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Tuesday, May 16, 2023 11:00 AM

TSQL Concatenation + operator vs CONCAT vs CONCAT_WS

Written by Jim McGrath, HIS Programmer / Analyst, iatricSystems

RWS_Blog_ConcatConcatenation in TSQL is often handled using the + operator. However, using + for concatenation requires the coder to account for data types and NULLs.

There’s also the CONCAT function (released with SQL Server 2012), and the CONCAT_WS function (released in 2017). Both offer advantages over the + operator in terms of NULLS and cleaner code, but require a few considerations:

  • The + operator CONCAT concatenates a list of values.
  • CONCAT can accept up to 254 arguments.
  • Nulls are converted to empty strings and data types that can be implicitly converted to a string type are converted.

In General:

Returned Data Type: nvarchar(max)

  Any argument of:

  • SQL-CLR system type
  • nvarchar(max)

Returned Data Type: varchar(max)

  Any argument of:

  • varbinary(max)
  • varchar(max)

Exception: If any parameter is an nvarchar of any length, returns nvarchar(max)

Returned Data Type: nvarchar(<= 4000)

  Any argument of:

  • nvarchar(<= 4000)

Returned Data Type: varchar(<= 8000)

  Any argument of:

  • varchar(<= 8000)

Exception: If any parameter is an nvarchar of any length, returns nvarchar(max)

Implicit conversions follow the rules of conversion. Be aware of the implicit conversion of data and time data. For example:

      @d1 DATETIME = GETDATE()
      ,@d2 DATE
      ,@d3 VARCHAR(10)
      ,@t1 TIME = GETDATE()

SET @d2 = @d1;
SET @d3 = CONVERT(VARCHAR(10),@d1,101);

SELECT CONCAT('A ',@d1,' | ',@d2,' | ',@d3,' | ',@t1);


A Jan 2 2023 5:14AM | 2023-01-02 | 05:14:28 | 05:14:28.7033333


CONCAT_WS takes a first argument as a single character delimiter which is applied between all following parameters. NULLs are ignored. If delimiters indicate no values are needed, ensure that any nulls are replaced with empty strings.

           @last VARCHAR(30) = 'Edison'
       ,@middle VARCHAR(30) = NULL
       ,@first VARCHAR(30) = 'Thomas'

SELECT CONCAT_WS(SPACE(1),@first,@middle,@last);

Returns: Thomas Edison

SELECT CONCAT_WS('|',@first,@middle,@last);

Returns: Thomas|Edison

SELECT CONCAT_WS('|',COALESCE(@first,''),COALESCE(@middle,''),COALESCE(@last,''));

Returns: Thomas||Edison

Need quotes around the text fields as well? Use QUOTENAME


Returns: "Thomas"|""|"Edison"

That’s Better


Returns: "Thomas"||"Edison"

So which method is best?

All three choices have advantages and drawbacks. If you are working on a version earlier than 2012, CONCAT is not available (and you should really be thinking about an upgrade).

For SQL 2012 – 2016, CONCAT may present cleaner code and has the advantage of handling NULLS and implicit datatype conversions gracefully.

For 2017+, CONCAT_WS may be a cleaner option for handling delimited output.


Executing a stored procedure using the WITH RESULT SETS to define columns for an SSIS package allows SSIS to see the columns that may be masked by temp tables in the stored procedure. However, it can make the procedure call very wordy and complex.

One way to simplify this is to define the procedure result set as a single column with each row the complete delimited record. UNION can be used to also output a header row. This makes the WITH RESULT SET clause very short.

If including a header row, you must use ORDER BY to guarantee that the header row is the first in the result set.

WITH Outfile AS
       1 AS RowNum
     ,CONCAT_WS(‘|’,’FirstName’,’MiddleName’,’LastName’) AS Record
       2 AS ROWNUM
       ,CONCAT_WS(‘,’,value1,value2,value3) AS Record


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CONCAT (Transact-SQL)
Rules of Conversion