Eva van Emden, Freelance Editor

Certified Copy Editor and Proofreader


June 1, 2011

Google searches as a quick and dirty way to answer style questions

Google’s full-text search provides not only a highly efficient way to find information, it’s also a very easy way to search through a giant corpus of writing. Some people use Google as a spell-checker: just try both spellings of the word and let the number of results decide. The problem with this approach is that you don’t always want to use the spelling or usage that appears most often — after all, the web is not known for being the home of the most careful and polished writing. You’ll get more useful results by narrowing your search to a specific part of the web.

Limit your search to one specific domain

Certain magazines, like the New York Times and the Economist are often used as style standards. When I run into an expression that I’m not sure is standard, or a capitalization or hyphenation question that doesn’t quite match any rules in the style I’m using, I’ll often search the New York Times or Economist websites to see how they handle it.

To get results from a specific site, use “site:/” and then the name of the domain, followed by a space and then your search term. For example:

site:/nytimes.com "raise his game"
If you forget this syntax (“site:/”), you can get the same search by clicking on “advanced search” from the main Google site, and then entering the site under “Search within a site or domain.”

How to use Google Scholar to help you with scientific and academic writing and editing

Google Scholar is extremely useful for editing scientific and academic documents because you can limit your search not only within the academic literature, but within a particular area like biology, chemistry, physics, or medicine.

Let’s say you’re editing a chemistry paper and you come across an unfamiliar use of the term “headspace.” If you just do a regular Google search for headspace, you’ll get references to hair salons and mental health groups. Not helpful.

Instead, try Google Scholar:

  • Go to the Advanced Scholar Search
  • Select “Search only articles in the following subject areas:”
  • Select “Chemistry and Materials Science”
  • Type in “headspace” and click “Search Scholar”
  • VoilĂ , relevant results

If you’re writing, you can check your phrasing this way. Maybe it’s late at night, you’re getting tired, and you’re not sure whether to say that the samples were “relatively dilute” or “relatively diluted.” If you plug each phrase into Google Scholar (put quotation marks around them so that you’re searching for that exact phrase, not the two words separately), you’ll see that “relatively dilute” gets 6,840 hits, whereas “relatively diluted” only gets 488. That gives you a quick answer to go on with.

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