Oracle Scratchpad

April 13, 2021


Filed under: Infrastructure,Oracle,Problem Solving — Jonathan Lewis @ 3:00 pm BST Apr 13,2021

An old question with a little extra twist came up on the Oracle Developer forum recently – someone wanted to export a table into a CSV file but wanted to do a character set conversion at the same time because various “non-printable” characters were getting corrupted.

Looking at the code they had supplied they were running from SQL*Plus and were trying to use a select statement to generate a script that, for each row in a table, produced a statement of the form:

insert into tableX({list of columns}) values({list of values});

This worked reasonably well when they didn’t attempt to get a UTF8 output, but when they modified their client O/S environment to make SQL*Plus produce the desired UTF8 output the operation was much slower, increasing from about 1 minute to more than half an hour. (This may simply be the overhead of SQL*Net translating each line of output from the server character set to the client character set.)

Since the system in question was running on 12.2 I suggested a change of strategy so that they could at least take advantage of a built-in CSV generator to see how this behaved. Oracle extended the “set markup” command in 12c to include a CSV option:

set markup csv on delimiter {character} quote on

If this behaves nicely with the user’s attempt to get the output in their chosen characterset then a change in strategy to generate a “proper” CSV file and reload it through an external table, rather than generating and executing a list of “insert ….” statements might do a lot less work. (Unfortunately they had a requirement to generate the insert statements rather than adopting this bulk strategy – but I wasn’t going to let that stop me finishing this note.)

One detail to note with this markup option is that, unlike the “delimiter” character, the “quote” character cannot be specified and will always be the double-quote (ASCII character 34). If this character appears in any of the reported strings Oracle will “escape” it by duplicating it. Here’s a little example to demonstrate the effects – first a little data with a basic output (running

rem     Script:         markup.csv.sql
rem     Author:         Jonathan Lewis
rem     Dated:          Sep 2020

create table t1 (v1 varchar2(10), n1 number, n2 number, v2 varchar2(10));

insert into t1 values('abcdef',1,1,'qwer');
insert into t1 values('abc"def',2,null,'asdf');
insert into t1 values (null,3,3,null);


prompt  ==================
prompt  markup not yet set
prompt  ==================

select * from t1;

V1                 N1         N2 V2
---------- ---------- ---------- ----------
abcdef              1          1 qwer
abc"def             2            asdf
                    3          3

3 rows selected.

I’ve included one row with a double-quote in one of the columns, and a couple of rows with NULLs in various columns. Now I just switch markup to CSV using its default options:

prompt  ==================
prompt  Default CSV markup
prompt  ==================

set markup csv on
select * from t1;


3 rows selected.

As you can see this has behaved nicely – every column is present (even when empty – judging by the number of delimiters) and character strings have been quoted with the double-quote character, and the stored double-quote in the second row has been duplicated. The default option for CSV should be nearly perfect for use as an extrernal table – though we probably want to get rid of column headings, page breaks, and feedback etc.

Before creating a suitable external table, let’s play around with a couple of variations for the options:

prompt  ===========
prompt  delimiter =
prompt  ===========

set heading off
set pagesize 0
set feedback off

set markup csv on delimiter =
select * from t1;


prompt  ================================
prompt  quote off (delimiter remembered)
prompt  ================================

set markup csv on quote off
select * from t1;


Now to read back one of the outputs – I’ll pick the default output for this (but with headers etc. off to leave just three lines of data). Here’s how I can define my external table to read back the values from the file:

create or replace directory ext_tab as '/mnt/working/';
create or replace directory ext_log as '/mnt/working/';

create table ext(
        v1 varchar2(10), 
        n1 number, 
        n2 number, 
        v2 varchar2(10)
organization external(
        type oracle_loader
        default directory ext_tab
        access parameters (
                records delimited by newline 
                discardfile     ext_log:'exttab_dis.txt'
                badfile         ext_log:'exttab_bad.txt'
                logfile         ext_log:'exttab_log.txt'
                with embedded
        missing field values are null
        location ('markup_csv.lst')
reject limit 10

select * from ext;

V1                 N1         N2 V2
---------- ---------- ---------- ----------
abcdef              1          1 qwer
abc"def             2            asdf
                    3          3

3 rows selected.

I’ve created a couple of directories to get started – linking a physical location to a logical name that I can use in the external table definition.

The key details that allow Oracle to read the file correctly appear in the “fields” specification: it’s a pity that the output from the default CSV markup doesn’t become the default expectation for the external table CSV option, but I needed to use the “with embedded” to adjust the duplicated “double-quote” characters and then add “missing field values are null” to cope with a null column at the end of the line.


With a simple call to “set markup csv on” (and a handful of other set {formatting} commands) it’s very easy to turn a table into a flat CSV file that is comma separated, (double)quote deliminted.

It’s then very easy – but requires two non-default settings – to read this flat file back into an Oracle database using “fields CSV” as the basic formatting directive.


I’ve kept the example very simple, but as soon as you start dealing with dates and timestamps – and even very large numbers – you’ll have to worry about formatting when generate the flat file (set nls_date_format, column n1 format 99999, etc.) to make sure you don’t lose precision on the output; and for dates and timestamps you’ll have to include the equivalent date_format options in the external table definition.

I’ve only demonstrated how to reload the file back into Oracle as an external table. If you wanted to use this markup option to prepare the data for an Excel spreadsheet all you have to do is spool to a file with the “.csv” extension and Excel will be able to open the output file and parse the data correctly into a multi-column display. (But see comment #1 below for a warning from Jason Bucata.)


  1. Since you mentioned Excel and CSVs (and UTF-8), I recently found that if you double-click a CSV file from Windows Explorer it will assume an American character set (probably Latin-1 or whatever they might call it now). If you make use of UTF-8 for non-Latin characters they will be corrupted.

    But, if you launch Excel directly, then use “File | Open” to open the file, the Text Import Wizard comes up and it now has a dropdown for choosing the character set, so you can pick “65001 : Unicode (UTF-8)” and then everything gets imported properly.

    I recently found this on an Oracle project where Asian character sets were involved.

    (I should point out that we use Office 365, so if you have a traditional standalone installation of Excel, I can’t promise that it behaves the same.)

    Comment by Jason Bucata — April 26, 2021 @ 11:02 pm BST Apr 26,2021 | Reply

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