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English Language and Literature

Library resources in English Language and Literature

Search Strategies and Techniques

Key Concepts

Identify your key concepts in your research question or topic. Always avoid searching with long phrases of unrelated words.

What are the affects of climate change on sea ice?

The example phrase above is too long to search. Instead, identify the topic's key concepts. The underlined words above are the key concepts in this phrase. Key concepts describe your topic even when taken out of the context of your phrase. The other words in the phrase (for example: affects, what, and are) do not describe the topic by themselves. To find the most relevant results in any search, only use words that describe your topic.


Different authors use different words to describe the same thing. It is very important to search using synonyms (different words describing the same concept) in multiple searches in order to explore all the results that fit your topic. Also, this helps explore similar or related concepts.

climate change AND sea ice
climate change AND polar ice caps

Both sea ice and polar ice caps are different terms describing the same (or related) concept, so using both terms in your searches will make sure you retrieve all the results applying to the concept of climate change and sea ice.

Using AND, Using OR

Combine your key concepts using AND
climate change AND sea ice
Using AND narrows your results, to find only the results with both key concepts.

Expand your key concepts by using OR
sea ice OR polar ice caps
Using OR broadens your results, to find all results that have either concept. This is a helpful technique when there are different words or phrases that are both commonly used to describe the same thing, like "happiness" and "quality of life"


Use quotes around multiple words or short common phrases representing one concept. Remember, the first step of searching is to avoid using long phrases with unrelated words. So only use quotes around multiple words expressing a single concept.

polar ice caps"

"sea ice"

Using quotes around "sea ice" will avoid unrelated results where the word ice is referring to ice cream, ice tea, or ice fishing. The database or catalog will only look for results where the word sea appears next to the word ice. This isn't always necessary - sometimes databases recognize common phrases - but if you are striking out on a search, consider this method.

This is useful in Google, which only has one search box to enter search terms. However, in databases with multiple search boxes, you don't need to use quotes. You can use each box to act like quotes around a phrase or concept. So quotes are most useful in single-box searches. Use the multiple box interface to your advantage!

Truncation Symbols * ? $

Since different authors use different words, it can be important to explore all forms of the word.

 retrieves only the word with that exact spelling.
farm would not include:

Using a truncation symbol allows you to include all forms of a word.
farm* retrieves all the forms of that word.
farm*  includes:

Be very careful! It is easy to truncate too soon and retrieve too many forms of the word that do not apply. For example, if you search photo* for the concept of photography, you may accidentally retrieve unrelated words like photosynthesis and photon in addition to words you intended, like photographer and photographs.

Usually the truncation symbol is an *. However, sometimes databases will use other symbols, such as the $ or ? for trucation. (Our library's book catalog, for example, uses the $).

Subject Guide

Anna Bjartmarsdottir's picture
Anna Bjartmarsdottir

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