Writing Functional SQL in PostreSQL: Don't do it

During some recent PostgreSQL rabbit hole digging I discovered the concept of ‘functional query notation’ and it mildly blew my mind.

The Question

Assuming we have two tables:

  1. contacts table having columns: id and name
  2. conversations table having columns: id and contact_id (FK to contacts.id)

The following two queries return the same data:

dot notation (pretty typical):

  SELECT contacts.name, contacts.id, conversations.id
  FROM contacts
  INNER JOIN conversations
  ON contacts.id = conversations.contact_id;


functional notation (pretty atypical):

  SELECT contacts.name, contacts.id, conversations.id
  FROM contacts
  INNER JOIN conversations
  ON id(contacts) = contact_id(conversations);

This second approach raised some questions:

I asked these questions on StackOverflow and I will summarize my findings here.

Why and how?

First of all, it works. That point is interesting in itself. The next idea to wrap your head around is that using the functional notation approach considers the column names (id and contact_id in the example above) to be functions. Why does it make sense that we can essentially alias column names to be functions?

We can think of functions as an operation (or query) that given an input X is guaranteed to return Y (assuming the underlying data is unchanged). Think of a SUM(). Adding 1 plus 2 is always 3. It’s the same way with columns (again assuming constant data). If I ask for all the conversations with a contact_id of 1, I will always get the same set of records back. Bam, columns are functions. Check out this article from the docs for an example of how to write a custom function.

Is this syntax in the SQL standard or in only PostgreSQL?

Neither StackOverflow community members nor I could find any reference to this functional notation in the SQL standard so the answer seems to be no. Functional notation of this type is an extension of the standard and implemented only in PostgreSQL.

Is it performant? If so, why is it not used more widely?

In short, yes, but this notation can be confusing to developers and there are potential name collisions with column names and function names so it is not widely used.

Wrapping up

Do you use functional notation in your day to day? If so feel free to jump into the thread to add more detail or understanding.