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13.8.2 EXPLAIN Syntax

    tbl_name [col_name | wild]

    {explainable_stmt | FOR CONNECTION connection_id}

explain_type: {
    FORMAT = format_name

format_name: {
  | JSON
  | TREE

explainable_stmt: {
    SELECT statement
  | DELETE statement
  | INSERT statement
  | REPLACE statement
  | UPDATE statement

The DESCRIBE and EXPLAIN statements are synonyms. In practice, the DESCRIBE keyword is more often used to obtain information about table structure, whereas EXPLAIN is used to obtain a query execution plan (that is, an explanation of how MySQL would execute a query).

The following discussion uses the DESCRIBE and EXPLAIN keywords in accordance with those uses, but the MySQL parser treats them as completely synonymous.

Obtaining Table Structure Information

DESCRIBE provides information about the columns in a table:

mysql> DESCRIBE City;
| Field      | Type     | Null | Key | Default | Extra          |
| Id         | int(11)  | NO   | PRI | NULL    | auto_increment |
| Name       | char(35) | NO   |     |         |                |
| Country    | char(3)  | NO   | UNI |         |                |
| District   | char(20) | YES  | MUL |         |                |
| Population | int(11)  | NO   |     | 0       |                |

DESCRIBE is a shortcut for SHOW COLUMNS. These statements also display information for views. The description for SHOW COLUMNS provides more information about the output columns. See Section, “SHOW COLUMNS Syntax”.

By default, DESCRIBE displays information about all columns in the table. col_name, if given, is the name of a column in the table. In this case, the statement displays information only for the named column. wild, if given, is a pattern string. It can contain the SQL % and _ wildcard characters. In this case, the statement displays output only for the columns with names matching the string. There is no need to enclose the string within quotation marks unless it contains spaces or other special characters.

The DESCRIBE statement is provided for compatibility with Oracle.

The SHOW CREATE TABLE, SHOW TABLE STATUS, and SHOW INDEX statements also provide information about tables. See Section 13.7.6, “SHOW Syntax”.

Obtaining Execution Plan Information

The EXPLAIN statement provides information about how MySQL executes statements:

EXPLAIN requires the SELECT privilege for any tables or views accessed, including any underlying tables of views. For views, EXPLAIN also requires the SHOW VIEW privilege. EXPLAIN ... FOR CONNECTION additionally requires the PROCESS privilege if the specified connection belongs to a different user.

With the help of EXPLAIN, you can see where you should add indexes to tables so that the statement executes faster by using indexes to find rows. You can also use EXPLAIN to check whether the optimizer joins the tables in an optimal order. To give a hint to the optimizer to use a join order corresponding to the order in which the tables are named in a SELECT statement, begin the statement with SELECT STRAIGHT_JOIN rather than just SELECT. (See Section 13.2.10, “SELECT Syntax”.)

The optimizer trace may sometimes provide information complementary to that of EXPLAIN. However, the optimizer trace format and content are subject to change between versions. For details, see MySQL Internals: Tracing the Optimizer.

If you have a problem with indexes not being used when you believe that they should be, run ANALYZE TABLE to update table statistics, such as cardinality of keys, that can affect the choices the optimizer makes. See Section, “ANALYZE TABLE Syntax”.


MySQL Workbench has a Visual Explain capability that provides a visual representation of EXPLAIN output. See Tutorial: Using Explain to Improve Query Performance.