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Database Search Tips: Phrase Searching

a guide to ways to improve your searching in library databases


Phrase searching means searching a database for words in a precise order.

You would employ phrase searching when the order of the words does matter.

Different databases interpret searches differently.

For assistance on phrase searching, please contact your subject specialist librarian, or stop by the OSU Library Reference Desk.

Phrase Searching Tip

The easiest way to search for terms next to each other is to enclose them in quotation marks.


"global warming"

"drunk driving"

Why Search as a Phrase?

Different databases interpret searches differently. Some databases assume that two words next to each other should be searched as a phrase. Some databases will put a boolean operator AND between two words.

For example, if you were to look for "global warming" in a database, that database will interpret that search in one of two ways:

  • "global warming" as a phrase, as you probably intended it, or
  • "global AND warming", which you probably didn't intend it.

 Phrase searching allows us to search for words in records that are next to each other.

Frequently, searching as a phrase is as easy as placing quotation marks around the words you want to search as a phrase. For example, "global warming".

Many databases allow you to select to search as a phrase by using drop down menus and selecting it.

For example, in the "Classic Catalog", go to Advanced Search and look for this:

Phrase Searching OPAC Image

If you don't see a drop down menu option for phrase searching, try enclosing your phrase in quotation marks.

Proximity Searching

Some databases allow you to specify that words you are searching are within a certain proximity to each other. That is, you can tell some databases how close to each other two words are.

There is no standard for this technique, however.Always check the database help screens to learn specifics.

Some common proximity operators:

w# = with

  • specifies that words appear in the order you type them
  • substitute the # symbol for the number of words that may appear in between. If no number is given, then the database specifies it as an exact phrase.


global w warming searches the phrase global warming

galileo w10 inquisition searches galileo within 10 words of inquisition


n# = near

  • specifies that words may appear in any order
  • substitute the # symbol for the number of words that may appear in between.


television n2 violence would find "television violence" or "violence on television" but not "television coverage of the violence in the middle east affected high school students"