending sort of a Table with these rows: {7,5,-1,NULL}, you’d get {- 1,5,7,NULL} and if you asked for a descending sort you’d get {7,5,-1,NULL}. In fact, standard SQL requires that the descending result be what a sane person would expect: {NULL,7,5,-1}.

Deprecated SQL-92 Syntax

The following examples, taken from real working programs, illustrate syntax that you should avoid or change for SQL3.

SELECT   E.dept FROM Employees E
WHERE    age < 21
ORDER BY E.dept;

Get rid of any <Column reference>s in an ORDER BY clause – the actual name of the Column in the select list is merely DEPT, despite appearances. Use an AS clause to give the Column another name if there is resulting ambiguity.

SELECT   balance, (balance - amount) FROM Accounts
ORDER BY 1, 2;

Get rid of any Column ordinal position references in an ORDER BY clause – using ordinals as Column numbers is frowned on by SQL-92 and banned by SQL3. Again, the solution is to use an AS clause, so the Columns have explicit names – for example:

SELECT    balance, (balance - amount) AS balance_minus_amount
FROM     Accounts
ORDER BY balance, balance_minus_amount;

SQL3 features

These three SQL statements, which are illegal in SQL-92, are legal in SQL3:

SELECT   column_1 FROM Table_1
ORDER BY column_2;

The <sort key> COLUMN_2 is not in the select list, but it does belong to TABLE_1 so this type of ORDER BY works, provided that the query does not contain DISTINCT, a grouped Table, a set function or a set operator.

SELECT   column_1 + 5 FROM Table_1
ORDER BY column_1 + 5;

The <sort key> “COLUMN_1 + 5” is an unnamed value expression, but this type of ORDER BY is legal because “COLUMN_1 + 5” appears in the query’s select list. Your DBMS will find it by comparing the expressions, rather than comparing <Column name>s.

SELECT   char_column FROM Table_1
ORDER BY char_column COLLATE Schema_1.Polish;

The COLLATE clause specified for the <sort key> overrides whatever default Collation CHAR_COLUMN has.

Essentially, these SQL3 “features” let you write sloppy code. We advise that you stick with the SQL-92 rule that all <sort key>s must be names of Columns in the result select list. These three SQL statements, equivalent to the ones we’ve just shown you, are better code – and are legal in both SQL-92 and SQL3:

SELECT   column_1, column_2 FROM Table_1
ORDER BY column_2;

SELECT   column_1 + 5 AS column_1_plus_5 FROM Table_1
ORDER BY column_1_plus_5;

SELECT   column_1 COLLATE Schema_1.Polish AS colpolish FROM Table_1
ORDER BY colpolish;

Sorted Retrievals

Here’s some examples of sorted retrievals, using the sample database we defined in our chapter on “Simple Search Conditions”. To retrieve an alphabetical list of departments, either of these SQL statements will work:

SELECT dept FROM Department ORDER BY dept ASC;

SELECT dept FROM Department ORDER BY dept;

The result is:


ORDER BY defaults to a sort in ascending order when no sort order is specified.

To retrieve departments in descending order:

SELECT dept FROM Department ORDER BY dept DESC;

This time, the result is:


To find an alphabetic list of employee names grouped by their departments sorted in descending order (retrieve multiple Columns with nested sort levels):

SELECT dept,surname FROM Employee ORDER BY dept DESC,surname;

The result is:


To find employee numbers and rates for employees with employee numbers less than 20, and to sort these by employee number within descending pay rate order, within descending location order:

SELECT   empnum,rate,location FROM Payroll WHERE empnum<20
ORDER BY location DESC,rate DESC,empnum;

The result is:

10 16.00 16TH FLOOR
11 16.00 16TH FLOOR
2 5.00 16TH FLOOR
1 6.00 10TH FLOOR

To sort employee numbers in descending order within the daily pay rate:

SELECT   empnum,'Daily Rate=' AS comment, RATE*8 AS d_rate  FROM Payroll
ORDER BY d_rate,empnum DESC;

The result is:

3 Daily Rate= 40.00
2 Daily Rate= 40.00
1 Daily Rate= 48.00
4 Daily Rate= 64.00
35 Daily Rate= 72.00
20 Daily Rate= 72.00
40 Daily Rate= 128.00
11 Daily Rate= 128.00
10 Daily Rate= 128.00
28 Daily Rate= NULL


All SQL DBMSs support the ORDER BY clause. Some of them even allow the “ORDER BY <expression>” syntax described above as an SQL3 feature, or some variant thereof – we expect they all will fairly soon.