Pronouncing SQL: S-Q-L or Sequel?

I know, I know, tomato-tomahto, but I’ve had people tell me I say it wrong when said each way, which has left me rather confused, so I decided to do some research and figure out how SQL is actually pronounced. SQL is the language used for querying and managing data in a relational database system. Some people say S-Q-L and some people say “sequel”. This difference in pronunciation also effects the writing of documentation. The indefinite article that’s used before the term (a or an) is based on how it’s pronounced (try saying “a SQL” and “an SQL”). No one wants to sound ignorant, so which way is correct? It turns out they’re both correct/acceptable, but that the S-Q-L way of saying it is more “official”.

SQL was initially developed at IBM by Donald Chamberlin and Raymond Boyce. It was initially called “Structured English Query Language” (SEQUEL) and pronounced “sequel”, though it later had to have it’s name shortened to “Structured Query Language” (SQL) due to trademark issues. It was created to supplant the then popular QUEL database language, and the name “sequel” was meant as a pun (it was the sequel to QUEL) [1]. However, this leads to the big question – was language still called “sequel” after the name change?

If you look at Oracle’s official documentation on SQL, it says it’s still pronounced “sequel” [2]. However, if you look at MySQL’s official documentation, it says “MySQL” is officially pronounced “‘My Ess Que Ell’ (not ‘my sequel’)” [3], and Wikipedia says SQL is officially pronounced “S-Q-L” and references an O’Reilly book on the subject [4]. So this is no help, the major sources aren’t agreeing on the way it’s “officially” pronounced.

Then a thought occurred to me: SQL was created in the 70’s, the creators are probably techies, I can probably just email them and ask them how it’s pronounced! Ray Boyce had passed away at a young age, but Don Chamberlin was alive and now teaching at a university. I felt a little silly, but I decided to fire off a short email to him:

Hello Don,

I’m sorry to waste your time with such a silly question, but I’ve often heard SQL pronounced S-Q-L or as Sequel. I’ve also seen the official pronunciation listed both ways. According to wikipedia, you and Raymond Boyce created the language and it was shortened to SQL after some legal dispute. So my question is, is there an official pronunciation to SQL? Thank you for your time.

– Pat

To my delight, he replied back:

Hi Pat,

Since the language was originally named SEQUEL, many people continued to pronounce the name that way after it was shortened to SQL. Both pronunciations are widely used and recognized. As to which is more “official”, I guess the authority would be the ISO Standard, which is spelled (and presumably pronounced) S-Q-L.

Thanks for your interest,
Don Chamberlin

I felt a little dumb wasting his time with such a goofy question, but I was thrilled he replied back. Later I would find out that he himself pronounces it as “sequel” [5], so it’s interesting he would be so unbiased, though I suppose his pronunciation is consistent with him noting that the original guys kept calling it “sequel”. With this I felt I had found my answer: Both were acceptable, though the standard indicated S-Q-L was probably more official.

I don’t have any plans to be that guy and start correcting people who say “sequel”, though now I feel I can at least defend saying S-Q-L if someone tries to correct me. Additionally, while this may seem like a really trivial matter, some people seem to take it rather seriously. On a thread at Oracle’s message forum, a DBA who pronounces it “sequel” mentioned that “I’ve rejected interviewees because they didn’t know how to pronounce SQL … If you can’t pronounce it correctly, then I have doubts as to your ability to use it correctly.” [6] Though then again, the Oracle community seems to have adopted the “sequel” way of saying it, so maybe adapting to whatever environment you’re in is the best policy. Whatever the case, knowing why it’s said one way or another can useful.

[1] http://www.ibphoenix.com/resources/documents/design/doc_123
[2] http://docs.oracle.com/cd/B10501_01/server.920/a96540/intro.htm
[3] http://docs.oracle.com/cd/E17952_01/refman-5.1-en/what-is-mysql.html
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sql
[5] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghxpXpTuALM#t=33m23s
[6] https://forums.oracle.com/forums/thread.jspa?threadID=630585&start=15&tstart=0

72 thoughts on “Pronouncing SQL: S-Q-L or Sequel?”

  1. I pronounce “SQL” when related to MySQL or other open source projects as S-Q-L, however when it comes to Oracle, MSSQL, or Sybase, I say “sequel” — that goes for both the software and the languages themselves. I don’t even think about it anymore, it’s just automatic.

  2. That’s probably the best way to go. Right now I find myself saying S-Q-L most of the time, but will switch to saying “sequel” when I’m talking to the DB admins at my work (who are mostly oracle guys).

