Search Terms


Unlike Google, library databases work best with keywords, not sentences, so use just the big idea words in the search box.

Take words and phrases directly from your thesis statement to enter into book and article databases. For example:

There are serious nutritional health risks of feeding bioengineered foods to infants and children.
Screenshot of search box for EBSCO host database

Words and phrases would be:

  • Concept 1: health risks
  • Concept 2: bioengineered foods / genetically modified organisms
  • Concept 3: nutrition
  • Concept 4: infants / children


Synonyms are different words for the same thing:

  • Feline and canine are other words for cat and dog
  • Flu is short for influenza
  • Myocardial infarction is a clinical term for heart attack

Many databases have a standardized lists of terms, often called subject headings or subject terms, which can help with synonyms or alternative keywords. For example, when searching for elementary school, you can broaden your perspective by also searching for primary school. Other alternative terms include college for university, adolescent for teenager, juvenile for child.

Word Variations

Your search words may use acronyms:

  • GMO (genetically modified organism)
  • PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
  • Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)
  • SUV (sports utility vehicle)

Your search words may vary in spelling:

  • theater and theatre
  • labor and labour
  • gangster and gangsta, and
  • lychee, lichi, litchi, lichee

Some databases allow the use of a wildcard symbol to search for variations of a word with one search term. Examples include wom%n to search for both woman and women or lab$r to search for both labor and labour. Note that different databases use different symbols for wildcards.

Phrase Searching

In most databases if you search for more than one keyword, the database just makes sure that both keywords are present somewhere in the result.

But if your topic is two or more words that are combining to form a concept, you don’t want those keywords separated on different pages of an article.

Most databases, including LibCat and EBSCO's Academic Search Complete, use quotation marks around two or more words acting together as a phrase, for example, “artificial intelligence” “affordable housing” “great depression”