Adventures in Machine Learning

Mastering the SQL Server LIKE Operator with Wildcards and Escape Characters

SQL Server LIKE Operator: Understanding Wildcard Characters,

Escape Characters, and its


Are you stuck on a problem within SQL Server where you need to filter a specific set of words from a larger set, or if you want to use a pattern within the WHERE clause of a SELECT, UPDATE, or DELETE statement? In this article, we explore how to effectively use the LIKE operator, a crucial string function in SQL Server, to solve such problems.

We will cover the different wildcard characters, escape characters, and the usage of LIKE to enhance your SQL coding skills.


The LIKE pattern allows you to filter out words based on their similarities rather than exact matches. It also permits the use of wildcards and escape characters to achieve more stylized filtering.

The wildcard character allows you to match patterns of arbitrary characters in the literal search string, whereas escape characters are used in circumstances where you need to use a literal wildcard character inside the search string.


The percent symbol (%) is the most commonly used wildcard character in the LIKE operator. This character represents any sequence of characters in the search string.

When you place it at the beginning of the search string, it matches any string that ends with the pattern stated. Similarly, when placed at the end of the search string, it matches any string that starts with the pattern provided.

For instance, if you were looking for artist names that start with the letter B, youd use the statement, SELECT*FROM Artists WHERE ArtistName LIKE B%. This statement would return all artist names beginning with B.

The underscore wildcard character (_) matches the occurrence of any single character in the string. This character is often useful in filtering out words that have indefinite characters between other precise matches.

For example, SELECT*FROM Artists WHERE ArtistName LIKE Li_k would return results where the fourth character of the artist name is a k, and the second and third characters are any other character. Finally, the list of characters wildcard ([ ) allows you to select characters from a predefined list.

The list can contain any ASCII printable characters, including punctuation and spaces. For instance, SELECT*FROM Artists WHERE ArtistName LIKE R[Ii][Hh][Aa]N[Nn]A would return similar artist names such as Rihana, Rihanna, rihana, or RHANNA.

Escape Characters

Escape characters are special characters that enable you to use wildcard characters literal form in search queries. The backslash () is used before any wildcard character to make it a literal character instead of a wildcard.

For instance, to filter words that contain the wildcard % in the string, the query statement “SELECT*FROM Artists WHERE ArtistName LIKE ‘% %%'” could be used. The query uses the escape character before the first % wildcard to change its behavior to that of a literal percentage (%) character.


The LIKE operator is used mainly in the WHERE clause of SELECT, UPDATE, and DELETE SQL statements. Its purpose is to filter out specific results based on the defined textual patterns.

Appropriate usage of the LIKE operator can help you retrieve focused results precisely. For example, if you have a massive database of products, and you want to filter out items whose names contain the word book, a query statement such as SELECT * FROM Products WHERE ProductName LIKE %book% could be employed.

This statement would retrieve unique product entries containing the string book in their names; not necessarily at the beginning or end of the name, but anywhere as long as it is present.

NOT LIKE Operator

The NOT LIKE operator is used to negate the result of a LIKE operator. This operator returns the inverse set of the matches that would have been returned had the LIKE operator been used alone.

For instance, the query statement SELECT*FROM Artists WHERE ArtistName NOT LIKE B% would return all artist names that do not start with B in a table containing artist name entries.


The LIKE operator is one of the most crucial SQL functions that helps filter out the results of your data query.

Wildcards, escape characters, and NOT LIKE operators are used to enhance pattern patterns and maximize the flexibility of the search queries.

These features can help retrieve the desired data effectively while eliminating irrelevant information. With the above information on the LIKE operator, you should now be in a better position to write more complex queries that efficiently articulate your search string patterns.

SQL Server LIKE with ESCAPE: An Example

In our previous article, we outlined the basics of the LIKE operator, including wildcard characters, escape characters, and its usage. In this article, we provide an in-depth example of how to use the LIKE operator with the ESCAPE clause, which is often necessary when you want to search for and filter out search results based on precise matches while avoiding unintended characters.

