Skip to main content
HomeTutorialsSQL

Normalization in SQL (1NF - 5NF): A Beginner’s Guide

Database normalization is an important process used to organize and structure relational databases. This process ensures that data is stored in a way that minimizes redundancy, simplifies querying, and improves data integrity.
May 2024  · 9 min read

In this article, we will be exploring the basic concepts you need to know about normalization, its importance, and the various techniques that are involved. This article is for, but not limited to, those looking to break into the data industry.

What is Normalization in SQL?

Normalization, in this context, is the process of organizing data within a database (relational database) to eliminate data anomalies, such as redundancy.

In simpler terms, it involves breaking down a large, complex table into smaller and simpler tables while maintaining data relationships.

Normalization is commonly used when dealing with large datasets.

Let’s take a brief look at some scenarios where normalization is often used.

Data integrity

Imagine a database that contains customer information. Without normalization, if a customer changes their age, we would need to update it in multiple places, which would increase the risk of inconsistencies. By normalizing the data, we can have separate tables linked by a unique identifier that will ensure that the data remains accurate and consistent.

Efficiency querying

Let’s consider a complex database with multiple related tables that stores redundant information. In this scenario, queries involving joins become more complicated and resource-intensive. Normalization will help simplify querying by breaking down data into smaller tables, with each table containing only relevant information, thereby reducing the need for complex joins.

Storage optimization

A major problem with redundant data is that it occupies unnecessary storage space. For instance, if we store the same product details in every order record, it leads to duplication. With normalization, you can eliminate redundancy by splitting data into separate tables.

Why is Normalization in SQL Important?

Normalization plays a crucial role in database design. Here are several reasons why it’s essential:

  • Reduces redundancy: Redundancy is when the same information is stored multiple times, and a good way of avoiding this is by splitting data into smaller tables.
  • Improves query performance: You can perform faster query execution on smaller tables that have undergone normalization.
  • Minimizes update anomalies: With normalized tables, you can easily update data without affecting other records.
  • Enhances data integrity: It ensures that data remains consistent and accurate.

What Causes the Need for Normalization?

If a table is not properly normalized and has data redundancy, it will not only take up extra data storage space but also make it difficult to handle and update the database.

There are several factors that drive the need for normalization, from data redundancy(as covered above) to difficulty managing relationships. Let’s get right into it:

  • Insertion, deletion, and update anomalies: Any form of change in a table can lead to errors or inconsistencies in other tables if not handled carefully. These changes can either be adding new data to a database, updating the data, or deleting records, which can lead to unintended loss of data.
  • Difficulty in managing relationships: It becomes more challenging to maintain complex relationships in an unnormalized structure.
  • Other factors that drive the need for normalization are partial dependencies and transitive dependencies, in which partial dependencies can lead to data redundancy and update anomalies, and transitive dependencies can lead to data anomalies. We will be looking at how these dependencies can be dealt with to ensure database normalization in the coming sections.

Different Types of Database Normalization

So far, we have looked at what normalization in SQL is, why normalization in SQL is important, and what causes the need for normalization. Database normalization comes in different forms, each with increasing levels of data organization.

In this section, we will briefly discuss the different normalization levels and then explore them deeper in the next section.

database normalization

Image by Author

First Normal Form (1NF)

This normalization level ensures that each column in your data contains only atomic values. Atomic values in this context means that each entry in a column is indivisible. It is like saying that each cell in a spreadsheet should hold just one piece of information. 1NF ensures atomicity of data, with each column cell containing only a single value and each column having unique names.

Second Normal Form (2NF)

Eliminates partial dependencies by ensuring that non-key attributes depend only on the primary key. What this means, in essence, is that there should be a direct relationship between each column and the primary key, and not between other columns.

Third Normal Form (3NF)

Removes transitive dependencies by ensuring that non-key attributes depend only on the primary key. This level of normalization builds on 2NF.

Boyce-Codd Normal Form (BCNF)

This is a more strict version of 3NF that addresses additional anomalies. At this normalization level, every determinant is a candidate key.

Fourth Normal Form (4NF)

This is a normalization level that builds on BCNF by dealing with multi-valued dependencies.

Fifth Normal Form (5NF)

5NF is the highest normalization level that addresses join dependencies. It is used in specific scenarios to further minimize redundancy by breaking a table into smaller tables.

Database Normalization With Real-World Examples

We have already highlighted all the data normalization levels. Let’s further explore each of them in more depth with examples and explanations.