  3. I initially always said SQL because I essentially always work with MySQL and that’s the culture. However when I first started getting involved with people in the Microsoft Windows Server world, there was a condescending attitude I received from some (but not most) that if you say “S-Q-L” then you clearly don’t know anything about databases at all. I actually had two different people tell me this point blank, and instead of being a culture warrior, I just change for the culture now, depending on to whom I’m speaking and what about.

    1. I just don’t understand why they’re so particular with the pronunciation when it IS still the same technology. As long as you’re great working with it, then it doesn’t matter (for me).

  4. i always used S-Q-L but here in Italy we are anyway a bit “elastic” with english 🙂 but i found really dumb that they consider you expert or not only from how you pronouce SQL

    1. Agreed! It’s just another form of elitism :/ Such a useless point on which to judge a person’s experience, imo.

  5. I say T-S-Q-L or M-S-S-Q-L or My-S-Q-L, but “sequel”-Server or “sequel” language for these reasons:

    a) when I said S-Q-L (in 1993) I was corrected that this was “wrong”. Also the “official” Microsoft documentation said so. (I’m Microsoft biased.)

    b) aggregated names are something else (especially product names), so I use the “written” version (S-Q-L) for these cases. “My-sequel” sounds really wrong to me.

    Nice article!

  6. Great post, Pat!

    As the author of “SQL in a Nutshell”, also an O’Reilly book, I’d talked to a number of people at the various vendors involved with their SQL implementations. At the time of the 2nd edition of the book, I’d covered the ANSI standard implementation, plus Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, IBM DB2 UDB, MySQL, PostgreSQL, and Sybase.

    In early discussions, I saw little consistency. One thing I began to see over time, though, was that most everyone talking about the language itself was that they said “S-Q-L”. Talking about a product or a vendor dialect, it was “sequel” as in “PL – sequel” (PL/SQL), “Transact – sequel” (T-SQL), and “sequel server” (Microsoft SQL Server and Sybase SQL Server).

    Still, inconsistency rules the day!

    -Kev

    1. hey Kevin,

      Thanks for dropping in! I’ve actually seen your SQL in a Nutshell book at work so it’s really cool to have you comment on my blog :). MS has also adopted the sequel pronunciation, so that may be why so many vendors also use sequel. But yeah, inconsistency definitely rules the day.

  7. Very nice article and thank you for the research. I’ve heard it both ways of course, and I can’t really say which way more often. But at my age (58), I don’t think I could change from pronouncing it sequel, the way the guy who taught me the language said it.

  8. Google query for “a sql”: 8,480,000 results
    Google query for “an sql”: 3,640,000 results
    From these estimates, roughly 70% of people pronounce it as “sequel” and not s-q-l.

    Pronouncing it as sequel only takes two syllables.
    Pronouncing it as s-q-l takes three.
    The creator of the language himself even pronounces it as sequel.

    1. The Creator of the language is quoted above.

      Using Google for something like this is very, very flawed. The first result I get for the quoted phrase “a sql” is the wikipeida page, and the string “a sql” is no where to be found on that page or in the cached version that Google used to crawl it. Similarly, in the top 20 results I also get a page titled “SQL: COUNT Function”, which doesn’t contain the string “a sql”. So Google is trying to be smart somehow and is factoring in pages even if they don’t contain “a sql”. In addition, the results from that metric could be pulling in multiple pages from domains/subdomains that have a bias one way or the other (microsoft.com has over 500k pages indexed with “a sql”). Whatever the case, that metric does not describe what you think it does.

      Additionally, that argument ignores the fact that MySQL, PostgreSQL and SQLite all have official pronunciations of S-Q-L and that Microsoft and Oracle products have adopted pronunciations of “sequel”.

      Whether you pronounce it sequel or S-Q-L, you’re in good company, but trying to narrow the decision down to a google search is flawed and ignores too many important factors.

      1. Nah, xkcd has proven the “Google search results” method to be a sound statistical way to prove things! (like with Numbers and Dangers).

        On a more serious note, nice blog entry! I’ll probably continue saying “sequel” but will probably follow the advice to just say it however the person I’m talking to says it.

    2. “Pronouncing it as sequel only takes two syllables.
      Pronouncing it as s-q-l takes three.”

      Do you also say World Wide Web dot Google dot com? World Wide Web has 3 syllables and WWW has 9.

      Is it double-u double-u double-u, dub-ya dub-ya dub-ya (George Dub-Ya Bush), or just dub dub dub.

