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Search Hacks: 3 Magic Words (Boolean)

A quick guide for getting the most out of library search tools and academic databases

3 Magic Words

There are 3 Magic Words, called Boolean terms (sometimes called Boolean operators, or command terms), you can use to connect or disconnect keywords.

Think of them like interlocking bricks, like Lego. Each brick stands alone, but you can also snap them together to create one larger piece. You can snap a brick off to shorten your piece.

a black, an orange, and a blue Lego piece

When you apply this "Lego concept" to keyword searching, you tell the search tool (database) to look for multiple terms/concepts at once, which will make your search more precise -- or you may allow the database to search for alternative terms that will bring back more results.    

3 Lego bricks snapped together to form 1 brick

Using the 3 Magic Words singly or in combination creates a more precise and powerful search, with a higher percentage of relevant results.

AND

AND connects different concepts. AND limits your search and reduces results by making them more precise.

Venn diagram illustrating AND

Jack AND Jill: results about both Jack AND Jill; ignores results that don’t mention both

The more keywords you connect with AND, the fewer results you will retrieve. The database will need to find each of your keywords in the text in order to show it to you.

OR

OR combines concepts.

OR expands your search and  increases results. This can retrieve an overwhelming large number of search results!

Venn diagram showing OR

Jack OR Jill: results about either Jack OR Jill

Using OR is helpful when we are searching for a concept that is described equally well by more than one term.

NOT

NOT excludes concepts and reduces results.

Use with caution! It can remove relevant results.

Venn diagram displaying NOT

Jill NOT Jack: results about Jill but without any mention of Jack

This type of search is good to use when you already know what you do NOT want. 

Simple Boolean

Muppet Names Boolean

GOOD, BETTER, BEST

Good: 

  • nurse AND education
  • adversting AND children
  • genetic engineering AND ethics

Better:

  • nurs* AND education
  • advertis* AND child*
  • gene* engineering AND ethic*

Best:

  • nurs* AND (educat* OR train* OR school*)
  • (advertis* OR market*) AND (child* OR adoles*)
  • gene* AND (alter* OR engineer*) AND (ethic* OR moral*)
*BE CAREFUL THOUGH!!*

Some words are not well-suited for truncation and will retrieve much more than you bargained for.

Look at "mat*". Our results could include mates, maternity, mating, matrix, and math.

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