Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger): Using quotation marks in Spotlight queries

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
July 28th, 2005 • 2:44 pm

This is something that I wasn’t aware of… We are all familiar with the use of quotation marks to search for exact phrases in a web search tool such as Google. But what about Spotlight?

Well, as far as I know, there is no easy way to search for an exact phrase with Spotlight. The quotation marks cannot be used for that purpose. But they do have a purpose, although what it is isn’t exactly clear.

According to this Mac OS X Hints hint, search for "xxx" (including the quotation marks) in Spotlight will only return results in which the word “xxx” appears in the file/folder name.

As far as I can tell, this is not exactly true. It does in fact return mostly files and folders with “xxx” in their file names, but also:

  • Microsoft Office documents with “xxx” somewhere in the “Title” field in their properties (accessible through the “Properties…” command in the “File” menu
  • Mail messages with “xxx” in their Subject line
  • music files with “xxx” somewhere in their tags (album title, song title, artist name, etc.)
  • Spell Catcher X glossary files with “xxx” in one of their entries
  • image files with “xxx” in their property tags
  • HTML files with “xxx” in their title (i.e. in the <title>…</title> tag)

That’s probably not all, but it’s all I could find with a few sample searches.

It also should be noted that the search results only include matches where “xxx” appears as a whole word, not as a partial word. In other words, if you do a search for "intro" (with the quotes), you will only get results with the whole word “intro” and not results with the word “introduction“.

What about multiple words enclosed in quotation marks? Well, it does like Spotlight will search for the exact phrase, but only in file/folder names or the other fields mentioned above. In other words, you cannot use multiple words enclosed in quotation marks to search for a phrase anywhere in a document — only in the file name or in the properties.

For example, if you search for "order shipped" (with quotes) in Spotlight, you get a list of results with the phrase “order shipped” in their file/folder name or properties. You will not get results with the whole words “order” and “shipped” both appearing in the file/folder name or properties, but not together. In other words, you will not get messages with “Your order has shipped” as a Subject line.

This only applies to the system-wide Spotlight menu, however. If you do a search for "intro" (with the quotes) in Mail’s own search field, you’ll get a list of messages containing the whole word “intro” anywhere (not just in the Subject line, but also in the body). If you do a search for "book intro" (with quotes), you’ll get a list of messages containing both whold words “book” and “intro” anywhere (but not necessarily the phrasebook intro“).

And if you do a search for "order shipped" (with quotes) in Mail’s search field, you will get results with the whole words “order” and “shipped” both appearing anywhere in the message. In other words, you will get messages with “Your order has shipped” as a Subject line, but also messages with both “order” and “shipped” (whole words) anywhere in the body in the message.

This is all very confusing. It means that quotation marks do have a purpose in Spotlight, but that this purpose varies from application to application. It appears that the only common trait is that a search with quotation marks only searches for whole words. But whether it searches for phrases or only in the file name/properties depends on where you are.


One Response to “Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger): Using quotation marks in Spotlight queries”

  1. MHC-in-the-box » Some Mac OS X Tiger (10.4.x) tricks says:

    [...] Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger): Using quotation marks in Spotlight queries. According to the author Pierre Igot, there seems to be a response from Tiger to quotation marks in searches but in certain circumstances it is hindered by the support or lack of, should I say, in certain applications. [...]

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