    3. That’s hardly conclusive evidence. I pronounce it S-Q-L but I always write “a SQL Server” or “a SQL Query” because it starts with a consonant and not a vowel. I know there are cases where words start with consonants that use an (e.g. ‘an hour’) and words that start with a vowel that use a (e.g. ‘a uniform’)… but not everyone follows the same rules.

      1. All vowel ‘sounding’ words are generally preceded with the article ‘an’ much like in ‘an hour’ (pronounced like our). In this case as S is pronounced as ‘ES’ it would normally be written as ‘an SQL query’.

  9. Thanks for the article, cleared so much up for me without having to formulate silly questions myself 😉

    Honestly, I always thought it is S-Q-L and thought it was silly that my dbms-professor pronounced it sequel (or more like: “si-kl” with an i like in pity or knitting).
    I put it off as some weird German-guy-speaking-English thing (I live in Germany) until I checked again today.

    The more you know 😉

  10. Some years and several jobs ago I sat in on a meeting for a new product launch where most of the attendees were sales or admin. The buzz was that this was our new flagship super fast product that used ‘Sequel’. As we were mainly an Oracle shop and I was unfamiliar with this new product I tentatively enquired if it in fact used SQL Server. I was met with blank faces but eventually someone told me that yes, this would have SQL Server as a back end.
    Since then I have found many people in other companies using ‘sequel’ as an abbreviation for SQL Server, so to avoid any confusion I tend to use ‘SQL’ for the language unless I am in a conversation whith someone who is using ‘sequel’ and knows what they are talking about.
    Incidentally, when I did my original Oracle course (over 10 ears ago now) I do remember the instructor saying that some people pronounced SQL as sequel but he did not because you would have to pronounce all the other words that contained ‘SQL’ in them in a similar way (SQLCA, SQLERRM, SQLERRD etc.), which could lead to a lot of confusion.

  11. I’ve been in IT before “IT” was even a word, but am new to SQL & studying to break into the field. I landed here to learn the correct pronunciation of SQL, MySQL, SQL Server, etc. If I get an interview, I think I will wait until they say it first. Rejecting an interviewee for pronouncing it differently than the interviewer thinks it should be pronounced and therefore doubting the interviewee’s ability to use SQL is illogical (& other things). That would be a fortunate rejection though, because I really wouldn’t want to work for someone like that. Been there. Done that. I remember the brouhaha over whether to spell it “data base” or “database”. That was a new word back then. Maybe in 30 more years this SQL pronunciation dilemma will end peaceably.

  12. I made the Oracle Assocciate certification, worked in a highly “Oracle-Influenced” company for over 3 Years and made some high-level SQL and PL/SQL courses. NONE of the experts around me during that time ever pronounced it “Sequel”. Neither the Teachers nor the DB-Admins or other Oracle-People around me.
    I know, there are people saying “Sequel” but I always thought, this is missleading since it is S-Q-L (essquell) and not C-Q-L (seequell).

    1. Apparently you didn’t read the article. The ‘C’ comes from it’s short lived life called SEQL, emphasis on the ‘SE’.

  13. So you mean its not pronounced like that furry park animal, the squirrel? or MySquirrel? Cause that’d be my dialect…..

  14. I was saying SQL, until I heard Bill Gates pronounced (“Microsoft sequel”) about MS RDBM, and I had to think about what he was referring to. Now I say “sequel”, because I like acronyms that have nice pronounciations (qt, icq, json, etc.)

  15. Hah, nice article. I’ve decided to stick to saying “Sequel” for everything except for MySQL. I predominantly work with MSSQL, and most people that also do pronounce it “Sequel”. Friends and co-workers that work with MySQL usually pronounce it “My S-Q-L”. Anyways, at least I can give them some history of why they’re pronounced differently, and that it doesn’t really matter.

  16. “On a thread at Oracle’s message forum, a DBA who pronounces it ‘sequel’ mentioned that ‘I’ve rejected interviewees because they didn’t know how to pronounce SQL … If you can’t pronounce it correctly, then I have doubts as to your ability to use it correctly.'”

    That’s arrogant, since I’ve known Nuclear (pronounced “Noo-clear”) physicists who pronounce the word Nuclear as “Nuke-u-lar”. Pronunciation has nothing to do with aptitude.

  17. I love the guts. This made my day. I, too, am bothered with how SQL is pronounced (I pronounce it as ‘S-Q-L’) because when I read articles with SQL in it, it’s always written with an ‘a’ and not an ‘an’ and I hate grammatical errors. >.<
    So, I end up shifting my pronunciation to 'Sequel' just to calm myself.

