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The Logic of Common Tale Expressions

Itzik Ben-Gan dives into common table expressions:

The source of the term aside, common table expression, or CTE, is the commonly used term by T-SQL practitioners for the structure that is the focus of this article. So first, let’s address whether it is an appropriate term. We already concluded that the term table expression is appropriate for an expression that conceptually returns a table. Derived tables, CTEs, views and inline table valued functions are all types of named table expressions that T-SQL supports. So, the table expression part of common table expression certainly seems appropriate. As for the common part of the term, it probably has to do with one of the design advantages of CTEs over derived tables. Remember that you cannot reuse the derived table name (or more accurately the range variable name) more than once in the outer query. Conversely, the CTE name can be used multiple times in the outer query. In other words, the CTE name is common to the outer query. Of course, I’ll demonstrate this design aspect in this article.

CTEs give you similar benefits to derived tables, including enabling the development of modular solutions, reusing column aliases, indirectly interacting with window functions in clauses that don’t normally allow them, supporting modifications that indirectly rely on TOP or OFFSET FETCH with order specification, and others. But there are certain design advantages compared to derived tables, which I’ll cover in detail after I provide the syntax for the structure.

Click through for a lot of great detail. On the question of derived tables versus common table expressions, my mental taxonomy is basically APPLY > CTE > derived table, but that’s in a context-free discussion. In practice, all three are useful and the best question to answer is “Which thing helps future developers understand best my intent?”