The difficulty of expressing database queries was examined as a function of the language used. Two distinctly different query methods were investigated. One used a standard database query language, SQL, requiring users to express an English query using a formal syntax and appropriate combinations of boolean operators. The second used a newly designed Truth-table Exemplar-Based Interface (TEBI), which only required subjects to be able to choose examplars from a system-generated table representing a sample database. Through users' choices of critical exemplars, the system could distinguish between interpretations of an otherwise ambiguous English query. Performance was measured by number correct, time to complete queries, and confidence in query correctness. Individual difference analyses were done to examine the relationship between subjects' characteristics and ability to express database queries. Subjects' performance was observed to be both better, and more resistant to variability in age and levels of cognitive skills, when using TEBI than when using SQL to specify queries. Possible reasons for these differences are discussed. © 1990, Academic Press Limited. All rights reserved.