    1. I think the ‘a’ or ‘an’ is not a justification at all. when it comes to internet users, everybody is not Shakespeare. And more than 60 -70% of internet users are non-native English speakers. Non native speakers have problem plugging ‘a’ or ‘an’ even before straight vowels, then when it comes to acronyms like SQL – I think most people would be confused in a 50-50 situation (like the word honest) – use a or an…some would consider it as the letter ‘s’ itself, some would go by the pronunciation – eskewel and so e- which one is correct? – I don’t know.. (may be I should sharpen my ESL tools again)..

      1. Errmm. I was referring to myself mostly because I can consider myself a grammar nazi (although English is not my native tongue).

  18. Nice one, answering the exact question I was looking for..
    I used to hear SQL, my wife is a programmer and she says SQL, when it came that I had to learn it, many people at my work were calling it sequel – I was wondering by calling it SQL am I being an old-school at my work place? but then again, whenever I was taking my youtube or lynda.com lessons, they all were calling it SQL.
    Now I have a basis to continue call it SQL.

  19. “I’ve rejected interviewees because they didn’t know how to pronounce SQL…

    Oh good, because I would just as soon not work for an asshole. Nevermind that “interviewee” is not even a word.

  20. Screw the convention, pronounce it as “Squall” so it’s only one syllable, and damn anyone who doesn’t accept this simplest of forms.

  21. Is there a UK/USA divide going on here? In the UK it was always s.q.l. When I moved to the States it was all sequel, which I found odd at first but then I learnt the ropes. Then I moved back and it seems most the the UK has been sequel-ised. Which I find a bit sad. I mean, wars have been started over less!

  22. See for me, I just go my own way and pronounce it as ‘sqwool, or ‘sqwll’, which sometimes gets my coworkers (not db or programming people) calling it ‘Squirrel’. As such we have a custom written utility program which automates running certain SQL commands on various databases which is aptly named SQuirreL. Then we started to have fun with it: The ‘pre-defined’ sets of SQL are held in a ‘.nut’ file which you give to SQuirreL. When you want to see what scripts have been run, you check the SQuirrel’s .log to see what .nut files it has ‘eaten’. We thought about naming the log files .poop, but I felt that was too far. I know right now there’s people reading this cringing, but I say lighten up. My boss when presented with the tool, did not get ANY of the Squirrel/nut references… I mean the tool’s icon was a cartoon squirrel holding an acorn for crying out lout, but I digress.

    So yeah, I call it Sqwll or Sqwool, but only when talking to people who don’t matter.

  23. Great post, thanks! It seems to me that the “older” techies pronounce it “sequel” and the younger generation pronounces it S-Q-L. Personally, I like the official name and here’s my reasoning. SQL is an abbreviation. I don’t know of any abbreviation that has it’s own pronunciation, e.g. B.L.V.D. It’s not pronounced “blev-d.” It’s pronounced “Boulevard.” So, in my mind, there are only two proper ways to say it:

    S-Q-L or
    “Structured Query Language”

  24. sorry to waste your time on such a dumb question too 😛
    but i really want to know what font you used for the quotes
    they look magnificent

    1. The font is called “Lato”. Here’s are the CSS rules used:

      font-family: Lato, sans-serif;
      font-size: 19px;
      font-style: italic;
      font-weight: 300;

  25. Referring to where you said Wikipedia claims it’s pronounced S-Q-L is incorrect. Wikipedia claims it’s pronounced “sequel” (shows /?si?kw?l/ right at the top for the pronunciation key) and that source you’re referring to says (copy and pasted, and I quote) “One final note: SQL is not an acronym for anything (although many people will insist it stands for
    “Structured Query Language”). When referring to the language, it is equally acceptable to say the letters individually (i.e., S. Q. L.) or to use the word sequel.”

    1. Wikipedia itself is not a source. It’s also editable, so anyone can change it to say what they want. When I viewed it 2 years ago it did not have the “sequel” pronunciation up at the top.

      Also, it most definitely does stand for “Structured Query Language”. At the top of the current Wikipedia article it says that and lists 4 sources.

  26. I’ve always pronounced SQL as it is spelled (S-Q-L). Given the history and context though, it seems that each has its place. Nonetheless, this is a fantastic post with an excellent commentary I must say (for the most part), which, by the way, has been ongoing for over 2 years now.

    Now the real question is, what is the proper pronunciation for “Linux”?

    For those who are curious, check out this video.

