• SQL (Structured Query Language) is a way of interacting with an RDBMS (Relational Data Base Management System).
  • SQL is one of the most widely used languages historically. ANSI SQL is a standard which is implemented in many different flavors (with intricate differences under the hood similar to how different shell scripting languages such as Bash, Zsh, Ksh, etc. differ) as multiple products such as PostgresSQL, SQLite, MYSQL, MSSQL, etc.
  • Although to understand SQL and to use it efficiently, some understanding of the theory of RDBMS is necessary, in this article we will look at SQL from the perspective of an end-user who only uses SQL to find information from a database.
  • SQL can widely be used for four types of tasks:
    • Query,
    • Definition,
    • Manipulation, and
    • Control.
  • While all the aforementioned tasks are important and meant to be studied with the larger scope of RDBMS, we will only be looking at query tasks in this article.
  • Query tasks are the tasks that we use most commonly: Business Analysts query to answer Business Questions, Data Scientists and Machine Learning Engineers query to explore the data and define hypothesis, Backend Engineers query to create systems which are in accordance to the data being worked on.
  • While Data Engineers and Backend Engineers often use the other tasks of SQL, they cannot escape the use of queries. So in a way queries are very basic to anyone who has any sort of SQL usage. This is what we’ll be looking at this article.
  • The following article has been written by Soham Ghosh with contributions from Aman Chadha.

Barebones SQL query

  • The most barebones form of a query is:
SELECT col1,col2 FROM db.schm.tbl;
  • This would return to us an output table in a format similar to:
col1 col2
val1col1 val1col2
val2col1 val2col2
val3coł1 val3col2

Common SQL Keywords

  • Some of the most common SQL query keywords are:
    • SELECT
    • FROM
    • LIMIT
    • WHERE
    • ORDER BY
    • GROUP BY
    • UNIQUE (and other AGGREGATIONS)
    • HAVING
  • The SQL Basics Cheat Sheet offers a brilliant primer of the aforementioned commands.
  • It is important to note that there are multiple “means to an end” for achieving a particular end result in any SQL. In other words, the the examples and patterns in the below sections are one way of achieving the end result, but multiple ways exist. It is highly recommended to try other methods depending on their flavor of SQL and use-case.

SQL Clauses Order

  • The general order in SQL clauses feature in a SQL query are as follows:
FROM mytable
JOIN another_table
ON mytable.column = another_table.column
GROUP BY column

Example: Solving a crime (and learning SQL!)


  • In the spirit of learning by doing, let’s look at a fun exercise to get a grasp of how we would approach an SQL solution.
  • We shall learn SQL by way of solving a crime using SQL queries. Please refer Knightlab Mystery for the example.

Step 1: Identify tables

The first thing we know about this problem is, that the crime was a murder which took place in SQL City and happened on the date Jan 15,2018.

  • To proceed with this hint, we would need to know a basic structure of how the data is laid out. To do this, let’s see what tables exist:
SELECT name 
  FROM sqlite_master
 where type = 'table'
  • This output shows us the tables that exist. We see a table that is named crime_scene_report. This would be a likely location of the reports which could have the details we have.

Step 2: Check table schema (columns)

  • To check whether that’s possible, let’s go ahead check the structure of the table:
  FROM sqlite_master
 where name = 'crime_scene_report'
  • Here it shows us that the table does contain date integer, type text, description text, city text

  • This matches what we’re looking for. Now, let’s do a query to see if we have any hits:

FROM 'crime_scene_report' AS t
t.type LIKE 'murder'
t.city LIKE 'SQL City'
t.date = 20180115
  • Good! We have a hit. It seems like there is a record that matches the facts we have.

  • This also gives us the next clue:

Security footage shows that there were two witnesses. The first witness lives at the last house on “Northwestern Dr”. The second witness, named Annabel, lives somewhere on “Franklin Ave”.

Step 3:

  • Alright, so now we have to find what these two witnesses said as the police report mentions. Looking at the list of tables we had earlier, we can create four more queries to find what the witnesses had said (two to find who the witnesses are and two to find what each of them said).
SELECT * FROM 'person' AS p
p.address_street_name LIKE 'Northwestern Dr'
p.address_number DESC
SELECT * FROM 'person' AS p
p.name LIKE '%Annabel%'
p.address_street_name LIKE 'Franklin Ave'
  • At this stage we know who the witnesses were. Now, on to finding out what they said. For this, we will query the table interviews
SELECT * FROM 'interview'
person_id = 16371 OR person_id = 14887
  • Now we have quite a few hints from both these interviews. We are getting close to finding the murderer. From the multiple first hand interviews, we see they have a specific type of gym membership (gold) and we know when they were last there (20160109). We also find out partial information about the car they drive.

  • Using this, let’s query the gym database to see what we can find out the members who match the criteria:

SELECT * FROM 'get_fit_now_member'
membership_status LIKE 'gold'
id LIKE '48Z%'
membership_start_date < 20160109
  • Interesting, we find only one match for this. The police must have been able to narrow this down from the interviews. Let’s see what he had to say when the police interviewed him.
SELECT * FROM 'interview'
person_id = 67318
  • Well, it turns out the the killer was not able to withstand the police questioning and did give up quite a few details about the person who hired him. From his interview, we can gather a lot of information about the characteristics of the person. Let’s look at the persons , drivers_license and facebook_event_checkin.
SELECT * FROM 'drivers_license'
car_make LIKE 'Tesla'
car_model LIKE 'Model S'
hair_color LIKE 'red'
gender LIKE 'female'
SELECT f.person_id,count(f.person_id), substr(f.date,1,6) FROM 'facebook_event_checkin' as f
event_name like 'SQL Symphony Concert'
substr(f.date,1,6) LIKE '201712'
  • This narrows us down to the last two people. One of them must be the person who hired the killer.
select person.name,person.address_street_name,person.ssn,drivers_license.gender
from person
join drivers_license
on person.license_id==drivers_license.id
where person.id == 99716
  • The above query returns Miranda Priestly as the name of the person who hired the killer.

  • Let’s check this answer on the last section of the page which asks us to input the name of criminal, and indeed it turns out that she’s the one!

  • This exercise can be condensed to a single query. Next, let’s look at creating large queries and testing them next. Thanks for reading till here.

Further Reading


If you found our work useful, please cite it as:

  title   = {SQL Primer},
  author  = {Ghosh, Soham and Chadha, Aman},
  journal = {Distilled AI},
  year    = {2022},
  note    = {\url{https://aman.ai}}