Setting Up the Example

To illustrate the usage of ESCAPE with the LIKE operator, let’s set up an initial example. From our last article, we had a table of artists with their names in a column called “ArtistName.” Now, suppose we want to search for specific artist names that contain wildcard characters within the text, such as “%,” “_,” “[,]” or “[^].” In this case, we’ll create a new table called “ArtistAlbums” with the following columns:

– AlbumID: an integer that uniquely identifies each album

– AlbumTitle: the title of the album

– ArtistID: an integer that corresponds to the artist’s unique identifier

– ArtistName: the name of the album’s artist

With the new table created, let’s populate it with some data using the following INSERT statement:


INSERT INTO ArtistAlbums (AlbumID, AlbumTitle, ArtistID, ArtistName)

VALUES (1, ‘The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’, 1, ‘David Bowie’),

(2, ‘The Rolling Stones No. 2’, 2, ‘The Rolling Stones’),

(3, ‘Elton John Greatest Hits’, 3, ‘Elton John’),

(4, ‘The Best of Radiohead’, 4, ‘Radiohead’),

(5, ‘ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits’, 5, ‘ABBA’);


Querying Data

Now that we’ve set up our table and inserted some data, let’s query the data to exemplify the LIKE operator usage with wildcard characters. The following query demonstrates how to retrieve all albums from the ArtistAlbums table where the AlbumTitle contains the string “greatest hits” in any position in the string.


SELECT AlbumTitle, ArtistName

FROM ArtistAlbums

WHERE AlbumTitle LIKE ‘%greatest hits%’;


The result of the query should be:


AlbumTitle | ArtistName


Elton John Greatest Hits | Elton John

ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits | ABBA


In the above query, we used the “%” wildcard character, which stands for a sequence of zero or more characters. The “%” character is used to match any substring, regardless of its position in the column name specified in the LIKE clause.

Using the ESCAPE Clause

In some cases, we may want to filter out a specific string containing a wildcard character. In this scenario, we’ll use the ESCAPE clause in conjunction with the LIKE operator to escape the wildcard character’s literal meaning.

Let’s say we want to retrieve all albums whose AlbumTitle contains the string “‘s” followed by any character. In other words, we’re interested in the result set that returns only matches with the string “‘s” followed by a single character.

Here’s an example query:


SELECT AlbumTitle, ArtistName

FROM ArtistAlbums

WHERE AlbumTitle LIKE ‘%”s_%’ ESCAPE ”’;


The result of the query should be:


AlbumTitle | ArtistName


Elton John Greatest Hits | Elton John


In the above query, we used the ESCAPE clause to escape the apostrophes inherent “” meaning. We inserted an additional apostrophe to escape the original apostrophe, resulting in the ” sequence.

The ESCAPE clause specifies the escape character (in this case, “”) to avoid its literal interpretation. As a result, the LIKE operator matched only the string “‘s” followed by any single character (represented by “_”).

Avoiding Unintended Results

Suppose we executed the same query without the ESCAPE clause, such as:


SELECT AlbumTitle, ArtistName

FROM ArtistAlbums

WHERE AlbumTitle LIKE ‘%”s_’;


The above query results in an error message because the “%” character after “‘s” is not a valid wildcard. It’s essential to use the ESCAPE clause when using wildcard characters in queries to avoid unintended results.

For instance, suppose we were searching for the string “_r[%]g” in the AlbumTitle column. In that case, the query “SELECT AlbumTitle

FROM ArtistAlbums WHERE AlbumTitle LIKE ‘%_r[%]g%’ ESCAPE ”;” would return only the matches we expect.


In this article, we explored the usage of the LIKE operator with the ESCAPE clause. We demonstrated how the ESCAPE clause can be used to avoid unintended results generated by the wildcard characters’ literal meanings in your search results.

We showed that proper usage of the LIKE operator with the ESCAPE clause can provide the desired results with precision, allowing for cleaner and more accurate data analytics. In this article, we focused on the SQL Server LIKE operator with the ESCAPE clause.

We highlighted the importance of the ESCAPE clause when searching for specific strings containing wildcard characters, and how its usage can eliminate unintended search results. We demonstrated the ESCAPE clause’s usage in an example query and showed the results generated with and without its use.

The key takeaway is to use the ESCAPE clause while querying search results to avoid unintended results. Proper use of the LIKE operator combined with the ESCAPE clause can lead to cleaner and more accurate data analytics.

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