  27. Interesting article! When I first read up on SQL, my mind naturally pronounced it SEQUEL without knowing any of the historical context I filled in the missing vowels. Probably because SEQUEL is quicker to say — 2 syllables versus 3. Then when I covered it in a class everyone was saying S-Q-L, so I started doing that too, but one day I overheard someone else calling it SEQUEL, so I opted for the lazy root myself. I actually have to stop to think and force myself if I want to say S-Q-L, but SEQUEL comes naturally.

  28. Long before MS purchased the POS (pronounced P-O-S) imitation dataloss assurance system, SQL was pronounced S-Q-L.

    For further historical context, a “Sequel” server was a high-end Unix server machine manufactured by a company called Sequel, who later changed their name to Sequent.

    Informix and Informix programmers back in the day (late 80’s/early 90’s) called it S-Q-L and usually anyone referring to the language as sequel was equated with someone using Microsoft’s acquired toy (and dataloss prone) database rather than an actual programmer using a high-end system like Informix’s Online. At one point there was a product, ESQL/C from Informix, which I’m positive was not called EESEQUELSEE but rather E-S-Q-L-C and was basically a high-level ‘C’ library for making SQL engine calls from a ‘C’ program.

    SQL was also usually paired with the acronym RDBMS (relational database management system) and I’m quite sure that SQL/RDBMS was not pronounced sequel-reedbums (good name for a band) but rather S-Q-L-R-D-B-M-S.

    To this day, whether correct or not, every time I hear it called sequel or sequel-server, I cringe about having to deal with yet another noob who thinks they’re a programmer.

    But… whatever!

    1. That’s awesome. Haha! Cringing at Sequel noobs is like when I cringe when someone tells me they have their A+ certification to segue into their rant of how much they know. *facepalm*

    1. That was groan inducing, though also kind of hilarious. I feel like they threw the beer in there to try and be relatable and hip.

      As for the pronunciation, it seemed like Bill was using Sequel for the product name and S-Q-L for the more generic use.

  29. I agree. I give him credit for being aware of the context he was using the term in. “The best thing about Sequel Server” referring to the Microsoft-specific SQL server and then “from the same S-Q-L server” referring to SQL servers in general. This should be the definitive video that shows when to use each of the pronunciations.

  30. @Clint.

    Actually there are alot of abriviations that are pronounces instead of said. NIC(NICK), CAC(CACK), SAC(SACK) (Network Interface Card, Common Access Card, SIPR Access CARD(SIPR is pronounce SIP ER stands for Secret Internet Protocol Router)

  31. Reading that last part about the hiring manager who wouldn’t hire someone who didn’t pronounce SQL properly reminded me that you should never feel rejected over not getting the job. The truth of the matter is that you never know just how big of an idiot the interviewer really is.

  32. Just an argument on the “a” vs “an” before SQL with the English language rules. No matter what, when writing an acronym, you always put “a” or “an” based on the spoken out non-ancronym form. The reader determines whether to switch that to the other spoken forms. So when writing about SQL, “We have a SQL database server.” would be proper. Why? Because when the acronym SQL would be spoken out completely, you would say, “We have a Structured Query Language database server.” This way, no matter what way it is spoken, you’ll always know how to write it.

    “We have an MS-DOS box still running.” would be incorrectly written even though no one would ever speak it as “Microsoft DOS.” The only time you would change it over to the spoken form is if you are referring to someone speaking aloud as in story-writing form. That is it. Professional documentation would never include spoken form.

    How’s THAT for off topic!?

    1. You’re assuming SQL is an acronym. If its an acronym, that would mean it’s pronounced sequel. If it’s pronounced S-Q-L, it’s an initialism.

      Also, I’m not sure I agree with your rule. Do you have a source for it? From what I’ve read, written language is a representation of the spoken word, and which indefinite article you use is based on the vowel sound that comes after it.

  33. Awesome post!
    BTW, I would fire an admin who rejected interviewees based on how they pronounced the a term (any term) immediatelly. I teach this thing and students can call it sweet tiger bananas, if they wish, as long as they pass the test.

  34. Recently, I heard a programmer saying “sequel”, and thought to my self ‘why is he pronouncing it in such a silly way ?!’ .Then I found out that it can correctly be spelled like that. needless to say, I now feel really dumb.

  35. Great post. I dont know why MySQL have stated that they are called my-esqkewel. I’m not budging from my syllable saving mysequel.
    And I don’t know why I am relieved that creator says sequel when he’s around the house because it’s blatantly obvious that’s how you ought to say it, but I am.

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