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Linguistics: Basic search strategy in 10 steps

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Particularly recommended for PhD students:

Surviving Linguistics: A Guide for Graduate Students [Paperback]

Monica Ann Macaulay (Author)

Cascadilla Press; 2nd edition (2011)

Boolean operators

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Here you can find more on Search Strategies!

Basic search strategy in 10 steps

I would like to give some basic advice on how to conceive a pertinent search strategy that will help you to find necessary resources.  It will be particularly important for any search query in electronic resources (for e.g. in a database). 


The following list provides a guideline for you to follow in formulating search requests, viewing search results, and modifying search results.


These procedures can be followed for virtually any search request, from the simplest to the most complicated.  For some search requests, you may not want or need to go through a formal search strategy.  If you want to save time in the long run, however, it's a good idea to follow a strategy, especially when you're new to a particular database.


A basic search strategy can help you get used to each database's features and how they are expressed in a search query.  Following the 10 steps will also ensure good results if your search is multifaceted and you want to get the most relevant results.



The 10 steps are as follows:


1. Identify the important concepts of your search.

Let's use the following topic as an example of a research paper that you are writing: "Vocabulary acquisition in French as a second language".

The important concepts would be:

  • Vocabulary acquisition
  • French language
  • second language


2. Choose the keywords that describe these concepts.

Use divers terminology ~ synonymes 

  • vocabulary acquisition or lexical learning
  • French language
  • second language or foreign tongue


3. Determine whether there are synonyms, related terms, or other variations of the keywords that should be included.


The best ways is to construct a table containing your concepts

vocabulary acquisition or 

lexical learning

French language 

second language or foreign tongue

vocabulary learning or lexical acquisition



semantic acquisition or semantic learning




4. Determine which search features may apply, including truncation, proximity operators, Boolean operators, expression search, and so forth.


5. Choose a relevant database, library catalog, etc.


6. Read the search instructions on the database's home page.  Look for sections entitled "Help," "Advanced Search," "Frequently Asked Questions," and so forth.


7. Create a search expression, using syntax, which is appropriate for the search tool.


Example of query:


(("vocabulary acquisitio!") OR ("lexical learnin!")) OR ("vocabulary learnin!" OR "lexical acquisitio")) AND ("French language") AND (("second language") OR ("second tongue"))



8. Evaluate the results.  How many hits were returned?  Were the results relevant to your query?


9. Modify your search if needed. Go back to steps 2-4 and revise your query accordingly.


10. Try the same search in a different database, following steps 5-9 above.