Setup: PostgreSQL 9.3.5

I have two tables with a common identifier (propid) that is unique in one table (property) and not unique in the second table (addressstring). There are no NULL propid in either table [UPDATE: not true, there were NULL in property.propid], and datatype is INTEGER in both tables.

The following queries - which I assert are functionally identical - return different results:

Query 1:

select distinct propid
  from addressstring
 where propid not in (select distinct propid 
                        from property);
-- returns zero rows


Query 2:

select distinct propid from addressstring
select distinct propid from property;
-- returns 1478 rows, all non-NULL

The problem persisted after VACUUM ANALYZE (I did that just in case, although the tables have not been altered since import, except for the creation of a GIST index on a geometry column in property).

When I feed Query 2 as a CTE and look for the 1478 identified propid in the property table, sure enough they ain't there -

select propid 
  from property
 where propid in
              (select distinct propid from addressstring
               select distinct propid from property);
-- returns zero rows

That's as expected, but frankly I can't trust that result given that Query 1 returns zero rows when it should return 1478.

Three part question:

  1. am I wrong in assuming that the two queries are functionally identical?
  2. If I'm not wrong, is there any sensible, defensible explanation for the discrepancy?

And finally

  1. do I have to re-write every select ... where ... not in (select...) in the EXCEPT structure just to be safe?

That last one, if 'Y', is a gigantic PITA given that select... EXCEPT ... select is not the 'usual' way that most folks get 'A not in B', because often the NOT IN clause is a subset of the set of variables in the primary SELECT - e.g.,

 SELECT a.objectid AS addressoid, 
        b.objectid AS propertyoid
   FROM address a
   JOIN property b ON a.propid=b.propid
  WHERE b.propid NOT IN (SELECT propid 
                          WHERE [some condition]);

And yes, the WHERE clause could be written as WHERE NOT EXISTS (SELECT 1 [etc]), but the discrepancy in results is a BIG problem given that the query using NOT IN took a third of a second and the query structure is canonical by the definition in TFD (it is a 'condition that evaluates to a boolean').

Bear in mind - this is not an efficiency issue in the sense that one formulation takes longer than another, valid formulation. This is the fact that two formulations that are set-theoretically identical, produce very different result sets.

UPDATE: the Query Plans produced by EXPLAIN ANALYZE are as follows -

Query 1.

HashAggregate  (cost=21999.81..22497.30 rows=49749 width=4) (actual time=256.699..256.699 rows=0 loops=1)"
  ->  Seq Scan on nclm_addressstring_2015  (cost=11521.03..21738.10 rows=104683 width=4) (actual time=256.646..256.646 rows=0 loops=1)
        Filter: (NOT (hashed SubPlan 1))"
        Rows Removed by Filter: 209366 -- <-- Removed 100% of rows... WHY?????????
        SubPlan 1
          ->  HashAggregate  (cost=9427.01..11102.22 rows=167521 width=4) (actual time=91.192..123.690 rows=166742 loops=1)
                ->  Seq Scan on nclm_property_2015  (cost=0.00..9008.21 rows=167521 width=4) (actual time=0.006..40.914 rows=167521 loops=1)
Total runtime: 261.303 ms

Query 2

HashSetOp Except  (cost=10217.08..25651.99 rows=99497 width=4) (actual time=334.126..336.933 rows=1478 loops=1)
  ->  Append  (cost=10217.08..24984.45 rows=267018 width=4) (actual time=133.840..282.611 rows=334668 loops=1)
        ->  Subquery Scan on *SELECT* 1  (cost=10217.08..12207.01 rows=99497 width=4) (actual time=133.840..174.463 rows=167926 loops=1)
              ->  HashAggregate  (cost=10217.08..11212.05 rows=99497 width=4) (actual time=133.838..166.212 rows=167926 loops=1)
                    ->  Seq Scan on nclm_addressstring_2015  (cost=0.00..9693.66 rows=209366 width=4) (actual time=0.013..78.953 rows=209366 loops=1)
        ->  Subquery Scan on *SELECT* 2  (cost=9427.01..12777.43 rows=167521 width=4) (actual time=59.971..100.664 rows=166742 loops=1)
              ->  HashAggregate  (cost=9427.01..11102.22 rows=167521 width=4) (actual time=59.969..92.796 rows=166742 loops=1)
                    ->  Seq Scan on nclm_property_2015  (cost=0.00..9008.21 rows=167521 width=4) (actual time=0.005..26.279 rows=167521 loops=1)
Total runtime: 343.926 ms
  • 1
    Unrelated, but: the distinct inside the sub-selects (and in "Query 2") is useless and I think Postgres is not smart enough to remove it
    – user1822
    May 30, 2016 at 9:40

1 Answer 1


In your 1st query there's a NULL returned by the subquery and you're a victim of Three-valued-logic.

See also: https://www.simple-talk.com/sql/learn-sql-server/sql-and-the-snare-of-three-valued-logic/

A simple workaround is to add WHERE propid IS NOT NULL. But better switch to NOT EXISTS instead, which treats UNKNOWN as FALSE (i.e. Two-valued-logic):

select distinct propid
  from addressstring AS addr
    select * 
    from property AS prop
    where addr.propid = prop.propid

Btw, property.propid sounds like the Primary Key and a PK must be defined as NOT NULL :)

  • D'oh on the NULLs (my offsider - whose ears will get reddened when he arrives today - assured me that he'd removed all NULL propid property rows). Still... should the return of a single (distinct) NULL compromise the fact that all the elements in the set (say) A = {1,2,3} are unambiguously in the set B = {NULL, 3,1,2}, and thus that none of them are not in the set? It would make five billion times more sense if PostgreSQL threw an error any time the subquery results in a NOT IN clause included a NULL - rather than returning (wrongly) an empty set. A trap even for old players...
    – GT.
    May 29, 2016 at 22:50
  • property is imported with a different non-null PK (objectid) - in future I will make sure to run a query for NULL propid rather than trust the word of data-prep underlings: the existence of NULL values for propid indicates that rows with propertytype=5 exist in the table... and they shouldn't by the time it gets to me. Today is going to be a direly boring day - I am going to have to add null-checks to dozens of other queries, and re-run them.
    – GT.
    May 29, 2016 at 22:54
  • @GT no it would not make sense to raise an error, not in a SQL DBMS. This behaviour complies with SQL standard and that's what all SQL DBMS will return. It might make sense in a product/language that does not allow Nulls. May 30, 2016 at 10:22
  • @ypercubeᵀᴹ having thought about it when in less of a homicidal rage at underlings, I agree. It's a semantic issue as to what 'NULL' means, and what value<> NULL evaluates to: it evaluates to 'NULL' (which I still find odd). NULL doesn't mean 'No Value' (and I am not silly enough to think it equals 0 or ''). But the way it works operationally seems to mean Dunno, I give up. I'm going to look at what the standard uses to justify claiming that an empty value is not not equal to a non-empty value. Null-checks must abound because 'nothing' is not not equal to 'something' - odd.
    – GT.
    Jun 1, 2016 at 7:05
  • Yes, value1 <> NULL evaluates to UNKNOWN. Basically it means, is value1 not equal to a value we know nothing about? The answer is "we don't know". It may be equal, it may not. The trick is that WHERE keeps only the rows that we are dead sure the answer is "yes" (condition is TRUE) and rejects any FALSE or UNKNOWN. Jun 1, 2016 at 8:44

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