For once, I find myself at an utter loss in terms of coming up with a good question title.

Consider the three following tables. Each has additional columns, but only the columns relevant to the relationships between the tables are mentioned:

  • Table a has a primary key a_id
  • Table b has a primary key b_id and a column a_id which is a foreign key to a (one-to-many relationship)
  • Table reference has a primary key ref_id

reference is a list of sources that are cited to substantiate information contained in the other 2 tables. As such, I need tables to relate them together. Both a and b have many-to-many relationships with reference, but there is an additional complication: a footnote number. This footnote number must be unique for each a and reference pair, but it is only required when a relationship between a b and the same reference exists. (Of course, that b must be related to the same a.) The best way I have come up with to represent this relationship so far is a pair of tables:


  • Columns: a_id, ref_id, footnote_num (nullable)
  • Primary key: a_id, ref_id
  • Foreign keys: a_id to table a; ref_id to table reference


  • Columns: b_id, a_id, ref_id
  • Primary key: b_id, ref_id
  • Foreign keys: b_id, a_id to table b; a_id, ref_id to table bridge_a_reference

This ensures data consistency. There can only be a relationship between b and reference if a corresponding relationship between a and reference exists and b is related to the correct a. It also ensures that the footnote number will be consistent for all a/reference pairs. However, it's redundant, storing the relationship between a and b a second time (though enforced to be consistent, at least), and it doesn't ensure the footnote number is required for the b/reference relationships.

I've tried rearranging the tables in my head a few times, but everything else I can come up allows some kind of inconsistency (b to reference relationships without the corresponding a to reference or b to a relationship or inconsistent footnote numbers for the a/reference pairs.) How can I better structure my bridge tables to eliminate redundancy and ensure the footnote requirements? Is it even possible?

  • How about adding the footnote_sum (as NOT NULL) to table bridge_b_reference and then modify the FK to (a_id, ref_id, footnote_sum) to table bridge_a_reference ? Jan 21, 2014 at 17:26
  • @ypercube There are a/reference pairs that do not have a corresponding b/reference pair, and those entries should not have a footnote number.
    – jpmc26
    Jan 21, 2014 at 17:28
  • Those would still have NULL in that table (bridge_a_reference). but when you want to add a related row in the bridge_b_reference table, you'd have (because of the FK) to modify first the row in the bridge_a_reference and assign a value to that null. Jan 21, 2014 at 17:28
  • @ypercube Oh, I misunderstood. I see. That would ensure that the footnote number is required for the b/reference table, but at the cost of more redundancy.
    – jpmc26
    Jan 21, 2014 at 17:30
  • I think it can be improved a bit. Let me form an answer. Can you clarify what you mean with "unique" in the sentence: "This footnote number must be unique for each a and reference pair," Jan 21, 2014 at 17:31

1 Answer 1


Here is a suggestion so you can enforce the constraints you want declaratively. (I've simplified the table names a bit, removed the bridge_ prefix.)

We remove footnote_num from:

Table:      a_ref         -- was named:  bridge_a_reference
Primary key: 
     (a_id, ref_id)
Foreign keys:
     a_id  -> a
     ref_id -> reference

We add this table - which will basically store only those rows from a_ref with footnote, those you want to add children into the b_ref:

Table:      a_ref_with_footnote 
Primary key: 
    (a_id, ref_id)
Unique key:
    (a_id, footnote_num)
Foreign keys: 
    (a_id, ref_id)  -> a_ref

And finally the 3rd table stays as in your design except the foreign keys which now reference the intermediate table (a_ref_with_footnote):

 Table:     b_ref         -- was named: bridge_b_reference:
 Primary key: 
     (b_id, ref_id)
 Foreign keys: 
     (a_id, b_id) -> b
     (a_id, ref_id) -> a_ref_with_footnote
  • I decided to go with a small variation of this. I eliminated the foreign key from a_ref_with_footnote to a_ref, and I created a view that combines it with the a_ref table to get a complete list of all the references associated with a row in a directly or indirectly. This way, entries in a_ref are not required for entries in b_ref, which makes things a little looser.
    – jpmc26
    Jan 22, 2014 at 19:48

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