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RETURNING

1. Overview

returning-clause:

RETURNING expr AS column-alias * ,

expr:

The RETURNING clause is not a statement itself, but a clause that can optionally appear near the end of top-level DELETE, INSERT, and UPDATE statements. The effect of the RETURNING clause is to cause the statement to return one result row for each database row that is deleted, inserted, or updated. RETURNING is not standard SQL. It is an extension. SQLite's syntax for RETURNING is modelled after PostgreSQL.

The RETURNING syntax has been supported by SQLite since version 3.35.0 (2021-03-12).

1.1. Typical Use

The RETURNING clause is designed to provide the application with the values of columns that are filled in automatically by SQLite. For example:

CREATE TABLE t0(
  a INTEGER PRIMARY KEY,
  b DATE DEFAULT CURRENT_TIMESTAMP,
  c INTEGER
);
INSERT INTO t0(c) VALUES(random()) RETURNING *;

In the INSERT statement above, SQLite computes the values for all three columns. The RETURNING clause causes SQLite to report the chosen values back to the application. This saves the application from having to issue a separate query to figure out exactly what values were inserted.

2. Details

The RETURNING clause is followed by a comma-separated list of expressions. These expressions are similar to the expressions following the SELECT keyword in a SELECT statement in that they define the values of the columns in the result set. Each expression defines the value for a single column. Each expression may be optionally followed by an AS clause that determines the name of the result column. The special "*" expression expands into a list of all non-hidden columns of the table being deleted, inserted, or updated.

For INSERT and UPDATE statements, references to columns in the table being modified refer to the value of that column after the change has been applied. For DELETE statements, references to columns mean the value before the delete occurs.

The RETURNING clause only returns rows that are directly modified by the DELETE, INSERT, or UPDATE statement. The RETURNING clause does not report any additional database changes caused by foreign key constraints or triggers.

A RETURNING clause for an UPSERT reports both inserted and updated rows.

2.1. Processing Order

When a DELETE, INSERT, or UPDATE statement with a RETURNING clause is run, all of the database changes occur during the first invocation of sqlite3_step(). The RETURNING clause output is accumulated in memory. The first sqlite3_step() call returns one row of RETURNING output and subsequent rows of RETURNING output are returned by subsequent calls to sqlite3_step(). To put this another way, all RETURNING clause output is embargoed until after all database modification actions are completed.

This means that if a statement has a RETURNING clause that generates a large amount of output, either many rows or large string or BLOB values, then the statement might use a lot of temporary memory to hold those values while it is running.

The first prototype of the RETURNING clause returned values as they were generated. That approach used less memory, but it had other problems:

  1. If the calls sqlite3_step() for two or more DML statements where interleaved and if one of the statements hit a constraint failure and aborted, reverting its changes, then that could disrupt the operation of the other DML statement. This could not corrupt the database file, but it could yield surprising and difficult-to-explain results in the database.

  2. If an application failed to call sqlite3_step() repeatedly until it received SQLITE_DONE, then some of the database changes might never occur.

  3. The order of operations was different from client/server database engines like PostgreSQL, which might cause portability issues for some applications.

For these reasons, the current implementation was modified so that all database changes happen before any RETURNING output is emitted.

While SQLite does guarantee that all database changes will occur before any RETURNING output is emitted, it does not guarantee that the order of individual RETURNING rows will match the order in which those rows were changed in the database. The output order for the RETURNING rows is arbitrary and is not necessarily related to the order in which the rows were processed internally.

3. Limitations And Caveats

  1. The RETURNING clause is not available on DELETE and UPDATE statements against virtual tables. This limitation might be removed in future versions of SQLite.

  2. The RETURNING clause is only available in top-level DELETE, INSERT, and UPDATE statements. The RETURNING clause cannot be used by statements within triggers.

  3. Even though a DML statement with a RETURNING clause returns table content, it cannot be used as a subquery. The RETURNING clause can only return data to the application. It is not currently possible to divert the RETURNING output into another table or query. PostgreSQL has the ability to use a DML statement with a RETURNING clause like a view in a common table expressions. SQLite does not currently have that ability, though that is something that might be added in a future release.

  4. The rows emitted by the RETURNING clause appear in an arbitrary order. That order might change depending on the database schema, upon the specific release of SQLite used, or even from one execution of the same statement to the next. There is no way to cause the output rows to appear in a particular order. Even if SQLite is compiled with the SQLITE_ENABLE_UPDATE_DELETE_LIMIT option such that ORDER BY clauses are allowed on DELETE and UPDATE statements, those ORDER BY clauses do not constrain the output order of RETURNING.

  5. The values emitted by the RETURNING clause are the values as seen by the top-level DELETE, INSERT, or UPDATE statement and do not reflect any subsequent value changes made by triggers. Thus, if the database includes AFTER triggers that modifies some of the values of each row inserted or updated, the RETURNING clause emits the original values that are computed before those triggers run.

  6. The RETURNING clause may not contain top-level aggregate functions or window functions. If there are subqueries in the RETURNING clause, those subqueries may contain aggregates and window functions, but aggregates cannot occur at the top level.

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