"Can't find what you're looking for? Just ask!"
Inside Microsoft Access, February 2000

The title of our article has long been a department store mantra. Now, thanks to ELF Software, you can apply the phrase to your databases. Their product, Access ELF, lets you perform natural language queries against a database. For example, suppose you want to see a list of products you receive from a particular supplier. You can simply type What products are supplied by Bigfoot breweries and click a button, and Access ELF returns the results (all without any teenage store-clerk attitude).

We first brought this add-in to your attention a year ago, but an upgrade makes it worth another look. Access ELF is now available for Access 2000, and the 97 edition has been updated to version 3.0.

Overview
To use the add-in, you first analyze your database with Access ELF. Then, you simply launch the query form, shown in Figure A, from a toolbar button. Access ELF auto corrects and spell checks the criteria you enter. You can create select, aggregate or crosstab queries using plain English. Access ELF can return the results in Datasheet or Form views, as a chart, or in a custom worksheet format, as shown in Figure B, that can be exported to Excel.

You can maintain a log of queries so that you can quickly rerun them. You also have a great deal of flexibility regarding how particular words are treated in queries -- you can identify them as synonyms or have Access ELF automatically substitute them with other phrases.

New and improved
The newest version of Access ELF incorporates features that let developers really control how the add-in works. You can now use query phrases as triggers that run VBScript or JScript programs, allowing you to change the query or validate security. You also have the ability to generate custom error messages. From an end-user standpoint, the best new feature is probably the ability to link two fields together, so that when data from one is returned, the data from the other field is automatically included.

Practice makes perfect
If you're familiar with natural language Web search engines, like Ask Jeeves, you know that you can get unexpected results from your queries. Our test runs proved to be quite effective, but we occasionally got incorrect results by slightly rewording a question. We recommend putting the program through its paces against results you're already familiar with until you have a good feeling for how to phrase your questions. Of course, the more effort you put into developing and customizing the add-in's settings, the more effective it will be.

But wait, that's not all you'll get
As a bonus, ELF Software's freeware utility Form Designer is included with the add-in. A button on Access ELF's toolbar lets you launch the utility, as shown in Figure C. This handy tool lets you change the size and position of all controls on a form, without switching to Design view.

Notes
The huge amount of flexibility and customization provided by the newest version of Access ELF means that the learning curve for configuring it could be steep. However, chances are it will be worth the effort. As a developer, you can only accommodate for so many canned queries in an application. It's doubtful that management-level users that want to run ad hoc queries will also want to invest the time to learn SQL and query nuances. This usually means getting sidetracked into trial-and-error query creation as your bosses try to hone in on what data they're looking for. However, by allowing users to query using plain English, you free up yourself to develop the applications that truly need your expertise. -- Access Updates, Inside Microsoft Access (ZD Journals)