Here is a fiddle for my question.

I have a simple table layout:

person: belongs to a class

I want to select all classes, and for each class, I want the first two person identifiers of the belonging persons sorted by descending name.

I solved this with the following query:

select     c.identifier, array_agg(p.identifier order by p.name desc) as persons
from       class as c
left join lateral (
             select   p.identifier, p.name
             from     person as p
             where    p.class_identifier = c.identifier
             order by p.name desc
             limit    2
           ) as p
on         true
group by   c.identifier
order by   c.identifier

Note: I could have used a correlation subquery in the SELECT clause, but I am trying to avoid that as part of a learning process.

As you can see, I am applying order by p.name desc in two places:

  • in the subquery
  • in the aggregate function

Is there a way to avoid that? My train of thought:

  • First, obviously I cannot remove the order by in the subquery, as that would give a query which does not meet my requirement as stated above.

  • Second, I think that the order by in the aggregate function cannot be left out, as row order of the subquery is not necessarily preserved in the aggregate function?

Should I rewrite the query?

  • 1
    I think you will have to use two orderings one way or another. Another approach would be to use a window function such as row_number(), but that will need an order by of it's own. Jul 30, 2018 at 17:36
  • Is (identifier) the primary key of class? Jul 30, 2018 at 21:51
  • @ypercubeᵀᴹ Yes, correct. Why is that? Jul 31, 2018 at 6:22

2 Answers 2


I am applying order by p.name desc in two places ... Is there a way to avoid that?

Yes. Aggregate with an ARRAY constructor in the lateral subquery directly:

SELECT c.identifier, p.persons
FROM   class c
      SELECT identifier
      FROM   person
      WHERE  class_identifier = c.identifier
      ORDER  BY name DESC
      LIMIT  2
      ) AS persons
   ) p
ORDER  BY c.identifier;

You also don't need GROUP BY in the outer SELECT this way. Shorter, cleaner, faster.

I replaced the LEFT JOIN with a plain CROSS JOIN since the ARRAY constructor always returns exactly 1 row. (Like you pointed out in a comment.)

db<>fiddle here.


Order of rows in subqueries

To address your comment:

I learned that order of rows in a subquery is never guaranteed to be preserved in the outer query.

Well, no. While the SQL standard does not offer any guarantees, there are limited guarantees in Postgres. The manual:

This ordering is unspecified by default, but can be controlled by writing an ORDER BY clause within the aggregate call, as shown in Section 4.2.7. Alternatively, supplying the input values from a sorted subquery will usually work. For example:

SELECT xmlagg(x) FROM (SELECT x FROM test ORDER BY y DESC) AS tab;

Beware that this approach can fail if the outer query level contains additional processing, such as a join, because that might cause the subquery's output to be reordered before the aggregate is computed.

If all you do in the next level is to aggregate rows, the order is positively guaranteed. Any yes, what we feed to the ARRAY constructor is a subquery, too. That's not the point. It would work with array_agg() as well:

SELECT c.identifier, p.persons
FROM   class c
   SELECT array_agg(identifier) AS persons
   FROM  (
      SELECT identifier
      FROM   person
      WHERE  class_identifier = c.identifier
      ORDER  BY name DESC
      LIMIT  2
      ) sub
   ) p
ORDER  BY c.identifier;

But I expect the ARRAY constructor to be faster for the case. See:

  • That's quite interesting. I learned that order of rows in a subquery is never guaranteed to be preserved in the outer query. So in this particular case, why is it to correct to assume that the rows in the innermost subquery are fed in the correct order to the ARRAY(...) construction? Aug 1, 2018 at 6:59
  • Answer my own question: this is not really a subquery (as in SELECT ... FROM (SELECT ... FROM ...)). This is a SELECT on a SELECT: SELECT ARRAY(SELECT ... FROM ...). Aug 1, 2018 at 7:06
  • 1
    Related to this: dba.stackexchange.com/a/159717/157363 Aug 1, 2018 at 8:57
  • 1
    @JariusHebzo: I added a bit to address the issue of row order in subqueries. Aug 1, 2018 at 17:24
  • 3
    Would it be correct to say that in both queries we can replace the left lateral join by just lateral join? In the absence of persons, the first query returns an empty array, the second one null, right? This contradicts the last sentence of dba.stackexchange.com/questions/173831/…, but I think that information is wrong? I think we need to check on p.persons is not null (in case of the first query) or p.persons != '{}' (in case of the second query) to output only classes with at least one person? Aug 1, 2018 at 18:26

Here's an alternative, but it is not any better than what you already have:

with enumeration (class_identifier, identifier, name, n) as (
    select  p.class_identifier, p.identifier, p.name
         , row_number() over (partition by p.class_identifier 
                              order by p.name desc)
    from     person as p
select c.identifier, array_agg(e.identifier order by e.n) as persons
from class as c
left join  enumeration e
    on c.identifier = e.class_identifier
where e.n <= 2
group by   c.identifier
order by   c.identifier;
  • This is an interesting approach, thanks for that. I now understand your comment above, indeed, we always need two orderings, there is no way around that. I think this answers my question! Jul 30, 2018 at 20:05
  • I wonder how this will perform with a real database. The CTE enumeration will hold the complete person table, if I am not mistaken (due to the nature of CTE's being a memory barrier in PostgreSQL). It's basically an in-memory copy of the person table. This might not be ideal, as essentially we only need a few rows from that table (2 for each class to be precise). Maybe we should add a select * from (...) where n <= 2 around the query in enumeration (instead of in the main query)? This way, the CTE enumeration does not longer contain the whole person table. Jul 30, 2018 at 20:08
  • I hope this makes sense, I have troubles explaining it in this tiny box. I demonstrated it in this fiddle: dbfiddle.uk/… Jul 30, 2018 at 20:18
  • 1
    It will probably be worse than your query. I added it just as a food for thougt since you seems to be investigating different techiques Jul 30, 2018 at 20:23
  • 1
    I really appreciate that! I am indeed trying to expand my SQL knowledge by trying out different things, without really knowing what I am doing all the time. Your answers are very helpful! Jul 30, 2018 at 20:26

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