Entity-relationship diagrams, also called ERDs or ER diagrams, are flowchart-like diagrams that explain the structure of entities, attributes, and their relationships in a database. They are mainly used for relational database design, and can be used to troubleshooting designs. There are many notations and symbols that are unique to ERDs that you need to know in order to read and create them.

ER diagram notations and symbols

Similar to other diagram shapes, in ER diagrams entities are represented with rectangles, attributes are represented by ovals or inside entities, and relationships are shown in diamonds or with lines. There are six notation types, some more common than others.

Gleek is perfect for creating an entity-relationship diagram in Chen or Crow's foot notation.

Arrow notation

Arrow notation is simple and easily recognizable. Its main focus is the number of relationships entities have within a system.

Guide to entity-relationship diagram notations & symbols: Arrow notation
Arrow notation

Arrow notation symbols

  • Zero or one relationship – a single-headed arrow, with an open circle on the line.
  • One relationship – A straight line with one arrowhead
  • Zero or many relationships – Two arrowheads, one sitting just behind the other, and a straight line
  • One or many relationships – Two arrowheads, like above, with a short, perpendicular line.

Barker’s notation

Invented by Richard Barker, this notation is most commonly used for describing data in Oracle. Barker’s notations are widely used, and most people familiar with diagrams have seen these notations before.

Barker’s notation symbols

Entities are displayed as rectangles with rounded edges, attributes with one of three symbols inside the entity box, and relationships with various lines.

Attributes can be shown in one of three ways:

  • Unique identifier – Shown with a pound sign, or hashtag (#)
  • Mandatory – This attribute is shown with an asterisk (*)
  • Optional – Represented by ‘O’

Relationships are drawn to show both optionality and degree, so there each relationship line tells the reader two things.

Optionality symbols

  • Mandatory relationship – A straight, solid line
  • Optional relationship – A dashed line
Guide to entity-relationship diagram notations & symbols: Barker's notation
Barker’s notation

Relationship degree symbols

  • One to one – One solid line, like with mandatory relationships
  • One to many – On one end of the line, there are two branching lines, like a fork or a trident
  • Many to many – Trident shapes are on both ends of the line
  • UID bar – A perpendicular line, just behind the trident shape on a relationship line

Chen notation

Peter Chen, the creator of Chen’s notation, invented this more detailed way of notation in 1976. Chen’s notation was one of the first to be used in software design, and is still popular in ERD creation. Unlike Barker’s notation and UML, entities, relationships, and attributes have many different ways of being represented.

Chen notation symbols

Let’s start with entities. An entity is shown in a rectangle, just like in many other notations. But, that is where the similarities stop. There are 2 more ways to describe entities:

  • Weak entity – A rectangle within a rectangle
  • Associative entity – A diamond within a rectangle

Attributes are in ovals. Here are some other symbols used to define attributes:

  • Key attribute – The title of the attribute is underlined
  • Partial key attribute – The attribute’s name is underlined with a dashed line
  • Composite attributes – These attributes branch off from a larger attribute, and are a different color
  • Multivalued attribute – An oval within an oval
  • Computed/derived attribute – An oval with a dashed line

Relationships are defined with optionality, cardinality, degree, participation, and type; using lines and diamonds.

Type

  • Strong relationship – A solid-lined diamond
  • Weak relationship – A diamond within a diamond, like a weak entity

Optionality

  • Mandatory – A solid line
  • Optional – A dashed line

Note that these are the same as in Barker’s notation.

Cardinality (degree)

  • One to one – A 1 is at each end of the relationship
  • One to many – A 1 is at one end, and N is at the other. N represents ‘many’.
  • Many to one – Like one to many, but reversed
  • Many to many – M is on one end, and N is on the other
Guide to entity-relationship diagram notations & symbols: Chen notation

Participation

  • Total participation – Two parallel lines
  • Partial participation – One line

Crow notation

Crow’s foot notation, often called just Crow notation, uses many of the same symbols as Barker’s notation and arrow notation, but in different ways. Entities are in rectangles with their attributes inside. Relationships are defined much like they are in other notations, but  major difference is the presence of multiplicities. Multiplicities are symbols that tell the reader the number of times instances can associate with others.

Gleek is perfect for creating an entity-relationship diagram in Chen or Crow's foot notation.

Crow notation symbols

Multiplicity symbols

There are two marks that indicate multiplicity. The first mark, closest to the end of the line, represents the maximum number of times an instance of an entity can be associated with other instances

  • One time – A short, perpendicular line
  • Many – A three-pronged line, like in Barker’s notation

The second mark, behind the first, represents the minimum number of times an instance of an entity can be associated with other instances. The minimum can only be zero or one, and they are referred to as ‘optional’ or ‘mandatory’, respectively.

Guide to entity-relationship diagram notations & symbols: Crow's foot notation
Some of the crow’s foot notation relationships
  • Optional – An open circle
  • Mandatory – A short, perpendicular line

IDEF1X notation

Short for Integration Definition for Information Modeling, this notation style is simple and uses letters more often than the other notations listed here.

Guide to entity-relationship diagram notations & symbols: IDEF1X notation
IDEF1X notation

IDEF1X notation symbols

Attributes don’t have any specific symbols, but their placement determines what type they are. Primary attributes are listed in the top half of the entity rectangle, and other attributes are listed in the lower half.

Like in Chen notation, entities can be described as weak or strong, or, dependant and independent.

  • Strong entity – A rectangle with sharp corners
  • Weak entity – A rectangle with rounded corners

Relationships are shown with either dashed or solid lines, with filled in circles at one or both ends, like many other notation types. Letters are at the end of relationships lines, and tell the reader the cardinalities of the entity relationships.

  • Zero, one, or more – No letter
  • One or more – P
  • Zero or more – Z
  • Cardinality is specified – {n}
  • N to M – N-M
  • Exactly N – N

UML notation

UML, which stands for Unified Modeling Language, is extremely popular and used in many different diagram types. Check out our recent post on UML diagrams to learn more about them.

Gleek is perfect for creating an entity-relationship diagram in Chen or Crow's foot notation.

UML notation symbols

  • Entity – Rectangle shape
  • Generalization – Empty arrow at the end of a relationship line
  • Aggregation – Empty diamond at the end of a relationship line
  • Composition – Filled in diamond at the end of a relationship line

Relationships only have solid lines, and have numbers signifying cardinalities at the end of the line. There are a few ways to show cardinality.

Guide to entity-relationship diagram notations & symbols: UML notation
UML notation
  • Zero or one – 0..1
  • Only one – 1
  • Zero or more – 0..*
  • One or more – 1..*
  • Specific range – n..m

Looking to create your own diagram? Try out Gleek, a text-based diagramming tool that allows your to quickly make diagrams with ease. Need to use Chen or Crow’s foot notations? Gleek supports both notation styles. Get started for free today.

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