Get close…but not too close…

As we’ve mentioned in other help resources, there’s a little trick called ‘phrase searching’ which allows you to find multiple search terms together in a specific order by enclosing them in quotation marks.  While that’s a great strategy, what do you do when you need to find your terms close together but not in any particular order? Well, as you might have guessed, there’s a trick for that too: proximity searching. (Yaaaaay!)


Image by ebbmart. CC license here.

(Now that that’s out of the way….) This is a particularly useful strategy when you’re searching for a concept that can be expressed in a number of ways.

For example, let’s say you’re looking for sample dissertations in which the author developed their own testing instrument. You hop on over to the dissertation database, highlight the search box, and then….wait…how do you search for this?

Searching for the phrase “instrument development” is too specific and relies too heavily on other researchers using the same phrase as you.  But searching for ‘development’ AND ‘instrument’ is too broad and you know you’ll be inundated with results to sift through.  This is the perfect situation for the proximity search!

So, how do you do it?

Proximity searching will require using some particularly strange syntax.  Essentially, you need to use a symbol (typically the letter ‘N’) to tell the database you want to find your search terms ‘near’ each other. And you also need to include a number which represents how many terms apart you want to find your search terms.

The syntax, then, ends up looking something like: ‘Search term 1’ N/# ‘Search term 2’

What?  I know, it sounds strange, so let’s go a bit farther with our example. When you think about it, there are several ways a researcher might describe developing an instrument:

“the development of an instrument”

“for this study an instrument was developed”

“the process of developing the instrument”

I can see that the terms ‘development’ and ‘instrument’ are usually no more than 2 or 3 terms apart. Also, I have noticed that it’s likely people will use different endings of the word ‘develop’. So in the ProQuest Dissertations database I would build my proximity search like so:

instrument N/3 develop* (forgot what the asterisk does? Check out our post on truncation here.)


Some snippets of results returned from this search include:

  • “the purpose of this study was to develop an instrument for the assessment of”
  • “the instrument developed consists of behavioral descriptors”
  • “I developed an instrument to assess whether”

Prefer to see this tip in action?  Check out our quick tip proximity searching video:

The fine print…as per usual…is that different databases may use different syntax/symbols for a proximity search.  I showed the ‘N/#’ example as this is used by all ProQuest databases.  Should you ever try to run a proximity search and find it does not work as you expected, consult the help guide for the tool you’re using to see their preferred syntax.

Happy Searching!