Till now I used the following syntax to add an interval to a timestamp:

select now() + '5 year';

This worked fine till I tried to subtract the interval which results in a syntax error.

invalid input syntax for type timestamp with time zone: "5 year"
LINE 1: select now() - '5 year'

In the documentation I learned that the syntax actually is:

select now() - interval '5 year'

So my questions are: Why does select now() + '5 year' work at all? Does it work only by accident and it might break in a future Postgresql release?

  • I am not sure if this question is on-topic as "Basic SQL" questions are off-topic. But I am not sure if this is still "Basic SQL"...
    – gillesB
    Jan 23, 2019 at 14:07
  • 2
    100 % OT, let me assure you. Not as trivial as it may seem. Jan 23, 2019 at 19:10
  • @ErwinBrandstetter does "OT" stand for "On Topic" or "Off Topic"?
    – Brad
    Jan 23, 2019 at 23:13
  • @Brad: Sorry for the ambiguity. On Topic. Jan 23, 2019 at 23:15

2 Answers 2


Like @a_horse explained, there are two operators available for the expression now() - '5 year':

SELECT oprleft::regtype, oprname, oprright::regtype
FROM   pg_operator
WHERE  oprname = '-'
AND    oprleft = 'timestamptz'::regtype;

         oprleft          | oprname |         oprright         
 timestamp with time zone | -       | timestamp with time zone
 timestamp with time zone | -       | interval
(2 rows)

The exact reason for the choice can be found in the manual in the chapter Operator Type Resolution:


 2. Check for an operator accepting exactly the input argument types. If one exists (there can be only one exact match in the set of operators considered), use it. [...]

    a. If one argument of a binary operator invocation is of the unknown type, then assume it is the same type as the other argument for this check. [...]


Bold emphasis mine. Read the whole chapter to understand the process fully.

The same type is preferred if one argument type is unknown and a matching operator is available. There is an operator for timestamptz - timestamptz, bingo. The operator is resolved here. Fortunately, '5 years' is illegal input for timestamptz, else this might result in confusion!

The operator resolves to timestamptz - interval after adding an explicit type cast:

now() - interval '5 year'  -- always the way to go

My guess(!) is:

The + operator for timestamps only supports adding an interval (timestamp + interval). And thus it's clear that the string value '5 year' needs to be (implicitly) converted to an interval

The - operator on the other hand supports two different combinations:

  • timestamp - timestamp
  • timestamp - interval.

Apparently Postgres prefers to use the timestamp - timestamp option and tries to (implicitly) convert '5 year' to a timestamp which of course fails.

  • I thought this was due to the fact that timestamptz (not timestamp) is the preferred type among "Date/time types" in Postgres - and commented as much. But on a second look, there seems to be a different explanation. And interval is not a "Date/time type", but a "Timespan type" in the Postgres type system. (Your answer is still basically right.) Jan 23, 2019 at 19:15

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