Skip to main content
Ask A Librarian

Databases 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.
  • Example:  "genetic engineering"
  • Hint: It is often very easy to do phrase searching from the Advanced or Guided search in a database.
  • You can click a button specifying that you want your words searched as a phrase, as in the example below:


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 operator examples

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.  You can also Ask Us for advice on searching phrases.