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Humanities - English: Search Techniques

Guide for students of English

Approaching an assignment

How to approach an assignment:

1.    Identify the key term(s). A topic can have more than one key term, depending on the complexity of the topic.

2.    If there are terms that can be defined, e.g. democracy, nationalism, capitalism, etc., consult reference sources such as dictionaries and  encyclopaedias to define your terms.

3.    Once you have defined your terms, try to find books on the topic by searching on UJLink (Library Catalogue). If the topic is too recent, you will not find any books. find journal articles on databases.

Search Techniques

Search Techniques:

When looking for articles on databases, there are certain search techniques that will enable you to search more effectively.

Boolean Operators:

Boolean operators are used to string keywords. These operators are AND, OR and NOT.

Narrowing the search by using AND  will give you a specific result:  both words will be present in the record, e.g.

democracy AND Zimbabwe

Widening the search by using the Boolean operator OR is useful when you wish to combine alternative forms (synonyms) of the same term. Either or both of the words will be present in the record, e.g. (state OR country) (leader OR ruler).

Excluding references from the search by using the Boolean operator NOT will help you if you want to exclude references, e.g. pollution NOT oil; aids NOT children.

Phrase Searching:

To do phrase searching, you enclose terms to be searched as a phrase in quotation marks. This holds the terms together as you have keyed them in, e.g. “South Africa”, “affirmative action”, “African National Congress”.


This is allows you to search the “root” form of a word with all its different endings – it broadens your search, e.g. employ* will retrieve employ, employment, employee, employer, employees, employers, etc.


The wildcard is represented by a question mark (?). Enter your search terms and replace each unknown character with a ?, e.g. globali?ation. It then searches for globalisation and globalization, wom?n (women and woman)


Video on Search strategies'