Conditional Cypher Execution

At some point you’re going to write a Cypher query requiring some conditional logic, where you want different Cypher statements executed depending on the case.

At this point in time Cypher does not include native conditional functionality to address this case, but there are some workarounds that can be used.

This article covers the ways you can perform conditional Cypher execution.

First a note on CASE

The CASE expression does some conditional logic, but the logic can only be used to output an expression. It cannot be used to conditionally execute Cypher clauses.

Using correlated subqueries in 4.1

Neo4j 4.1 allows correlated subqueries, letting us perform a subquery using variables present mid-query. By combining subquery usage with filtering, we can use subqueries to implement conditional Cypher execution.

This requires the use of WITH as the first clause within the subquery CALL block, for the purpose of importing variables to the subquery.

This import usage has some special restrictions that do not normally apply to WITH usage:

  1. You may only include variables from the outer query and no others. You cannot perform calculations, aggregations, or introduction of new variables in the initial WITH.
  2. You cannot alias any variables within this initial WITH.
  3. You cannot follow the initial WITH with a WHERE clause for filtering.

If you try any of these, you will be met with some kind of error, such as:

Importing WITH should consist only of simple references to outside variables. Aliasing or expressions are not supported.

or more cryptically, if you try to use a WHERE clause after the initial WITH

Variable `x` not defined

(where the variable is the first one present in the WITH clause)

You can get around all of these restrictions by simply introducing an additional WITH clause after the importing WITH, like so:

MATCH (bruce:Person {name:'Bruce Wayne'})
CALL {
    WITH bruce
    WITH bruce
    WHERE bruce.isOrphan
    MERGE (batman:Hero {name:'Batman'})
    CREATE (bruce)-[:SuperheroPersona]->(batman)
    WITH count(batman) as count
    RETURN count = 1 as isBatman
}
RETURN isBatman

This demonstrates the ability to filter on imported variables to the subquery by adding a second WITH clause, which is not restricted in the same way as the initial WITH used for the import into the subquery.

The subquery must return a row for the outer query to continue

Subqueries are not independent of the outer query, and if they don’t yield any rows, the outer query won’t have any rows to continue execution.

This can be a problem with conditional Cypher, since by definition you are evaluating a condition as a filter to figure out whether to do something or not.

If that conditional evaluates to false, then the row is wiped out, which is often fine within the subquery itself (you don’t want to create Batman if Bruce isn’t an orphan yet), but you usually want to continue execution no matter what happened in the subquery, and maybe return some boolean value for whether or not the conditional succeeded.

There are some workarounds to avoid having the row wiped out.

Use a standalone aggregation to restore a row before the subquery return

An aggregation (such as count()), when there are no other non-aggregation variables present to act as a grouping key, can restore a row even if the row has been wiped out.

This is because it is valid to get the count() of 0 rows, or to do a collect() over 0 rows to produce an empty collection.

Again, there must be no other non-aggregation variables present when you perform this aggregation.

In the above example, we are using this technique in the subquery so that the outer query can continue no matter how the conditional evaluates:

    WITH count(batman) as count
    RETURN count = 1 as isBatman

With that count() we will get 0 or 1 no matter how the query evaluated, allowing us a row to continue execution when the subquery finishes.

Use a UNION subquery to cover all possible conditionals

We can instead use a UNION within a subquery, where the set of all the unioned queries covers all possible conditional outcomes. This ensures there will be an execution path that succeeds and will return a row, allowing the outer query to continue.

This is also useful for keeping the equivalent of if/else or case logic together, as otherwise you would have to use separate subqueries per conditional block.

With this approach you no longer have to use aggregation to ensure rows remain, you just need to make sure at least one of the UNIONed queries will succeed no matter what.

MATCH (bruce:Person {name:'Bruce Wayne'})
CALL {
    WITH bruce
    WITH bruce
    WHERE bruce.isOrphan
    MERGE (batman:Hero {name:'Batman'})
    CREATE (bruce)-[:SuperheroPersona]->(batman)
    RETURN true as isBatman

    UNION

    WITH bruce
    WITH bruce
    WHERE NOT coalesce(bruce.isOrphan, false)
    SET bruce.name = 'Bruce NOT BATMAN Wayne'
    RETURN false as isBatman
}
RETURN isBatman

Note that we have to use the import WITH for each of the UNIONed queries, to ensure each of them imports variables from the outer query, and we still must use a second WITH to allow us to filter.

Since there is no limit to the number of queries that can be unioned together, you can use this approach to handle multiple conditional evaluations.

Using FOREACH for write-only Cypher

The FOREACH clause can be used to perform the equivalent of an IF conditional, with the restriction that only write clauses are used (MERGE, CREATE, DELETE, SET, REMOVE).

This relies on the characteristic that the Cypher in a FOREACH clause is executed per element in the given list. If a list has 1 element, then the Cypher in the FOREACH will execute. If the list is empty, then the contained Cypher will not execute.

We can use CASE to evaluate a boolean condition and output a single-element list, or an empty list, and this drives the conditional Cypher execution (to execute the subsequent write-only clauses, or not).