First Normal Form (1NF) Normalization

1NF ensures that each column cell contains only atomic values. Imagine a library database with a table storing book information (title, author, genre, and borrowed_by). If the table is not normalized, borrowed_by could contain a list of borrower names separated by commas. This violates 1NF, as a single cell holds multiple values. The table below is a good representation of a table that violates 1NF, as described earlier.

title

author

genre

borrowed_by

To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee

Fiction

John Doe, Jane Doe, James Brown

The Lord of the Rings

J. R. R. Tolkien

Fantasy

Emily Garcia, David Lee

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

J.K. Rowling

Fantasy

Michael Chen

The solution?

In 1NF, we create a separate table for borrowers and link them to the book table. These tables can either be linked using the foreign key in the borrower table or a separate linking table. The foreign key in the borrowers table approach involves adding a foreign key column to the borrowers table that references the primary key of the books table. This will enforce a relationship between the tables, ensuring data consistency.

You can find a representation of this below:

Books table

book_id (PK)

title

author

genre

1

To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee

Fiction

2

The Lord of the Rings

J. R. R. Tolkien

Fantasy

3

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

J.K. Rowling

Fantasy

Borrowers table

borrower_id (PK)

name

book_id (FK)

1

John Doe

1

2

Jane Doe

1

3

James Brown

1

4

Emily Garcia

2

5

David Lee

2

6

Michael Chen

3

Second Normal Form (2NF)

This level of normalization, as already described, builds upon 1NF by ensuring there are no partial dependencies on the primary key. In simpler terms, all non-key attributes must depend on the entire primary key and not just part of it.

From the 1NF that was implemented, we already have two separate tables (you can check the 1NF section).

Now, let’s say we want to link these tables to record borrowings. The initial approach might be to simply add a borrower_id column to the books table, as shown below:

book_id (PK)

title

author

genre

borrower_id (FK)

1

To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee

Fiction

1

2

The Lord of the Rings

J. R. R. Tolkien

Fantasy

NULL

3

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

J.K. Rowling

Fantasy

6

This might look like a solution, but it violates 2NF simply because the borrower_id only partially depends on the book_id. A book can have multiple borrowers, but a single borrower_id can only be linked to one book in this structure. This creates a partial dependency.

The solution?

We need to achieve the many-to-many relationship between books and borrowers to achieve 2NF. This can be done by introducing a separate table:

Book_borrowings table

borrowing_id (PK) book_id (FK) borrower_id (FK) borrowed_date
1 1 1 2024-05-04
2 2 4 2024-05-04
3 3 6 2024-05-04

This table establishes a clear relationship between books and borrowers. The book_id and borrower_id act as foreign keys, referencing the primary keys in their respective tables. This approach ensures that borrower_id depends on the entire primary key (book_id) of the books table, complying with 2NF.

Third Normal Form (3NF)

3NF builds on 2NF by eliminating transitive dependencies. A transitive dependency occurs when a non-key attribute depends on another non-key attribute, which in turn depends on the primary key. It basically takes its meaning from the transitive law.

From the 2NF we already implemented, there are three tables in our library database:

Books table

book_id (PK)

title

author

genre

1

To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee

Fiction

2

The Lord of the Rings

J. R. R. Tolkien

Fantasy

3

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

J.K. Rowling

Fantasy

Borrowers table

borrower_id (PK)

name

book_id (FK)

1

John Doe

1

2

Jane Doe

1

3

James Brown

1

4

Emily Garcia

2

5

David Lee

2

6

Michael Chen

3

Book_borrowings table

borrowing_id (PK)

book_id (FK)

borrower_id (FK)

borrowed_date

1

1

1

2024-05-04

2

2

4

2024-05-04

3

3

6

2024-05-04

The 2NF structure looks efficient, but there might be a hidden dependency. Imagine we add a due_date column to the books table. This might seem logical at first sight, but it’s going to create a transitive dependency where:

  • The due_date column depends on the borrowing_id (a non-key attribute) from the book_borrowings table.
  • The borrowing_id in turn depends on book_id (the primary key) of the books table.

The implication of this is that due_date relies on an intermediate non-key attribute (borrowing_id) instead of directly depending on the primary key (book_id). This violates 3NF.

The solution?

We can move the due_date column to the most appropriate table by updating the book_borrowings table to include the due_date and returned_date columns.

Below is the updated table:

borrowing_id (PK)

book_id (FK)

borrower_id (FK)

borrowed_date

due_date

1

1

1

2024-05-04

2024-05-20

2

2

4

2024-05-04

2024-05-18

3

3

6

2024-05-04

2024-05-10

By placing the due_date column in the book_borrowing table, we have successfully eliminated the transitive dependency.

What this means is that due_date now directly depends on the combined relationship between book_id and borrower_id. In this context, book_id and borrower_id are acting as a composite foreign key, which together form the primary key of the book_borrowings table.

