This is something that bothered me a lot at school.

Five years ago, when I learned SQL, I always wondered why we first specify the fields we want and then where we want them from.

According to my idea, we should write:

From Employee e
Select e.Name

So why does the norm say the following?

Select e.Name -- Eeeeek, what does e mean?
From Employee e -- Ok, now I know what e is

It took me weeks to understand SQL, and I know that a lot of that time was consumed by the wrong order of elements.

It is like writing in C#:

string name = employee.Name;
var employee = this.GetEmployee();

So, I assume that it has a historical reason. Why?

  • 65
    It's a DBA conspiracy to keep OO monkeys in their place.
    – gbn
    Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 13:43
  • 3
    Unfortunately, I can't find any relevant info in the paper that introduced SEQUEL, and I don't think there are specific citations that answer your question. gnat's answer is possibly the best explanation though - but I wouldn't dismiss the conspiracy theory.
    – yannis
    Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 14:07
  • 2
    Personally, I've always wished Linq could not have used the standardized SQL syntax.
    – jp2code
    Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 15:53
  • 5
    The clauses in a SELECT statement are not the order of the operation.
    – S.Lott
    Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 17:06
  • 8
    Nice question. You're next one should be why INSERT and UPDATE queries had to use different syntax models: (field1, field2) VALUES (f1, f2) vs (field1=f1, field2=f2).
    – LarsTech
    Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 18:10

6 Answers 6


Originally SQL language was called SEQUEL standing for

  • Structured English Query Language
    with the emphasize on English, assuming it to be close in spelling to natural language.

Now, spell these two statements as you'd spell English sentences:

  1. "From Employee table e Select column e.Name"
  2. "Select column e.Name From Employee table e"

Second sounds closer to natural English language that's why it is set as norm.

BTW same reasoning goes to Where etc - SQL statements were intentionally designed to sound close to natural language.

  • 7
    Of course Microsoft ignored that with LINQ as the FROM comes first!
    – user18041
    Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 13:46
  • 30
    There's a lot of lookahead logic in English :/
    – Michael K
    Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 13:47
  • 16
    @Digger - that was by design: they couldn't support intellisense in the select part if the select came first. Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 13:49
  • 6
    @Digger: LINQ follows the OO/modern Object.Method or Object.Property. Don't forget SQL has been around for 40 years
    – gbn
    Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 13:49
  • 9
    I should have post this question on english.stackexchange.com instead :) Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 13:57

Because SELECT is required in a select statement and FROM is not.

Select 'This String'

Of course your sql statement can be parsed to look for the SELECT, DELETE, UPDATE after the FROM, but is is really that big of a deal?

Remember, this was all done before intellisense. It's not that complicated.

Edit: There's probably no reason sql interpreters couldn't be built to do both.

  • 2
    Though, you could also write FROM myTable; instead of FROM myTable SELECT *; This only seems like a requirement because it's what your used to.
    – user606723
    Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 17:10
  • 16
    Just because it's required doesn't mean it has to come first.
    – LarsTech
    Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 18:07
  • 9
    In ANSI SQL FROM is required. This is why many RDBMSs have a table called DUAL or other single row dummy table Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 18:20
  • @LarsTech - it doesn't have to come first, but why make it complicated. It's called a select statement, just start with the word select.
    – JeffO
    Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 18:49
  • 3
    @JeffO: Okay. SELECT FROM Customers COLUMNS FirstName, LastName, PhoneNumber. Commented Jan 5, 2012 at 19:22

Do not know an answer that I could back up by references, but if I had to speculate: SQL is a declarative language, a statement of such language describes what you would like to do as opposed to how you would like to do it.

As such, "SELECT X FROM Y" sounds as a more appropriate way of answering "What would I like to select from the database", as opposed to writing "FROM Y SELECT X".

In addition, in SQL, the SELECT/UPDATE/INSERT specifies the type of operation you are about to do and FROM is just a clause that helps you select from the right table in the database. Again, what are you doing with data takes precedence over how exactly you are going to achieve that.

  • 1
    +1: It's not imperative or procedural. The order of the clauses is merely a fit with English. Nothing more.
    – S.Lott
    Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 17:06
  • ON and WHERE may be better examples of the importance of order of clauses in a select statement.
    – JeffO
    Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 22:50

SQL is a structured query language targeted to English speakers. SELECT, INSERT, UPDATE, and DELETE are imperative commands. In English imperative commands begin the sentence or statement. Compare:

West young man go!


Go west young man!

SQL follows the second (imperative) format. Also the four imperative commands have three significantly different formats. Consider:

FROM    employees a,
        accounts b


INTO    customers a

If you know the action you are undertaking, it is easier to select the correct format.

In the case of select, you determine which attributes you want, then add the tables that have them. As you build the selection criteria, you may add additional tables. When you are dynamically adding criteria, it can usually be done at the end of a static portion of the query.

  • 9
    So Yoda was not involved in developing SQL.
    – adam f
    Commented Jan 1, 2012 at 22:40
  • Interesting that you bring up UPDATE. UPDATE ... FROM is not a English-like structure, IMO. Not that I have any better suggestions... Commented Jan 5, 2012 at 1:03
  • The intent was to point out that the preposition needs to match the verb.
    – BillThor
    Commented Jan 5, 2012 at 1:19

SQL statements begin with verbs. That was the choice of the language designers, and many programming languages work that way. Semantically, it is not uncommon to see programming languages that work like this:

verb(noun, noun, noun);

Also, in the case of SELECT statement that you give as an example, your proposed syntax would put the object first in the statement. Instead of a VSO (verb, subject, object) sentence order, you would have OVS, which would be a very strange when compared to natural languages. SVO (e.g. English), VSO (e.g. Arabic), and SOV (e.g. Latin) are more reasonable approximations of human speech.


I think it would significantly complicate parsing, especially with subqueries, e.g.

  FROM Foo f
  JOIN (FROM Bar b
        WHERE b.ID = f.ID
        UPDATE b
           SET b.Wibble = 1) x
    ON x.ID = f.ID

Parsing this would be more complicated. You could not tell that the UPDATE was a syntax error until you had parsed the FROM clause, and the parser would have to remember enough context to know that it was parsing a subquery. I don't think updates are permissible in subqueries anyway, but if they were (maybe with a RETURNING clause) then you might not be able to tell this was invalid until you had parsed the SELECT statement.

This would at least increase k (lookahead) for the grammar and at worst make it context sensitive, although this is stretching the bounds of my rather dimly remembered compiler design papers from university.

  • Looking at the Wiki article for QUEL that was developed at around the same time the order of the syntax clauses is what the OP suggests. Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 19:09

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