For example:

MATCH (node:Node {id:12345})
FOREACH (i in CASE WHEN node.needsUpdate THEN [1] ELSE [] END |
  SET node.newProperty = 5678
  REMOVE node.needsUpdate
  SET node:Updated)
...

To get the equivalent of if/else logic, a separate FOREACH must be used for the else part.

Remember that any other non-write clause, such as MATCH, WITH, and CALL, cannot be used with this approach.

APOC conditional procedures

Alternately, the APOC Procedures library includes procedures designed for conditional Cypher execution.

There are two types of procedures:

apoc.when() – When you only have an if (and maybe else) queries to execute based on a single condition. Cannot write to the graph.

apoc.case() – When you want to check a series of separate conditions, each having their own separate Cypher query to execute if the condition is true. Only the first condition that evaluates to true will execute its associated query. If no condition is true, then an else query can be supplied as a default. Cannot write to the graph.

Read and write variations

The procedures shown above have read permission only, they are not allowed to write to the graph, and so if there are any write operations in the conditional Cypher within, the query will error out.

There are variations available that have permission to write to the graph:

apoc.do.when() – Conditional if/else Cypher execution like apoc.when(), but writes are allowed to the graph.

apoc.do.case() – Conditional case Cypher execution like apoc.case(), but writes are allowed to the graph.

This is necessary because the read or write mode of a procedure must be declared in the procedure code.

Having only a read-only procedure would not have the capability to write to the graph.

Having only a write capable procedure means it’s not callable by read-only users, even if the conditional Cypher doesn’t perform any writes.

Both of these are necessary to offer full capabilities no matter the user type or needs of the conditional Cypher query.

The full signatures:

CALL apoc.when(condition, ifQuery, elseQuery:'', params:{}) yield value

based on the conditional, executes read-only ifQuery or elseQuery with the given params

CALL apoc.do.when(condition, ifQuery, elseQuery:'', params:{}) yield value

based on the conditional, executes writing ifQuery or elseQuery with the given params

CALL apoc.case([condition, query, condition, query, …​], elseQuery:'', params:{}) yield value

given a list of conditional / read-only query pairs, executes the query associated with the first conditional evaluating to true (or the elseQuery if none are true) with the given params

CALL apoc.do.case([condition, query, condition, query, …​], elseQuery:'', params:{}) yield value

given a list of conditional / writing query pairs, executes the query associated with the first conditional evaluating to true (or the elseQuery if none are true) with the given params

In all cases, the condition must be a boolean expression, and all conditional queries (ifQuery, elseQuery, query) are actually Cypher query strings, and must be quoted.

As such, be careful to properly handle quotes within your query string. If the query string itself is inside double-quotes, any strings within that query ought to be single-quotes (or vice versa).

Using these procedures can be tricky. Here are some more tips to help avoid the most common tripping points.

Dealing with quotes/escapes in complex nested queries

For more complicated queries (such as nested queries that must handle quotes at multple levels), consider either defining the query string as a variable first, then pass the variable into the procedure, or alternately pass the conditional queries as parameters to the query itself. This might save you from the headaches of dealing with escape characters within Java strings.

Pass parameters that must be visible within the conditional queries

When executed, the conditional Cypher queries do not have visibility to the variables outside of the CALL.

If a query must see or use a variable, pass it along as part of the params map argument to the call like so:

MATCH (bruceWayne:Person {name:'Bruce Wayne'})
CALL apoc.do.when(bruceWayne.isOrphan, "MERGE (batman:Hero {name:'Batman'}) CREATE (bruce)-[:SuperheroPersona]->(batman) RETURN bruce", "SET bruce.name = 'Bruce NOT BATMAN Wayne' RETURN bruce", {bruce:bruceWayne}) YIELD value
...

The params map is the last argument of the call: {bruce:bruceWayne}, and allows the bruceWayne variable to be visible to any of the conditional queries as bruce. Additional parameters can be added to the params map if needed.

Conditional queries must RETURN something if you want to keep executing the query after the CALL

Currently, when a (non-empty) conditional query is executed, and the query doesn’t RETURN anything, nothing is YIELDed for the row, wiping out the row. For that original row, anything after the CALL is now a no-op, since there is no longer a row to execute upon (Cypher operations execute per row).

While this may be fine for when the conditional CALL is the last part of the query (and thus there is nothing more to execute after), this behavior will be an unwelcome and confusing surprise to anyone who wants to continue the query, but forgot to add a RETURN to their conditional queries.

The resulting symptom is that the query executes up to the conditional CALL, but (maybe for all rows, maybe for only a subset) no part of the query after the CALL gets executed.

To avoid confusion, it may help to always include a RETURN in all of your conditional queries (except those you leave completely blank, such as no-op else queries…​they behave as expected).

This often-confusing behavior will be fixed up in a later APOC update within 2020. ”’

  • Last Modified: 2020-10-15 08:05:54 UTC by Andrew Bowman.
  • Relevant for Neo4j Versions: 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 3.5, 4.1.
  • Relevant keywords cypher, conditional, apoc.