Boyce-Codd Normal Form (BCNF)

BCNF is based on functional dependencies that consider all candidate keys in a relationship.

Functional dependencies (FD) define relationships between attributes within a relational database. An FD states that the value of one column determines the value of another related column. FDs are very important because they guide the process of normalization by identifying dependencies and ensuring data is appropriately distributed across tables.

BCNF is a stricter version of 3NF. It ensures that every determinant (a set of attributes that uniquely identify a row) in a table is a candidate key (a minimal set of attributes that uniquely identify a row). The whole essence of this is that all determinants should be able to serve as primary keys.

It ensures that every functional dependency (FD) has a superkey as its determinant. In other words, if X —> Y (X determines Y) holds, X must be a candidate key (superkey) of the relation. Please note that X and Y are columns in a data table.

As a build-up from the 3NF, we have three tables:

Books table

book_id (PK)

title

author

genre

1

To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee

Fiction

2

The Lord of the Rings

J. R. R. Tolkien

Fantasy

3

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

J.K. Rowling

Fantasy

Borrowers table

borrower_id (PK)

name

book_id (FK)

1

John Doe

1

2

Jane Doe

1

3

James Brown

1

4

Emily Garcia

2

5

David Lee

2

6

Michael Chen

3

Book_borrowings table

borrowing_id (PK)

book_id (FK)

borrower_id (FK)

borrowed_date

due_date

1

1

1

2024-05-04

2024-05-20

2

2

4

2024-05-04

2024-05-18

3

3

6

2024-05-04

2024-05-10

While the 3NF structure is good, there might be a hidden determinant in the book_borrowings table. Assuming one borrower cannot borrow the same book twice simultaneously, the combination of book_id and borrower_id together uniquely identifies a borrowing record.

This structure violates BCNF since the combined set (book_id and borrower_id) is not the primary key of the table (which is just borrowing_id).

The solution?

To achieve BCNF, we can either decompose the book_borrowings table into two separate tables or make the combined attribute set the primary key.

  1. Approach 1 (decompose the table): In this approach, we will be decomposing the book_borrowings table into separate tables:
    • A table with borrowing_id as the primary key, borrowed_date, due_date, and returned_date.
    • Another separate table to link books and borrowers, with book_id as a foreign key, borrower_id as a foreign key, and potentially additional attributes specific to the borrowing event.
  1. Approach 2 (make the combined attribute set the primary key): We can consider making book_id and borrower_id a composite primary key for uniquely identifying borrowing records. The problem with this approach is that it won’t serve its purpose if a borrower can borrow the same book multiple times.

In the end, your choice between these options depends on your specific data needs and how you want to model borrowing relationships.

Fourth Normal Form (4NF)

4NF deals with multi-valued dependencies. A multi-valued dependency exists when one attribute can have multiple dependent attributes, and these dependent attributes are independent of the primary key. It’s quite complex, but we will be exploring it deeper using an example.

The library example we’ve been using throughout these explanations is not applicable at this normalization level. 4NF typically applies to situations where a single attribute might have multiple dependent attributes that don’t directly relate to the primary key.

Let’s use another scenario. Imagine a database that stores information about publications. We will be considering a “Publications” table with columns, title, author, publication_year, and keywords.

publication_id (PK)

title

author

publication_year

keywords

1

To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee

1960

Coming-of-Age, Legal

2

The Lord of the Rings

J. R. R. Tolkien

1954

Fantasy, Epic, Adventure

3

Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen

1813

Romance, Social Commentary

The table structure above is violating 4NF because:

  • The keywords column has a multi-valued dependency on the primary key publication_id. What this means is that a publication can have multiple keywords, and these keywords are independent of the publication’s unique identifier.

The solution?

We can create a separate table.

Publication_keywords table

publication_id (FK)

keyword

1

Coming-of-Age

1

Legal

2

Fantasy

2

Epic

2

Adventure

3

Romance

3

Social Commentary

The newly created table (Publication_keywords) establishes a many-to-many relationship between publication and keywords. Each publication can have multiple keywords linked through the publication_id, which is a foreign key, and each keyword can be associated with multiple publications.

With this, we have successfully eliminated the multi-valued dependency and achieved 4NF.

Fifth Normal Form (5NF)

5NF is the most complex form of normalization that eliminates join dependencies. This is a situation where data needs to be joined from multiple tables to answer a specific query, even when those tables are already in 4NF.

In simpler terms, 5NF ensures that no additional information can be derived by joining the tables together that wasn’t already available in the separate tables.

Join dependencies are less likely to occur when tables are already normalized (in 3NF or 4NF), hence the difficulty in creating a clear and straightforward example for 5NF.

However, let’s take a look at this scenario where 5NF might be relevant:

Imagine a university database with normalized tables for “Courses” and “Enrollments.”

