Use of Query Language Boolean Operators by Professionals
This study looks at the use of Boolean operators in query languages as a specific aspect of the human/machine interface. The difficulties casual users have with Boolean operators are often explained by the assumption that those users simply do not understand Boolean logic, and the difficulties would not be so prevalent if users applied themselves to understanding this logical system. We investigate the possibility that the issue is not simply misunderstanding on the user’s part, but perhaps a deeper, fundamental difference caused by the contextual and structural semantics of the user’s logic, which Boolean operators, functioning basically as keywords, fail to address.
We present the results of a study of professional programmers, who do have training and experience in the use of Boolean operators, comparing their use of natural language vs. formal logic in the phrasing of database queries. These programmers displayed significantly different uses of the words AND, OR, and NOT in a natural language setting as opposed to a more formal Boolean setting. And, despite concerns about natural language’s ambiguities, there exist more consistencies in the English use of AND, OR, and NOT than we might have believed.
These consistencies, and their contradictions with formal logic, strongly suggest that people have ‘deep structure’ groupings which are not adequately or easily supported by Boolean operators. By studying professional programmers and database users, we look at the question of whether these deeper logical structures in natural language maintain a stronger hold than Boolean operators, and whether or not use of Boolean operators is an external and ‘unnatural’ task.
We recommend that further studies in defining these natural language logical structures will contribute in the long run to a more effective human/computer interface than will maintaining the use of Boolean logic.
KeywordsNatural Language Boolean Logic Query Language Boolean Operator Database User
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