Given these contents of the Customers table:
Id Name ReferredBy 1 John Doe NULL 2 Jane Smith NULL 3 Anne Jenkins 2 4 Eric Branford NULL 5 Pat Richards 1 6 Alice Barnes 2
Here is a query written to return the list of customers not referred by Jane Smith:
SELECT Name FROM Customers WHERE ReferredBy <> 2;
What will be the result of the query? Why? What would be a better way to write it?
Although there are 4 customers not referred by Jane Smith (including Jane Smith herself), the query will only return one: Pat Richards. All the customers who were referred by nobody at all (and therefore have NULL in their ReferredBy column) don’t show up. But certainly those customers weren’t referred by Jane Smith, and certainly NULL is not equal to 2, so why didn’t they show up?
SQL Server uses three-valued logic, which can be troublesome for programmers accustomed to the more satisfying two-valued logic (TRUE or FALSE) most programming languages use. In most languages, if you were presented with two predicates: ReferredBy = 2 and ReferredBy <> 2, you would expect one of them to be true and one of them to be false, given the same value of ReferredBy. In SQL Server, however, if ReferredBy is NULL, neither of them are true and neither of them are false. Anything compared to NULL evaluates to the third value in three-valued logic: UNKNOWN.
The query should be written:
SELECT Name FROM Customers WHERE ReferredBy IS NULL OR ReferredBy <> 2
Watch out for the following, though!
SELECT Name FROM Customers WHERE ReferredBy = NULL OR ReferredBy <> 2
This will return the same faulty set as the original. Why? We already covered that: Anything compared to NULL evaluates to the third value in the three-valued logic: UNKNOWN. That “anything” includes NULL itself! That’s why SQL Server provides the IS NULL and IS NOT NULL operators to specifically check for NULL. Those particular operators will always evaluate to true or false.
Even if a candidate doesn’t have a great amount of experience with SQL Server, diving into the intricacies of three-valued logic in general can give a good indication of whether they have the ability learn it quickly or whether they will struggle with it.