Adding Spice to Your Data: Techniques for Extending ENUM Types in PostgreSQL


ENUM Types in PostgreSQL

  • ENUM types represent a set of predefined, fixed values used for data consistency and validation.
  • They are often used to model choices or options in a database schema.

Adding a New Value

PostgreSQL provides a convenient ALTER TYPE command to add new values to an existing ENUM type. Here's the syntax:

ALTER TYPE <enum_type_name> ADD VALUE '<new_value_label>';
  • <enum_type_name>: Replace with the actual name of your ENUM type.
  • <new_value_label>: Replace with the textual label you want to assign to the new value. This label must be enclosed in single quotes (').


Imagine you have an ENUM type named shirt_size with values 'small', 'medium', and 'large'. You want to add 'extra large'. Here's how you would do it:

ALTER TYPE shirt_size ADD VALUE 'extra large';

After executing this command, your shirt_size ENUM type will now include 'extra large' as a valid option.

Important Considerations

  • New values are appended to the existing list. Their order reflects the sequence in which they were added.
  • PostgreSQL does not allow removing existing ENUM values or modifying their order.
  • If you need to make significant changes to an ENUM type, consider dropping and recreating it with the desired values. However, this approach might require updating existing table columns that use the ENUM type.

Additional Notes

  • The new value can be used immediately after adding it, assuming you've committed the transaction.
  • ENUM labels are case-sensitive, so 'EXTRA LARGE' would be considered different from 'extra large'.
  • While adding new values is generally non-disruptive, consider potential impacts on existing applications or queries that rely on the specific ENUM values.

Example 1: Adding a New Value to the End

CREATE TYPE shirt_size AS ENUM ('small', 'medium', 'large');

ALTER TABLE clothes ADD COLUMN size shirt_size DEFAULT 'medium';

-- Insert some sample data
INSERT INTO clothes (size) VALUES ('small'), ('medium'), ('large');

-- Add a new value 'extra large' to the end of the ENUM
ALTER TABLE shirt_size ADD VALUE 'extra large';

-- Now you can insert data using the new value
INSERT INTO clothes (size) VALUES ('extra large');

-- Verify existing data remains intact
SELECT * FROM clothes;

This example demonstrates adding a new value ('extra large') to the existing shirt_size ENUM type. Note that the existing data remains unchanged.

Example 2: Adding a New Value in the Middle (Not Allowed)

-- This will cause an error because PostgreSQL doesn't allow reordering ENUM values
ALTER TYPE shirt_size ADD VALUE 'X-large' AFTER 'medium';

This example attempts to add a new value ('X-large') after 'medium'. However, PostgreSQL will raise an error as it doesn't allow reordering existing ENUM values.

Alternative: Dropping and Recreating (if necessary)

If you absolutely need to change the order of ENUM values or remove existing ones, consider dropping and recreating the ENUM type:

DROP TYPE IF EXISTS shirt_size;  -- Drop the existing ENUM type (if it exists)

CREATE TYPE shirt_size AS ENUM ('X-large', 'medium', 'large', 'extra large');

ALTER TABLE clothes ALTER COLUMN size TYPE shirt_size USING size::shirt_size;  -- Convert existing data to the new ENUM type

However, this approach requires updating the table column that uses the ENUM type and might be more disruptive if your database is in production.

Use a Separate Lookup Table:

  • Create a separate table to store your possible values (e.g., shirt_sizes). It can have columns like id (primary key) and label (textual description).
  • Modify your original table column that currently uses the ENUM type to reference the id of the lookup table.
  • This approach offers more flexibility for adding, removing, or modifying values. However, it requires additional joins in your queries and might be less performant due to the extra table lookup.


CREATE TABLE shirt_sizes (

INSERT INTO shirt_sizes (label) VALUES ('small'), ('medium'), ('large');

ALTER TABLE clothes ALTER COLUMN size TYPE INTEGER REFERENCES shirt_sizes(id) USING size::INTEGER;  -- Convert existing data

INSERT INTO shirt_sizes (label) VALUES ('extra large');

-- Now you can insert data using IDs from the lookup table
INSERT INTO clothes (size) VALUES (4);  -- Assuming 'extra large' has ID 4

SELECT * FROM clothes
  JOIN shirt_sizes USING (id);

Use a CHECK Constraint:

  • Define a CHECK constraint on the original column that restricts its values to a predefined list of acceptable strings.
  • This approach is similar to an ENUM type but might be less efficient on large datasets due to the need for string comparisons on every insert/update operation.
  CHECK (size IN ('small', 'medium', 'large'));

UPDATE clothes SET size = 'extra large' WHERE id = 1;  -- This will fail

-- You can still add 'extra large' to existing rows by manually altering the data:
UPDATE clothes SET size = 'extra large' WHERE id = 1;

Choosing the Best Method:

The most suitable method depends on your specific requirements:

  • If you need frequent changes to the set of possible values and prioritize flexibility, a separate lookup table is the way to go.
  • If you have a relatively static set of values and performance is a concern, an ENUM type with careful planning for future additions is still a good choice.
  • A CHECK constraint might be suitable for a small, fixed set of values where adding new values is less frequent, but it's not recommended for large datasets.

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