Archive for May, 2017

Search tips: Exact phrases and wildcards

Whether you are searching for a particular e-mail message in Outlook or for a particular document stored in your firm’s document management system (DMS), there might be occasions when you want to search for an exact phrase – such as “Motion for Summary Judgment” or “Home Inspection” – or look for a word (such as someone’s name) that you’re not sure how to spell.  This post explains how to do both.

Searching for Exact Phrases

Both in Outlook and in most DMSes (such as iManage or NetDocs), you can search for exact phrases by enclosing your search term(s) in quotation marks.  (By the way, this technique also works when you are searching in Google and other Internet search engines.)  In other words, click in the appropriate search box / field, type open quotation marks (“), immediately type your search terms, type close quotation marks (“), and press the Enter key or click the program’s search icon (magnifying glass, Search or Find button, etc.).  Be sure not to insert any spaces between the quotation marks and your search term.  In other words, your search should look something like the following:

“motion for summary judgment”


“home inspection”

or the like.[1]

Note that exact-phrase searches are somewhat limiting.  They look for the exact words you type between the quotation marks in the exact order that you type them.  Thus, a search for “motion for summary judgment” will not find documents containing the phrase “summary judgment motion” (unless those docs also contain the phrase “motion for summary judgment”).[2]

By contrast, if you type the words motion for summary judgment without quotation marks – and without bold or italics, which I’m using here simply to indicate a search term – the program you’re using to conduct the search typically will look for all three of the substantive words (motion, summary, and judgment), but not necessarily as a phrase and not necessarily in that order. That is to say, if you don’t enclose the words within quotation marks, the resulting documents must contain all three of those words, but each individual word could appear on a different page of the document.  Although this type of search (essentially using the Boolean operator AND to require each word to be present in the documents) can be very useful, searching for an exact phrase often produces more relevant, albeit fewer, results.

Wildcards – The Asterisk (Multiple Characters) and the Question Mark (Single Character)

Wildcards, such as the asterisk or the question mark, can be useful when you are searching for a term but (a) you’re not sure how one or more of the words is spelled; or (b) you’re not sure which word form is relevant to your search.[3]  (An asterisk stands in for multiple characters; a question mark stands in for a single character.)  You can combine wildcards with phrase searching, a particularly helpful technique when you are looking for mail from a specific person.

In fact, I recently helped someone at a law firm who was having trouble locating mail messages in Outlook from an individual she corresponded with on a regular basis.  A sophisticated computer user, she knew enough to use quotation marks for a phrase search on the sender’s name.  However, she didn’t realize that the person whose messages she was looking for did not use the shortened form of his first name in his mail.  So her exact phrase searches failed to find his messages.

I don’t recall the name of the person she was looking for, but it could have been something like “Fred Smyth.”  The problem was that Fred signed all of his mail “Frederick Smyth,” and also used his full name in his e-mail address.  So the phrase search – which was restricted to the exact words Fred Smith – turned up nothing.

I suggested inserting an asterisk wildcard after the name Fred in order to find instances of Fred, but also Freddy, Freddie, Frederick, Fredrick, etc.  (Remember that the asterisk wildcard stands in for multiple characters.)  So we tried the equivalent of the following:

“Fred* Smyth”

and voilà!  The e-mail messages she wanted to find appeared in the search results.

In this example, I deliberately spelled the sender’s last name “Smyth” so that I could differentiate between the asterisk wildcard and the question mark wildcard.  As I mentioned previously, the asterisk stands in for multiple characters, whereas the question mark stands in for a single character.  If the person I was assisting had been uncertain whether Fred spelled his last name “Smith” or “Smyth,” she could have inserted either an asterisk or a question mark instead of the vowel, like so:

“Fred* Sm?th”


“Fred* Sm*th”

Both searches would have turned up mail from Fred Smyth.  (If Fred spelled his last name “Smythe,” she could have added either an asterisk or a question mark at the end of the last name, which would have found “Smythe” or “Smyth.”)

I hope that this post, however cursory, has helped to clarify how phrase searching and wildcard searching – sometimes in combination – can produce more relevant results in both Outlook and your DMS.  I’ll try to post additional search tips in the near future.  In the meantime, if you work for a law firm or other large organization, you can find more information about search syntax in the quick reference guides and/or help manuals that your organization provides.


[1]  I generally type search terms in lower-case letters because doing so typically will search for and find instances of the terms regardless of case (lower case, UPPER CASE, Initial Caps, etc.), whereas typing search terms in UPPER CASE or Initial Caps sometimes produces case-specific results.

[2]  Exact phrase searches usually ignore “helper” words (sometimes called “stop words”) such as “for,” “the,” and “an.”

[3]  In other words, you can use the asterisk wildcard to find different forms of a word such as “recuse,” “recused,” or “recusal.”  Note that your DMS might automatically “stem” words (that is, if you search for “recuse,” the DMS also will look for “recused” and “recusal,”) but this use of the asterisk wildcard can be helpful in many situations.  Just use this method with care.  If you are searching for “deny,” “denied,” or “denial,” and you type den* as your search term, the program might turn up results that include the word dentist or denver, among other irrelevant terms!

May 18, 2017 at 10:01 am

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