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Database Search Tips

Phrase Searching

  • Different databases interpret searches differently. A common variation is how databases recognize phrases.

  • Some databases treat words typed next to each other as a phrase.

  • 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.

  • Example:  "genetic engineering"

  • Tip: It is often very easy to do phrase searching from the Advanced or Guided search in a database.

  • For instance: You can enter words in the last box below if you want them searched as a phrase. This example is from the WestlawNext database.

Proximity operators

  • Can be useful when you are searching in the full text of an article or an e-book (i.e. all the words in the entire text of an article or an e-book.)

  • 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 operator examples

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

w# = within

  • within 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.

  • Example: tax W8 reform  finds the words if they are within eight words of one another and in the order in which you entered them. (It retrieves tax changes proposed by the reform.)

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.  You can also Contact us for advice on searching phrases.


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