Going wild in Google with wildcards

The Boolean search symbol * is used in many database searches to represent any characters or set of characters. It can be used in Google searches to represent any word or set of words.

You can use this feature for collocation searches. This is very similar to the Collocation Tester exercise (see chapter 2 of Blended Learning).

Here’s a couple of examples for finding common business English collocations. Enter the following in the Google search box. They are contained inside double quotation marks to force Google to search for the exact phrase plus whatever words appear in the place of the * symbol.

“a * meeting”

The results of this search include:

  • a regular meeting
  • a special meeting
  • a brainstorming meeting
  • a consultative meeting

“we need to * an agreement”

The results include:

  • we need to reach an agreement
  • we need to negotiate an agreement
  • we need to come to an agreement
  • we need to find an agreement

This type of search can be used in vocabulary lessons. The learners could first predict the collocations they would expect to find before going to Google. They could say something about how common a collocation is based on how often it appears in the search results, for example, reach an agreement occurs more often than obtain an agreement. You can provide the search phrase or learners could create their own. This could result in competition between groups to see which phrase would produce the largest number of collocations for a given word.