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Fall 2022 Library Service Updates

Database Search Tips: Phrases

What to look for

  • Different databases interpret searches differently. A common variation is how databases recognize phrases.
  • Some assume that words typed next to each other should be searched as phrases.
  • Others automatically put a Boolean AND between your search terms, requiring that all the words be present, but not necessarily adjacent to each other.
  • These searches can retrieve very different results.

Phrase searching tips

Most databases allow you to specify that adjacent words be searched as phrases.

  • Using parentheses or quotes around search words is a common way to do phrase searching, but not all databases or search engines use them. For example:  "genetic engineering"
  • Hint: It is often very easy to do phrase searching from the Advanced or Guided search in a database.
  • Some databases may provide an option to specify that you want your words searched as a phrase.

Proximity operators

Many databases allow you to specify that the words you are searching are within a certain proximity of each other. Proximity operators are more specific than Boolean operators and make your search more precise.

Proximity operators also vary by database, but some common ones include:

w# = with

  • With specifies that words appear in the order you type them in.
  • Substitute the # with a number of words that may appear in between. If no number is given, then it specifies an exact phrase.
  • Examples:
    genetic w engineering (searches the phrase genetic engineering)
    Hillary w2 Clinton (retrieves Hillary Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, etc.)

n# = near

  • Near specifies that the words may appear in any order.
  • Substitute the # with a number of words that may appear in between.
  • Examples:
    cloning n3 human (retrieves cloning of humans, human cloning etc.)

Consult the database Help screens to find out how to search by phrases or to specify proximity.

This guide was adapted from the MIT Libraries Database Search Tips guide with permission under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC license

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