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Developing a Search
(with Natural Language)
Related Topics
Click a link below for information about searching using natural language. Examples are included.

Using Natural Language
Developing a Natural Language Search
Natural Language Choices


Using Natural Language

When you search using the natural language feature, you can enter a search in plain English, without having to use any special terms or connectors. The natural language feature's document relevance ranking gives you quick access to the most pertinent documents in your search results. A typical search with natural language might be:

Under what circumstances can biological parents regain custody of adopted children after an adoption?

Note: Wildcard characters such as ! and * are not valid in natural language searches.

The natural language feature works best when you:

  • Need to research general or conceptual issues, rather than very specific topics

  • Don't know much about an issue except for a few basic terms

  • Are researching a complex issue and can't construct an effective search using terms and connectors

  • Don't feel comfortable writing search requests using terms and connectors

  • Want to supplement a terms and connectors search to ensure thorough results

Developing a Natural Language Search

To develop a natural language search, use terms that you might use when describing your research topic to another person. Then use the natural language options (listed below) to enhance the search.

To find articles about efforts in the fast food industry to use recyclable packaging, you might use this search:

What efforts has the fast food industry made to use recyclable packages?

Or, you can use just the most important terms and phrases, in any order:

recycle package fast food trash
Note: If you enter two to four search terms, the system returns documents that contain any of your terms. If you enter five or more search terms, the system returns documents that contain all of your terms.

Natural Language Choices

The natural language feature offers the following ways for you to enhance and refine your search. All are available after choosing the Natural Language radio button on search forms.

  • Phrases
    The natural language feature automatically checks your search for legal, technical, medical, and other common phrases. You can also easily create your own phrases when you enter your search by enclosing the words you want considered as a phrase in quotes. If you want to ensure that adjacent words are not evaluated as a phrase, separate them with a comma.

  • Required Terms
    If certain terms or phrases, such as company names, must appear in the documents you retrieve, you can designate them as required terms when you enter the search.

    Note: You must select the Natural Language radio button for this field to appear.

    Why Use Required Terms?
    When searching with terms and connectors, each search term (or specified alternative) must appear in every document. With the natural language feature, relevant documents may not contain all your search terms.

    To require that a search term or phrase appear in every retrieved document, you must make it a required term.

    Required terms are useful for searching on specific items (names, phrases, code sections, or regulations), rather than broad topics. But be careful how you use them:

    • Be sure the term must appear in a document; otherwise you may miss relevant documents. For example, if you make "George Bush" mandatory, instead of just "Bush", you might miss references to "President Bush".

    • Since a required term is required to appear in a document, it limits your search. So, the more terms you make mandatory, the fewer documents your search retrieves.

    • The more terms you make mandatory, the lower the importance of each term. So, if you use several required terms, your results may be less relevant than if you only used one.

  • Specifying required terms
    To require that a search term or phrase in your natural language search appear in every retrieved document, you must make it a required term. To make a term or phrase mandatory, enter the term(s) in Required Terms field.

  • Synonyms
    Place synonyms immediately after the search term to which they apply. Enclose them in parentheses and separate multiple synonyms with a comma:

    Under what circumstances can biological (natural) parents regain custody of an adopted child (minor, infant)?

    Synonym tips:

    • Synonyms can add value to your results, but use them carefully. Using many synonyms reduces the importance of each, and your results may not be as on-target as you'd like.


  • Restrictions
    You can restrict your natural language search to specific documents, such as those issued on a certain date, or from a certain court.

  • Terms/Concepts
    You can add synonyms, word variations, and other terms or phrases to your search.
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