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An Illustrated Guide to the SQL CROSS JOIN

What is an SQL CROSS JOIN statement? When should you use it? When shouldn't you use it? This post will tell you what you need to know about CROSS JOIN.

You already know that you can use the SQL JOIN statement to join one or more tables that share a matching record. And if you're read the LearnSQL's post Learning SQL JOINs Using Real Life Situations, you know that there are many types of JOINs. Which one you choose will depend on what you want it to do.

There's one JOIN that we don't use all that often but which serves a very specific purpose: the CROSS JOIN. In this article, I'll explain what a CROSS JOIN does and how it works. I'll also explain when you should use one, and when you shouldn't.

What is a JOIN?

First, let's review what a JOIN does in SQL: allows you to combine data (i.e. records) from multiple tables. JOIN operators let you join records in specific ways, such as only records that have a match in both tables.

As we start exploring CROSS JOIN, we will work begin with two tables, "color" and "tshirt".

The "color" table, which stores the names of available t-shirt colors, looks like this:

id name
1 yellow
2 green
3 pink

The "tshirt" table, which stores the sizes of various t-shirts, looks like this:

id size
1 S
2 M
3 L
4 XL

People wear t-shirts in all combinations of sizes and colors. So we will join data from these tables.

What Is a CROSS JOIN?

CROSS JOIN returns a Cartesian product, or all records joined to all records in all tables. There is no JOIN condition (i.e. no ON clause). The resulting number of records equals the number of rows in the first table multiplied by the number of rows of the second table. CROSS JOIN is used very rarely. Because it produces all possible combinations of records from all tables, it can be a dangerous operation for tables that contain a lot of records.

We have our two tables, shown below. Let's use a CROSS JOIN on them and see what happens:

tshirt
id size
1 S
2 M
3 L
4 XL
color
id name
1 yellow
2 green
3 pink

 

 

 

 

 

 

SELECT *  FROM  tshirt
CROSS JOIN  color;

Notice that one table is listed after the FROM clause; the other table name follows CROSS JOIN It does not matter which table is listed after the from and which is after the CROSS JOIN. The results will be the same: all possible combination of records from all tables.

Here is the result of this operation:

id size id name
1 S 1 yellow
2 M 1 yellow
3 L 1 yellow
4 XL 1 yellow
1 S 2 green
2 M 2 green
3 L 2 green
4 XL 2 green
1 S 3 pink
2 M 3 pink
3 L 3 pink
4 XL 3 pink

 

We've selected all records from the "tshirt" table and join each record with all the records from the "color" table. In other words, we have the combination of each T-shirt in each size with each color. The graphic below visually explains this:

CROSS JOIN

Other Ways to Get Cartesian Products

There is another way to get a query to return a Cartesian product without using CROSS JOIN:

SELECT *  FROM  tshirt, color ;

In this case, the tables you want to join must be listed after the FROM clause. Note that by using the *, you are selecting all records from both tables. The result set will be the same as the CROSS JOIN example above.

Using CROSS JOIN in Multiplication

We can also use CROSS JOIN to do multiplication. Let's use two tables that store some basic numbers to see how this works. First, have a look at the tables:

"t1"

n
11
12
13

"t2"

n
11
12
13

 

Both tables store the same numbers: 11, 12, 13. Our goal is multiply these numbers by themselves, creating a multiplication table of sorts. We can use CROSS JOIN to do this. Look at the query below:

SELECT t1.n, t2.n, t1.n*t2.n AS result  FROM  t1
CROSS JOIN  t2 ;

The SELECT lists three columns: numbers from the first table (t1.n), numbers from the second table (t2.n), and the multiplication that is stored in the result column (t1.n*t2.n AS result). The table below shows the outcome:

t1.n t2.n result
11 11 121
11 12 132
11 13 143
12 11 132
12 12 144
12 13 156
13 11 143
13 12 156
13 13 169

 

Using CROSS JOIN with Many Tables

We can use more than two tables in a CROSS JOIN. Imagine that a company produces t-shirts in three sizes (S, M, L) and in two fabrics (cotton and linen). Each t-shirt is available in two colors: pink or blue. Have a look at the following tables:

"color"

id name
1 blue
3 pink

"tshirt"

id size
1 S
2 M
3 L

"fabric"

id name
1 cotton
2 linen

Now suppose you want to see all possible t-shirts: every combination of size, color, and fabric. The query below retrieves this information using a CROSS JOIN on three tables:

SELECT tshirt.size as size, color.name AS color, fabric.name as fabric
FROM  tshirt 
CROSS JOIN  fabric
CROSS JOIN  color ;

Here is the result:

size color fabric
S blue cotton
M blue cotton
L blue cotton
S pink cotton
M pink cotton
L pink cotton
S blue linen
M blue linen
L blue linen
S pink linen
M pink linen
L pink linen

There are twelve possible t-shirts. The two colors multiplied by three sizes and again by two fabrics result in a 12.

Learn More

There's more to know about using CROSS JOIN than what we've covered in this illustrated introduction. If you want to learn more about JOINs, check out LearnSQL's SQL Basics course.

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