Rajendra Gupta
SQL Delete statement

SQL Server TOP clause overview and examples

March 19, 2020 by

This article explores the SQL Server TOP clause using various examples, along the way, we will also run through performance optimization while using the TOP clause in SQL Server.


Sometimes we want to retrieve a specific number of records from the SQL table rather than retrieving all table records. We can use the WHERE clause in a SELECT statement to limit the number of rows. Suppose you have a customer table and you want to retrieve records for customers belonging to a particular country. There might be many records satisfying the condition. We require top ‘N’ customer records to satisfy the conditions. For this requirement, we can use TOP or ROW_Number() clauses.

Let’s go ahead and explore the TOP clause and its performance aspects.

SQL Server TOP clause syntax

SELECT TOP Expression | Percentage [Column_Names] [ WITH TIES ]
FROM [Table_Name]

  • Expression: We can specify a numeric expression that defines the number of rows to be returned
  • PERCENT: Here, we can use PERCENT value to return the percentage number of rows from total rows in the output
  • WITH TIES: We can specify the WITH TIES clause to return more rows with values that match the last row in the result set. For example, we want the top 10 customers based on the purchase amount. If we do not use WITH TIES, SQL Server returns exactly 10 records while we might have more customers with a similar purchase cost. In this case, we can use WITH TIES to return more rows. We must use WITH TIES along with the ORDER BY Clause

Let’s look at a few examples of the SQL Server TOP clause for [HumanResources.Employee] table in the AdventureWorks sample database.

Example 1: SQL Server TOP Clause with a constant value

In this example, we retrieve the top 10 records from a SQL table without specifying any condition and ORDER BY Clause.

Sample data

Let’s filter the output and retrieve only relevant columns. We can specify the required column names in the select statement.

SQL Server TOP clause

In the next query, we specify an ORDER BY Clause to sort results in descending order of birthdate column.

Result in sorted order

If we do not specify the DESC clause, it sorts result in ascending order, and the top statement shows the required data.

Descending order

Example 2: TOP Clause with a PERCENT value

We can use PERCENT in a TOP statement to retrieve N PERCENT of rows in the output. The following query returns 2 percent of rows in the output.

We have a total of 290 records in the [HumanResources.Employee].

Specify a PERCENT value

Two percent of 290 is 5.8 that is a fractional value, so SQL Server rounds output to six rows (next whole number).

View result

Example 3: SQL Server TOP Clause and WITH TIES clause

In the following query, we retrieve records from the SQL table order by [SickLeaveHours] column.

We get 15 rows in the output, as shown below.

WITH TIES clause

Let’s execute the previous query by adding the WITH TIES clause.

We get 18 records in the output despite adding the TOP 15 clause. In the output, we have multiple records for SickLeaveHours = 22, therefore WITH TIES clause adds all records have the same values and we get 18 records now in the output.

View output difference due to WITH TIES clause

Example 4: TOP Clause and SQL Delete statement

We can use TOP Clause in a SQL delete statement as well. We should use the ORDER BY clause in the delete statement to avoid unnecessary deletion of data.

In the above query, we want to retrieve the top 10 customers’ records in [orderdate] ascending order. Execute the query, and it deleted 13 records. We specified the TOP 10 clause, so it should not delete more than 10 records.

It might delete more records if the column specified in the TOP Clause contains a duplicate value. Therefore, we should use a delete statement with TOP carefully and use it with the primary key column only.

SQL Delete statement

Example 5: TOP Clause and SQL Insert statement

The following query inserts the top 10 records from a select statement into [TempInsert] table. First, let’s create a SQL table using the CREATE TABLE statement with relevant data types.

We use the OUTPUT clause to display the records inserted in the TempInsert table. Executing the query gives the following result. We can use TOP Clause in insert statement as well, but it is recommended to use it in the Select statement. If we use it in the INSERT clause, it might cause performance issues, especially for a large table.

SQL Insert statement

Example 6: SQL Server TOP Clause and SQL UPDATE statement

We can use TOP Clause in a SQL Update statement as well to restrict the number of rows for an update. Essentially, it is a combination of the select statement and update. In the following query, we use the TOP clause in the select statement and update the values in the [HumanResources.Employee] table.

SQL UPDATE statement

Example 7: The TOP clause in a variable of a select statement

We can use a variable to define the number of records in the TOP statement. In the following query, we defined an int variable @i and specified value 10 for it. Later, we use this variable in the TOP clause.

TOP Clause  in a variable of a select statement

Performance optimization for SQL Server TOP clause

For this section, let’s generate some test data and use the TOP clause in the select statement.

Now, clear the buffer cache, enable the actual execution plan in SSMS and execute the following query.

Performance optimization of TOP clause

Now, let’s run another select statement after clearing the buffer cache and view the execution plan.

The execution plan is the same; however, we see a warning in the sort operator. Sort operator also took 1.205s in comparison to 0.112s of the previous execution.

Sort warning

Once we hover the mouse over the sort operator, it shows that the sort operator used tempdb to spill data. It read and write 1977 pages from the tempdb spill.

tempdb spill.

In many cases, this sort operator and TempDB spill might cause performance issues, and we should eliminate it using proper indexes. We should never ignore the TempDB spill in the query execution plan. In the above image, we can see it caused the TempDB spill due to the ZIP column. It is the same column for which we want to sort the data.

For this example, let’s create a Non-clustered index on the ZIP column

Once we have created the index, update the statistics with FULLSCAN so that query optimizer can use this newly created index.

Let’s rerun the select statement that caused the TempDB spill.

In the execution plan, we do not have a sort operator, and it uses a NonClustered scan along with clustered key lookup. It also eliminated the TempDB spill.

NonClustered scan and no TempDB Spill


In this article, we get a glimpse of the SQL Server TOP clause using various examples. We also looked at the costly sort operator and its performance implications. You should always look at the workload, tune the query and create proper indexes.

Rajendra Gupta
Latest posts by Rajendra Gupta (see all)