Using Proximity Operators

There may be times when using the Boolean operator AND for your searches is not as effective as you might like. Simply telling a database to find documents in which all of your search terms appear somewhere in the document may result in the retrieval of many documents that aren't relevant to your research topic.

You can use proximity searching to find documents in which your search terms appear near each other, which increases the chances that the documents will be relevant to your topic.

For example, if you wanted to find articles that discuss debt forgiveness, it probably wouldn't be very helpful to search for debt AND forgiveness since this could turn up many irrelevant articles. (You might, for example, find an article about writer Ralph Waldo Emerson that discusses his intellectual debt to the Puritans as well as his eventual forgiveness by Harvard for his controversial "Divinity school address.") And searching for "debt forgiveness" might not be helpful either since you'd only find documents that contain that exact phrase and so you'd miss out on finding articles that contained the phrase forgiving student debt, forgiveness of medical debt, etc.

With proximity searching -- along with careful use of truncation -- you could search for articles in which some form of the term debt appears within a certain number of words of some form of the word forgiveness. You'd then find articles that contain any of the following phrases:

Note that in some of the sample phrases shown above, some form of the word debt appears first in the phrase, while in others some form of the word forgiveness appears first. Many databases that use proximity searching allow you to specify whether word order matters for your search.

Since different databases use different proximity operators, it's a good idea to check a database's "help" or "search tips" pages to see whether it offers proximity searching and, if so, how you'll need to format your search statement in order to use its proximity operators.

The table below summarizes how some of the UMGC Library's database vendors handle proximity searching. Click on a vendor's name to see more information about how the vendor handles proximity searching.

  Terms within # words of each other, in any order Terms within # words of each other, in the order given
EBSCO (OneSearch, Business Source Complete, Education Research Complete, ERIC, etc.)


debt* n5 forgiv*


debt* w5 forgiv*

ProQuest (ABI/INFORM Complete, Dissertations and Theses, etc.)


debt* n/5 forgiv* 


debt* p/5 forgiv*



debt* forgiv* ~5

[not supported]
Elsevier (Scopus only; proximity searching isn't currently supported in ScienceDirect)


debt* w/5 forgiv*


debt* pre/5 forgiv*

Proximity searching should always be used with caution, since it could potentially cause you to miss out on finding articles that are relevant to your topic but that have your keywords spaced further apart than you specified.

If you have any questions about this information, please use the UMGC Library's Ask a Librarian service to receive assistance.

Created April 30, 2015; updated September 11, 2019