Introduction to QL

QL is the powerful query language that underlies CodeQL, which is used to analyze code. Queries written with CodeQL can find errors and uncover variants of important security vulnerabilities. Visit GitHub Security Lab to read about examples of vulnerabilities that we have recently found in open source projects.

Before diving into code analysis with CodeQL, it can be helpful to learn about the underlying language more generally.

QL is a logic programming language, so it is built up of logical formulas. QL uses common logical connectives (such as and, or, and not), quantifiers (such as forall and exists), and other important logical concepts such as predicates.

QL also supports recursion and aggregates. This allows you to write complex recursive queries using simple QL syntax and directly use aggregates such as count, sum, and average.

Basic syntax

The basic syntax of QL will look familiar to anyone who has used SQL, but it is used somewhat differently.

A query is defined by a select clause, which specifies what the result of the query should be. You can try out the examples and exercises in this topic directly in LGTM. Open the query console. Before you can run a query, you need to select a language and project to query (for these logic examples, any language and project will do).

Once you have selected a language, the query console is populated with the query:

import <language>

select "hello world"

This query simply returns the string "hello world".

More complicated queries typically look like this:

from /* ... variable declarations ... */
where /* ... logical formulas ... */
select /* ... expressions ... */

For example, the result of this query is the number 42:

from int x, int y
where x = 6 and y = 7
select x * y

Note that int specifies that the type of x and y is ‘integer’. This means that x and y are restricted to integer values. Some other common types are: boolean (true or false), date, float, and string.

Simple exercises

You can try to write simple queries using the some of the basic functions that are available for the integer, date, float, boolean and string types. To apply a function, simply append it to the argument. For example, 1.toString() converts the value 1 to a string. Notice that as you start typing a function, a pop-up is displayed making it easy to select the function that you want. Also note that you can apply multiple functions in succession. For example, 100.log().sqrt() first takes the natural logarithm of 100 and then computes the square root of the result.

Exercise 1

Write a query which returns the length of the string "lgtm". (Hint: here is the list of the functions that can be applied to strings.)


There is often more than one way to define a query. For example, we can also write the above query in the shorter form:

select "lgtm".length()

Exercise 2

Write a query which returns the sine of the minimum of 3^5 (3 raised to the power 5) and 245.6.


Exercise 3

Write a query which returns the opposite of the boolean false.


Exercise 4

Write a query which computes the number of days between June 10 and September 28, 2017.


Example queries

The exercises above all show queries with exactly one result, but in fact many queries have multiple results. For example, the following query computes all Pythagorean triples between 1 and 10:

from int x, int y, int z
where x in [1..10] and y in [1..10] and z in [1..10] and
      x*x + y*y = z*z
select x, y, z

See this in the query console

To simplify the query, we can introduce a class SmallInt representing the integers between 1 and 10. We can also define a predicate square() on integers in that class. Defining classes and predicates in this way makes it easy to reuse code without having to repeat it every time.

class SmallInt extends int {
  SmallInt() { this in [1..10] }
  int square() { result = this*this }

from SmallInt x, SmallInt y, SmallInt z
where x.square() + y.square() = z.square()
select x, y, z

See this in the query console

Now that you’ve seen some general examples, let’s use the CodeQL libraries to analyze projects. In particular, LGTM generates a database representing the code and then CodeQL is used to query this database. See Database generation for more details on how the database is built.

The previous exercises just used the primitive types built in to QL. Although we chose a project to query, they did not use the project-specific database. The following example queries do use these databases and give you an idea of what CodeQL can be used for. There are more details about how to use CodeQL below, so don’t worry if you don’t fully understand these examples yet!


import python

from Function f
where count(f.getAnArg()) > 7
select f

See this in the query console. The from clause defines a variable f representing a function. The where part limits the functions f to those with more than 7 arguments. Finally, the select clause lists these functions.


import javascript

from Comment c
where c.getText().regexpMatch("(?si).*\\bTODO\\b.*")
select c

See this in the query console. The from clause defines a variable c representing a comment. The where part limits the comments c to those containing the word "TODO". The select clause lists these comments.


import java

from Parameter p
where not exists(p.getAnAccess())
select p

See this in the query console. The from clause defines a variable p representing a parameter. The where clause finds unused parameters by limiting the parameters p to those which are not accessed. Finally, the select clause lists these parameters.

Learning CodeQL

  • To find out more about how to write your own queries, try working through the QL detective tutorials.
  • For an overview of the other available resources, see Learning CodeQL.
  • For a more technical description of the underlying language, see About QL.