Oracle Scratchpad

December 21, 2020

Why Why Why Why?

Filed under: Infrastructure,Oracle,Troubleshooting — Jonathan Lewis @ 2:24 pm GMT Dec 21,2020

Here’s a little puzzle – and if you don’t see the answer almost immediately you did need to read this note. The question comes from a thread on the Oracle Groundbreakers’ Forum –

“Why I am getting 0020 instead of 2020 for below query?”

select to_char(to_date(sysdate,'dd-mm-yyyy'),'iyyy') from dual.

Instead of sysdate if I give date like ‘5-dec-2020’ it’s giving correct. Any ideas why iso value for sysdate year is coming as 0020?

There are many things that people do wrong with dates and many ways in which Oracle tries to help so I’ll start with a general-purpose reminder: Oracle supplies a “date” datatype, if you want to store dates, compare dates, or do date arithmetic make sure you are using the date datatype.

(Technically, of course, Oracle’s date datatype is actually a “date with time to nearest second” type, so there are a couple of details you need to remember to avoid running into surprises that are due to the presence of the time component – for example you might use a constraint like “check(date_col = trunc(date_col)” to enforce date-only values for a column.)

Sysdate is a date, and the function to_date() expects its first parameter to be a character string; so Oracle implicitly converts sysdate to a character type with the to_char() function before it does anything else and it uses the session’s nls_date_format parameter to supply the formatting string. On my instance this parameter has the value ‘DD-MON-RR’ (an option created in an attempt to work around the “Y2K” problem – which some of you will remember).

So sysdate was converted (on the day the question was asked) to the character string ’10-DEC-20′, and when the to_date() function call tried to convert this back to a date type using the explicitly supplied format dd-mm-yyyy Oracle used leading zeros to pad the 2-digit year to a 4-digit year which made the year 0020 which is exactly what the OP saw.


To correct this code, take out the call to to_date().

SQL> select to_char(to_date(sysdate,'dd-mm-yyyy'),'iyyy') from dual;


SQL> select to_char(sysdate,'iyyy') from dual;


If you can’t correct the code then you might be able to work around the error by setting the nls_date_format to a more appropriate value. In fact the nls_date_format is one of those parameters that you probably ought to change from its default value the moment you set up your database. It’s just rather scary to do so if you’re running a system that has been around for a few years and may (accidentally) include some code that depends on the default setting to get the right answers or best execution plans.

SQL> alter session set nls_date_format='dd-Mon-yyyy';
SQL> select to_char(to_date(sysdate,'dd-mm-yyyy'),'iyyy') from dual;


SQL>  alter session set nls_date_format='dd-Mon-rrrr';
SQL> select to_char(to_date(sysdate,'dd-mm-yyyy'),'iyyy') from dual;


SQL> alter session set nls_date_format='dd-Mon-yyyy';
SQL> select to_date('01-Dec-20','dd-mm-rrrr') from dual;


SQL> select to_date('01-Dec-50','dd-mm-rrrr') from dual;


I’ve included a couple of examples using the ‘rrrr’ (or ‘RRRR’) format for the year component. Oracle introduced the ‘RR’ format over 20 years ago as a best-guess workaround to Y2K problem. The two-character ‘RR’ format means values between 50 and 99 imply previous century, and values between 00 and 49 imply current century (as show in the last two simpler examples). It’s an option that should have been deprecated within a few years of its introduction and desupported soon after, but the terrible inertia of IT juggernaut means it’s still around. If you’re worried about the impact of changing your nls_date_format from ‘dd-mon-RR’ to ‘dd-Mon-yyyy’ you may feel a little safer switching to ‘dd-Mon-RRRR’ – whatever you do, though, you’ll almost certainly find examples where the code misbehaves because of the side-effects of the change in formatting.

One tiny detail you might have noticed in the original posting is that the user tested their code with the literal value ‘5-Dec-2020’, and got the result they wanted even though the format they had used to convert from character to date was ‘dd-mm-yyyy’. Oracle tries quite hard to cope with date conversions, as Connor McDonald pointed out several years ago.

While we’re on the topic of conversion it’s worth revisiting my comment about the date type including a time component. I’ve often seen expressions like to_date(to_char(sysdate,’dd-mon-yyyy’)) being used to ensure that a date that might include a time component is reduced to a “date-only” value (although that really means the time-component is “00:00:00”). If you need only the date component it’s far better to use trunc(date_expression) rather than this double type-conversion; there’s probably not a lot of savings in terms of simple CPU-usage, but (a) you might as well take it and (b) you might be able to give the optimizer a chance of getting a better cardinality estimate hence a better execution plan.


  • sysdate is a date type, don’t try to use to_date() on it.
  • to_char(date_expression) will use the nls_date_format value if you haven’t supplied an explicit format string so you should always include an explicitly chosen format expression in the call.
  • The nls_date_format defaults to a value that is bad on two counts: it expects a 2-digit year and uses RR rather than YY. You should be using four digits for the year, and the only argument for using RRRR is if you are temporarily in transition from RR to YYYY.

To misquote Napolean (the pig, Animal Farm): “4 Y’s good, 2 Y’s bad”. And it’s not going to change to “4 Y’s good, 2 Y’s better”.


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