Rewrite OR to UNION in PostgreSQL queries

11.2022 / Category: / Tags: | |
A Hamlet actor who rewrote to be or not to be as an OR postgresql query
© Laurenz Albe 2022


In my article that reviles OR, I showed how in certain cases, it is possible to rewrite OR in a WHERE condition to a longer query with UNION that can perform much better (the “ugly” OR). Now people have asked me repeatedly why the PostgreSQL optimizer does not perform such a transformation automatically. This article explains the problems involved.

Rewriting OR

In the article referenced , I show the following query that will never perform well with bigger tables:

The solution was to rewrite OR like this:

If both WHERE conditions are selective, then indexes on and can turn both parts of the UNION into fast nested loop joins.

Can I always rewrite OR to UNION?

The above transformation is certainly no secret, and many people know about it. But I keep hearing comments that it is the job of the PostgreSQL optimizer to automatically transform queries like this. The following example shows why that is not always possible:

The query with OR in this case is:

Rewriting the query with UNION is no solution

Indeed, if we try it, we get a different result:

The reason for the difference is that UNION removes all duplicates in the result set, similar to DISTINCT. Consequently, PostgreSQL removes the legitimate duplicate result row.

Why then did this transformation work in the query from the beginning of this article? Well, I made a tacit assumption there, namely that the column id is the primary key of both tables. If we have a unique identifier in the result set, there cannot be any duplicate rows in the result set, and the above transformation is always correct.

Rewriting the query with UNION ALL is no solution either

Well, if UNION removes duplicate results that we need, then we should try the more efficient UNION ALL, which does not remove duplicates:

Now we have another problem: all rows that satisfy both conditions in the original OR query appear twice in the result set, once from every branch in the UNION ALL. In this example, all rows satisfy both conditions, so the whole result set is duplicated.

So neither of the transformations produces the correct result set!

Why the optimizer doesn't automatically rewrite OR to UNION

When is it safe to transform OR to UNION ALL? It is safe if there is no result row that satisfies both of the conditions combined with OR. This is probably often true, but I cannot think of a case where the database could verify that automatically.

On the other hand, let's consider when it is safe to transform OR to UNION. The condition is that the original result set does not contain any duplicates. The only way to guarantee this lack of duplicates is if the SELECT list contains a non-NULL unique key from both tables involved. Now this is a frequent case: way too many people select more columns than they actually need!

So the query optimizer could in theory check if the SELECT list contains a non-NULL unique key from both tables. If the tables in the join are actual base tables, such a check might not be too hard. If the tables are derived tables (for examples, the result of a join), then that check would be more difficult.

Such a change would certainly make query optimization more complicated. Every query with an OR in the WHERE condition would have to be checked:

  • if the FROM expression is the join of two relations
  • if the two relations are base tables
  • if the SELECT list contains a non-NULL unique key of both base tables

That is, many queries would require more planning time, but only a few queries would benefit. Moreover, I suspect that a change like this is at the very least complicated, because the alternative query would be radically different from the original. Such changes are typically done in the query rewriter, but we cannot rewrite the query unconditionally, since the original query may perform better than the rewritten one (for example if the WHERE condition is not selective, or if the necessary indexes are missing).


We have seen that it is not always possible to rewrite OR to UNION, and it is questionable whether automatic rewriting by PostgreSQL is feasible at all.

In practice, you will probably always be able to make the transformation: either you can determine that duplicate result don't matter and use UNION ALL, or you can exclude that there cannot be duplicate results anyway and use UNION. At any rate, you will have to do it by hand.

In case you're interested in improving query performance, check out Query Parameter Data Types and Performance

If you would learn the basics about SQL queries, see What is an Inner Join? And What is an Outer Join?

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Franck Pachot
11 months ago

This could be a safe transformation when adding the condition of the first branch into the second branch with IS NOT TRUE:

SELECT x, a.p, b.q
WHERE a.p = 1
SELECT x, a.p, b.q
WHERE b.q = 3 and a.p = 1 is not true

11 months ago
Reply to  Franck Pachot

Ah, that is a good idea!
Very useful for manually rewriting such queries.

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