Courses table

course_id (PK)

course_name

department

101

Introduction to Programming

Computer Science

202

Data Structures and Algorithms

Computer Science

301

Web Development I

Computer Science

401

Artificial Intelligence

Computer Science

Enrollments table

enrollment_id (PK)

student_id (FK)

course_id (FK)

grade

1

12345

101

A

2

12345

202

B

3

56789

301

A-

4

56789

401

B+

Assuming these tables are already in 3NF or 4NF, a join dependency might exist depending on how data is stored. For instance, a course has a prerequisite requirement stored within the “Courses” table as the “prerequisite_course_id” column.

This might seem efficient at first glance. However, consider a query that needs to retrieve a student’s enrolled courses and their respective prerequisites. In this scenario, you would need to join the “Courses” and “Enrollments” tables, then potentially join the “Courses” table to retrieve prerequisite information.

The Solution?

To potentially eliminate the join dependency and achieve 5NF, we could introduce a separate “Course Prerequisites” table:

Course_prerequisite table

course_id (FK)

prerequisite_course_id (FK)

202

101

301

NULL

401

202

This approach separates prerequisite information and allows efficient retrieval of enrolled courses and their prerequisites in a single join between the “Enrollments” and “Course_prerequisites” tables.

Note: We are assuming a student can only have one prerequisite per course.

5NF is a very complex and rare type of normalization, so as someone just starting their learning journey in data, you might not find an application. However, it’s going to be added knowledge and will make you prepared when you stumble on complex databases.

Build Your SQL Skills

If you are reading this, then congratulations to you for sticking around to the end. It has been a great ride exploring what normalization in SQL is, why normalization in SQL is important, what causes the need for normalization, and the different types of database normalization. The scenarios used in explaining the different types of normalization are so you can fully understand and also be able to apply this knowledge in your learning journey.

Normalization is a fundamental skill for anybody starting their career in any data-related career path. By understanding these principles, you are now ready to build efficient and well-organized databases.

Learning is very important in the data space, and for you to enhance your SQL skills, we have some resources for you.

FAQs

What is normalization in DBMS?

Database normalization is a technique that optimally designs the schema of a relational database. It involves dividing tables into smaller subtables and storing pointers to data rather than replicating it.

Why is normalization important?

Normalization helps prevent data redundancy, improves data integrity, and simplifies data manipulation within a database.

Do I need to normalize my database to 5NF?

Not necessarily. 3NF or 4NF normalization is often sufficient for most databases. 5NF is the most rigorous form and might be beneficial for complex databases with specific query patterns.

How can I decide if I need to normalize to 5NF?

Carefully analyze your queries and data model. If you find yourself needing to join multiple tables to retrieve information that might be theoretically derivable from the separate tables themselves, then 5NF might be worth considering. However, always weigh the complexity against the potential performance gains. You can refer to the 5NF section, where a case scenario was used for more understanding.


Photo of Samuel Shaibu
Author
Samuel Shaibu

Experienced data professional and writer who is passionate about empowering aspiring experts in the data space.

Topics

Continue Your SQL Journey Today!

Course

Intermediate SQL

4 hr
212K
Accompanied at every step with hands-on practice queries, this course teaches you everything you need to know to analyze data using your own SQL code today!
See DetailsRight Arrow
Start Course
See MoreRight Arrow
Related

tutorial

What is Normalization in Machine Learning? A Comprehensive Guide to Data Rescaling

Explore the importance of Normalization, a vital step in data preprocessing that ensures uniformity of the numerical magnitudes of features.
Sejal Jaiswal's photo

Sejal Jaiswal

13 min

tutorial

Cleaning Data in SQL

In this tutorial, you'll learn techniques on how to clean messy data in SQL, a must-have skill for any data scientist.
Sayak Paul's photo

Sayak Paul

10 min

code-along

SQL for Absolute Beginners

Start from the very basics of what SQL is and why it's essential, move through key components such as retrieving data from databases, manipulation of data, and basic SQL queries.
Adel Nehme's photo

Adel Nehme

code-along

Data Modeling in SQL

In this live training, you'll learn about data cleaning, shaping and loading techniques and learn about common database schemas for organizing tables for analysis.
Andy Alseth's photo

Andy Alseth

code-along

Getting Started in SQL

Learn how to write basic queries in SQL and find answers to business questions.
Kelsey McNeillie's photo

Kelsey McNeillie

code-along

A Beginner's Guide to Data Analysis with SQL

In this session, DataCamp's VP of Media Adel Nehme & co-host of the DataFramed podcast, shows you how to get started with SQL.
Adel Nehme's photo

Adel Nehme

See MoreSee More