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Medical Sciences: Database Search Tips: Phrases and Proximity

Recommended resources for the College of Osteopathic Medicine

Phrase Searching

This is the most precise search technique of all.  When you enclose multiple words with double quote marks (") on either side, you are telling the search engine that you want only results with those words right next to each other, in that exact order.

This is a good technique to use when you are searching for a 'term of art' (i.e., a term, in this case, one containing multiple words, that has a specialized meaning in a particular field or profession).  In other words, everyone when communicating about that topic uses that exact phrase. 

Another example of when using a phrase search would be useful is when you are seeking something like a book or movie title, or someone's name.


  • "Return on investment"
  • "Peer tutoring"
  • "Myocardial infarction"
  • "Shakespeare in Love"
  • "Of Mice and Men"
  • "Twin Peaks"
  • "President Lincoln"
  • "Steve Jobs"

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)
    Catherine w2 Middleton (retrieves Catherine Middleton, Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, 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.

Proximity Search Tips

Proximity searching allows you to search for two words that occur in the document within a certain number of words from each other. To do this, you usually type a proximity operator (will vary by database) as well as a number, between two search terms.

e.g. (from Ebsco databases):

(tax OR tariff) N5 reform
oil W3 (disaster OR clean-up OR contamination)
(baseball OR football OR basketball) N5 (teams OR players)

The databases we have that allow proximity searching include:

  • ProQuest databases (ABI Inform, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses)
    • Find ProQuest's proximity operators in their 'Command Search' help guide.
  • Ebsco databases (Too many to list here)
    • How to do proximity searches in Ebsco databases.
  • Science Direct
    • Find Elsevier's proximity operators in the 'Commands and proximity operators - expert search' part of their help guide.

Proximity Search 101