# SQL Trick: row_number() is to SELECT what dense_rank() is to SELECT DISTINCT

The SQL:2003 standard ranking functions are awesome companions and useful tools every now and then. The ones that are supported in almost all databases are:

- ROW_NUMBER(): This one generates a new row number for every row, regardless of duplicates within a partition.
- RANK(): This one generates a new row number for every distinct row, leaving gaps between groups of duplicates within a partition.
- DENSE_RANK(): This one generates a new row number for every distinct row, leaving no gaps between groups of duplicates within a partition.

As always, the above is much easier to understand by example. Let’s assume the following PostgreSQL schema containing a table with 8 records, some of which are duplicates:

CREATE TABLE t AS SELECT 'a' v UNION ALL SELECT 'a' UNION ALL SELECT 'a' UNION ALL SELECT 'b' UNION ALL SELECT 'c' UNION ALL SELECT 'c' UNION ALL SELECT 'd' UNION ALL SELECT 'e'

Now, let’s select each value, along with the three aforementioned ranking functions. And for kicks and giggles, we’ll use the SQL standard WINDOW clause! Yay, it saved us 15 characters of repetitive SQL code. Note that the WINDOW clause is hardly implemented apart by PostgreSQL and Sybase SQL Anywhere…

SELECT v, ROW_NUMBER() OVER (window) row_number, RANK() OVER (window) rank, DENSE_RANK() OVER (window) dense_rank FROM t WINDOW window AS (ORDER BY v) ORDER BY v

And the above results in:

+---+------------+------+------------+ | V | ROW_NUMBER | RANK | DENSE_RANK | +---+------------+------+------------+ | a | 1 | 1 | 1 | | a | 2 | 1 | 1 | | a | 3 | 1 | 1 | | b | 4 | 4 | 2 | | c | 5 | 5 | 3 | | c | 6 | 5 | 3 | | d | 7 | 7 | 4 | | e | 8 | 8 | 5 | +---+------------+------+------------+

^{(See also this SQLFiddle)}

### How DENSE_RANK() can help when writing SELECT DISTINCT

No doubt, `ROW_NUMBER()`

is the most useful ranking function among the above, specifically when you need to emulate LIMIT .. OFFSET clauses as in DB2, Oracle (11g or less), Sybase SQL Anywhere (prior to version 12), SQL Server (2008 and less). Read on here about how jOOQ emulates this SQL clause in various SQL dialects.

But using `ROW_NUMBER()`

has a subtle problem when used along with `DISTINCT`

or `UNION`

. It prevents the database from being able to remove duplicates, because `ROW_NUMBER`

will always produce distinct values within a partition. In the above example, duplicate values for `T.V`

were added on purpose. How can we first remove the duplicates and only then enumerate row numbers? Clearly, we can no longer use `ROW_NUMBER()`

. The following query:

SELECT DISTINCT v, ROW_NUMBER() OVER (window) row_number FROM t WINDOW window AS (ORDER BY v) ORDER BY v, row_number

… yields

+---+------------+ | V | ROW_NUMBER | +---+------------+ | a | 1 | | a | 2 | | a | 3 | | b | 4 | | c | 5 | | c | 6 | | d | 7 | | e | 8 | +---+------------+

^{(See also this SQLFiddle)}

But we can use `DENSE_RANK()`

, instead! With `DENSE_RANK()`

the ranking is applied in a way that duplicate records will receive the same rank. And there are no gaps between ranks. Hence:

SELECT DISTINCT v, DENSE_RANK() OVER (window) row_number FROM t WINDOW window AS (ORDER BY v) ORDER BY v, row_number

… which yields:

+---+------------+ | V | ROW_NUMBER | +---+------------+ | a | 1 | | b | 2 | | c | 3 | | d | 4 | | e | 5 | +---+------------+

^{(See also this SQLFiddle)}

### Thus, remember…

Thus, remember:

`ROW_NUMBER()`

is to`SELECT`

what`DENSE_RANK()`

is to`SELECT DISTINCT`

### Caveats

In order for the above to be true, however, you must ensure that all expressions from the `SELECT DISTINCT`

clause are used in the `DENSE_RANK()`

‘s `OVER(ORDER BY ...)`

clause. For example:

SELECT DISTINCT v1, v2, v3, DENSE_RANK() OVER (window) row_number FROM t WINDOW window AS (ORDER BY v1, v2, v3)

If any of `v1, v2, v3`

are other ranking functions or aggregate functions, or non-deterministic expressions, etc., the above trick won’t work. But it’s still a nice trick to keep up one’s sleeves for the odd corner-case query, where distinct rows need row numbers.

And if you don’t want to think about this trick all the time, do note that we’ve baked this into jOOQ, because we think that you should worry about business logic, not about SQL standardiation: