Syntax – Phrase

To search words as a phrase, means that you want your words to be found together in exactly that order. Most search engines will recognize a phrase if the words are enclosed in “quotation marks”.

For example, we might wish to find a Web site that had information about “age of spiritual machines”, the book by Ray Kurzweil. The quotation marks signify that we want those words to be searched as a phrase, not scattered about in a page with “age” in one paragraph and “machines” in another. At Bing, there are over 20,000 pages with the phrase “age of spiritual machines” (many of these advertisements for the book). Had we not stipulated phrase searching, the hits would have numbered around 600,000.

Another example of searching for a phrase would be if you were looking for information about hiking “The Bruce Trail” in Southern Ontario. We want to see only those pages that have the three words “The Bruce Trail” together in that order. (Tip: It’s a good idea to add Ontario to identify the location of the trail.)

Searching for phrases will narrow your results dramatically.

Phrase Search Exercise

Go to Google (

At Google we can use quotation marks to require words to be next to each other. We can also use * at the end to ask that the words be close together.

See the effect of this syntax on these searches (links open in new window).

  1. strategies for learning online –  many results are targeted at helping the student succeed with online learning. Google has found very relevant results.
  2. “strategies for learning online” – matches on  the exact phrase. Results are fewer, more narrow, and perhaps academic. If you are deeply researching this topic, you’ll want to explore some. Nonetheless, the query is rather tight.
  3. strategies for learning online * – search terms are found close together. Because these are words people in education would use results tend to have several scholarly articles.

Use Web search and Google Book Search for the following:

  1. Search the web for pages that make some mention of the book Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World by Don Tapscott. This was published in 2008 and is also available in digital format. You might even look for an excerpt.
  2. Find it in Google Book Search ( Use “About the Book” to explore.

Quotation marks are especially good to use when looking for scraps of quotations. Who said, “what we play is life”? What more can you learn about the quote? Look in Google’s Web Results and Book Results.

Check your search construction against the syntax answer page.

[Updated December 5, 2016]


Learn how to expand and narrow with boolean.