To understand what a query does, I have always thought the following is the procedure on evaluating a query:

  1. Form the table as specified in the FROM clause.

  2. Pick the rows from that table as specified in the WHERE clause.

  3. Show the columns of the resulting rows, as specified in the SELECT clause.

But the problem is; all around, I see that SQL is a declarative language. That is, there is no guarantee how a particular query will be executed. Given that, my question is:

Is reasoning about the result of a query in the way I do wrong? If so, how am I supposed to reason about the result of a query? In other words, if I am not able to reason in a step by step basis, how am I supposed to predict what will the result of a particular query be?

Thing is, although this is not a big problem in trivial queries, as queries gets more complex, such as by incorporating various correlated subqueries, I can't see how am I supposed to understand what a query does, without thinking about the query in a step-by-step execution. So, I would like to learn how to reason about SQL queries.

  • 1
    You are looking to understand relational algebra which is quite reasonable.
    – user40980
    Mar 29, 2015 at 13:10
  • @MichaelT Relational algebra is somewhat more understandable but in SQL, I have a problem. For example to reason about correlated subqueries, I have seen things like: "For all rows, execute the correlated subquery" but if it is not possible to think SQL in a step-by-step fashion, then that is false too, am I right?
    – Utku
    Mar 29, 2015 at 13:21
  • (note: clarification / expansion of this question can be found in How to interpret correlated subqueries?)
    – user40980
    Mar 30, 2015 at 20:30
  • This post lists, in sequence, when each part of a SELECT statement are processed. See the section "Logical Processing Order of the SELECT statement". As others have said already, what the execution engine does internally will bear no relationship to this logical sequence. Apr 9, 2015 at 12:38

2 Answers 2


Reasoning about a query's meaning (i.e. the results it should produce) using the naive procedural approach you describe is perfectly fine. As you say, with complex queries it's often the only easy way to work out what's going on.

The problem would be if you used this reasoning to infer properties about the query execution (such as time complexity or memory usage). That's unwise because the actual database probably uses indexes and temporary tables and query planners containing all sorts of black magic optimizations you don't and shouldn't know about. As long as you never make assumptions like "Nested subqueries use lots of memory because they construct temporary tables" without any hard evidence, you should be fine.

If you have any background in math, it might help to think of declarative statements like SQL queries as definitions of mathematical sets. For instance, the result of this query:

SELECT id, name FROM table WHERE id > 10

is arguably equivalent to a set like this:

S = { {id, name} | id > 10 ∧ ∃row (row ∈ table) ∧ row(0) = id ∧ row(1) = name }

Since set-builder notation is not normally intended as pseudocode for set construction algorithms, this formation puts some mental distance between the query/set definition and the naive algorithm it happens to imply.

  • Thank you very much. The answer is great (I have already upvoted) but I have expressed what I wanted to ask more clearly with an edit. If you would like, I can accept this answer and ask my edit as a different question?
    – Utku
    Mar 30, 2015 at 20:14
  • 1
    @Utku On StackExchange sites like this, it can be better to ask a new and separate question rather than changing your existing one, because major edits might invalidate the answers you've already gotten. That, and no one likes a chameleon question. In this case, it does feel like you've simply written a new question on top of the one I answered, so I would recommend splitting it into an separate question.
    – Ixrec
    Mar 30, 2015 at 20:19
  • Got it, I am asking the edit as a new question.
    – Utku
    Mar 30, 2015 at 20:20

You are indeed able to precisely determine what a query will return by using logical reasoning as you described.

What SQL does not guarantee is how the engine will find this result. It will give the same result as if it used the logical steps you describe, but how it actually finds the result depends on a number of factors and implementation details.

For example, when you say "Pick the rows from that table..." the engine might actually not need to look a the table at all, if there is an index which includes all the columns you as for. Of course this means the engine have to look at the columns first to determine what tables or indexes is should use. So the engine will not actually follow the steps you describe, but the result will be the same.

If you take correlated subqueries, the result will look as if the correlated subquery will be executed once per row in the main query, but in reality the query optimizer might transform the query into a join which is much faster to execute.

  • Thank you. Actually, what I don't understand is: Why is a correlated subquery is evaluated in this way? I have asked this as a different question. I would be very happy if you could have time to check out that question.
    – Utku
    Mar 30, 2015 at 21:06

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