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A Visual Explanation of SQL Joins

I thought Ligaya Turmelle's post on SQL joins was a great primer for novice developers. Since SQL joins appear to be set-based, the use of Venn diagrams to explain them seems, at first blush, to be a natural fit. However, like the commenters to her post, I found that the Venn diagrams didn't quite match the SQL join syntax reality in my testing.

I love the concept, though, so let's see if we can make it work. Assume we have the following two tables. Table A is on the left, and Table B is on the right. We'll populate them with four records each.

id name       id  name
-- ----       --  ----
1  Pirate     1   Rutabaga
2  Monkey     2   Pirate
3  Ninja      3   Darth Vader
4  Spaghetti  4   Ninja

Let's join these tables by the name field in a few different ways and see if we can get a conceptual match to those nifty Venn diagrams.
















SELECT * FROM TableA
INNER JOIN TableB
ON TableA.name = TableB.name
id  name       id   name
--  ----       --   ----
1   Pirate     2    Pirate
3   Ninja      4    Ninja

Inner join produces only the set of records that match in both Table A and Table B.

Venn diagram of SQL inner join
SELECT * FROM TableA
FULL OUTER JOIN TableB
ON TableA.name = TableB.name
id    name       id    name
--    ----       --    ----
1     Pirate     2     Pirate
2     Monkey     null  null
3     Ninja      4     Ninja
4     Spaghetti  null  null
null  null       1     Rutabaga
null  null       3     Darth Vader

Full outer join produces the set of all records in Table A and Table B, with matching records from both sides where available. If there is no match, the missing side will contain null.


Venn diagram of SQL cartesian join

SELECT * FROM TableA
LEFT OUTER JOIN TableB
ON TableA.name = TableB.name
id  name       id    name
--  ----       --    ----
1   Pirate     2     Pirate
2   Monkey     null  null
3   Ninja      4     Ninja
4   Spaghetti  null  null

Left outer join produces a complete set of records from Table A, with the matching records (where available) in Table B. If there is no match, the right side will contain null.


Venn diagram of SQL left join

SELECT * FROM TableA
LEFT OUTER JOIN TableB
ON TableA.name = TableB.name
WHERE TableB.id IS null
id  name       id     name
--  ----       --     ----
2   Monkey     null   null
4   Spaghetti  null   null

To produce the set of records only in Table A, but not in Table B, we perform the same left outer join, then exclude the records we don't want from the right side via a where clause.


join-left-outer.png

SELECT * FROM TableA
FULL OUTER JOIN TableB
ON TableA.name = TableB.name
WHERE TableA.id IS null
OR TableB.id IS null

id    name       id    name
--    ----       --    ----
2     Monkey     null  null
4     Spaghetti  null  null
null  null       1     Rutabaga
null  null       3     Darth Vader

To produce the set of records unique to Table A and Table B, we perform the same full outer join, then exclude the records we don't want from both sides via a where clause.


join-outer.png

There's also a cartesian product or cross join, which as far as I can tell, can't be expressed as a Venn diagram:

SELECT * FROM TableA
CROSS JOIN TableB

This joins "everything to everything", resulting in 4 x 4 = 16 rows, far more than we had in the original sets. If you do the math, you can see why this is a very dangerous join to run against large tables.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror