Adventures in Machine Learning

Simplifying Complex SQL Queries with CTEs and Recursive CTEs

Exploring Common Table Expressions (CTEs) and Recursive CTEs

If you’ve ever found yourself writing complex queries that require subqueries, you may have heard of Common Table Expressions (CTEs) and their recursive variant. These queries can quickly become confusing, but using CTEs can help simplify them.

Let’s take a closer look at CTEs and recursion, and how they can make your queries more efficient and organized.

Purpose and Benefits of CTEs

Queries can quickly become difficult to read and maintain if they contain multiple subqueries. This is where CTEs come in handy.

Simply put, a CTE allows you to define a named temporary result set that you can use in the main query. This temporary result set is created by using a SELECT statement that defines the data.

The benefits of using CTEs are numerous, but some of the key benefits include improved readability and query performance. By defining named results, the query becomes much easier to read and understand.

Additionally, CTEs can potentially improve query performance by reducing the number of joins or subqueries that need to be processed.

Recursive CTEs in Hierarchical Data

Recursive CTEs take the basic concept a step further, allowing you to define a result set that includes rows that reference themselves. This is commonly used in hierarchical data structures, such as organizational charts or file systems.

To understand how this works, let’s take an example of an organization with a hierarchical structure. Each employee has a boss, except for the CEO who has no boss.

One way to represent this hierarchy in a database is by creating a table with columns for the employee ID, the boss ID and the employee name. To build a recursive CTE that retrieves all subordinates of a given employee, we start with the anchor query.

The anchor query retrieves the immediate subordinates of the employee using a WHERE clause. The recursive query then builds on top of the anchor query to recursively retrieve all subordinates through successive iterations.

The recursive CTE uses two key elements. The first is the anchor query, which selects the records that “start” the recursion; that is, the records whose boss ID is the employee ID we want the subordinates for.

The second is the recursive query which itself is composed of two sub-parts: the first takes the results of the anchor query and retrieves all subordinates, while the second ensures that recursion stops once it reaches the CEO.

Recursive CTE Syntax

Recursive CTEs are constructed in a similar way to regular CTEs, but they include nested SELECT statements. The WITH clause is used at the beginning to define the CTE, followed by the name of the CTE and the SELECT statement that defines it.

For example:

WITH EmployeeHierarchy(EmployeeID, BossID, Level) AS


— Anchor Query

SELECT EmployeeID, BossID, 0

FROM Employee

WHERE BossID = [Desired EmployeeID]

— Recursive Query


SELECT E.EmployeeID, E.BossID, Level + 1

FROM Employee E

JOIN EmployeeHierarchy EH ON E.BossID = EH.EmployeeID



Usage of Recursive CTEs in Hierarchies

Recursive CTEs can be used in any hierarchical data structure, such as folder structures or threaded discussions. For example, you can use a recursive CTE to traverse a folder structure and list all files within it.

Another example of a recursive CTE is to find the immediate bosses and Big Bosses of an employee. The immediate bosses are relatively easy to find, as they are simply the bosses of the employee.

The recursive query can be used to find all Big Bosses above the immediate bosses until it reaches the CEO. In summary, using CTEs and recursive CTEs can make your queries more organized, efficient, and easier to comprehend.

CTEs provide named result sets and make queries more readable, while recursive CTEs used for hierarchical data structures can help you create complex queries in a simplified way. Understanding how to use CTEs and recursive CTEs can take your SQL skills to the next level and save time in the long run.

3) Example Implementation

To understand how CTEs and recursive CTEs work in practice, let’s consider an example query that retrieves the employees of a company and their respective bosses. For this example, we’ll assume that we have an Employees table in our database that contains the columns EmployeeID (the unique identifier of each employee), Name (the name of each employee), and ManagerID, (the EmployeeID of the manager of each employee).

To retrieve each employee’s name and the name of their manager, we can use a recursive CTE to traverse the hierarchy of employees and their bosses. The simplest form of this query is as follows:


WITH EmployeeHierarchy AS


— Anchor Query

SELECT EmployeeID, Name, ManagerID, 0 AS Level

FROM Employees



— Recursive Query

SELECT E.EmployeeID, E.Name, E.ManagerID, Level + 1

FROM Employees E

JOIN EmployeeHierarchy EH ON E.ManagerID = EH.EmployeeID



FROM EmployeeHierarchy;


This query uses the WITH keyword to define the EmployeeHierarchy CTE.

In the Anchor Query, we select all employees who don’t have a manager (i.e. the CEO or top-level manager). In the Recursive Query, we join the Employees table with the previously defined CTE and select all employees whose manager has an EmployeeID in the CTE.

We also add a Level column to keep track of the depth of the hierarchy. The results of the query produce a table that shows each employee’s name and their respective manager’s name.

This table can be used for a variety of purposes, such as creating an organizational chart or identifying gaps in the reporting structure.

Analysis of Query Statements

To understand how the query works in more detail, let’s analyze each component of the query:

– CTE: WITH EmployeeHierarchy AS (…) – This statement defines the CTE, giving it the name EmployeeHierarchy and specifying the Anchor Query and Recursive Query. – Anchor Query: SELECT EmployeeID, Name, ManagerID, 0 AS Level FROM Employees WHERE ManagerID IS NULL – This query selects all employees who don’t have a manager (i.e. those at the top of the hierarchy).

– Recursive Query: SELECT E.EmployeeID, E.Name, E.ManagerID, Level + 1 FROM Employees E JOIN EmployeeHierarchy EH ON E.ManagerID = EH.EmployeeID – This query selects each employee’s EmployeeID, Name, ManagerID and adds 1 to their boss’s Level value so that we can track hierarchy depth. – UNION ALL: UNION ALL – This statement combines the results of the Anchor Query and Recursive Query.

– Result table: SELECT * FROM EmployeeHierarchy – This query selects all columns in the CTE result table. Using a recursive CTE can simplify queries that involve hierarchical data and make them more efficient.

The CTE provides a way to define a temporary result set that can be referenced by a subsequent query, and the recursive element allows you to traverse the hierarchy easily.

4) Adapting to Different Databases

CTEs are a powerful tool in SQL, but their syntax can vary among different SQL databases. For example, while some databases, like PostgreSQL, allow the use of recursive CTEs, others, like MySQL, don’t.

Additionally, even among databases that do support CTEs, there may be differences in their implementation that require modifications to your queries. To add to the complexity, the syntax for recursive CTEs can also vary within the same SQL database.

For example, in PostgreSQL, the RECURSIVE keyword is used before the CTE name to indicate that it is recursive, whereas in Microsoft SQL Server, the keyword is omitted entirely. Despite these variations, CTEs are a powerful tool for querying hierarchical data.

They can be a massive help in working with large tables and data that contain hierarchical levels that need to be managed.


In conclusion, CTEs and recursive CTEs are useful tools for creating complex queries involving hierarchical data. They allow you to define temporary result sets and traverse the hierarchy effectively.

The recursive element of CTEs can be used to iterate through the hierarchy, making it easy to retrieve information about employee relationships and depth levels. While CTE syntax may vary across different SQL databases, their fundamental concepts and uses remain the same.

Common Table Expressions (CTEs) and Recursive CTEs are powerful tools for simplifying complex SQL queries and optimizing their performance, particularly when working with hierarchical data. CTEs provide named temporary result sets which can be used in a subsequent query, while Recursive CTEs utilize the recursive element to traverse hierarchical structures with ease.

Although CTE syntax may differ among SQL databases, their fundamental concepts and uses remain the same. By understanding and mastering CTEs and their functionality, data analysts and database professionals can enhance their SQL skills and simplify their queries with ease.

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