Grammar Basics: Words (1)

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The unit of meaning above a morpheme is a word, although many morphemes, such as walk, can be words all on their own. It’s rather difficult to say what a word is. Some will say that a word can exist only if it is found in a dictionary. Others will say that even then it may not be a word. Equally, we may come across a word that is so new that it may not yet have found its way into any dictionary.

In ‘The Cambridge Encylopedia of the English Language’, David Crystal defines ‘word’ as

the smallest unit of grammar that can stand alone as a complete utterance, separated by spaces in written language and potentially by pauses in speech.

In ‘Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts’, another linguist, R L Trask, says it is

a linguistic unit typically larger than a morpheme but smaller than a phrase

These definitions are helpful, because they emphasize the grammatical significance of a word and don’t get us bogged down in the question of whether or not a word has to convey meaning. Lewis Carroll’s verse ‘Jaberwocky’ shows how we can identify the role a word is playing in a sentence without our having a precise idea of what it means. It begins, you may remember,

Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.

Brillig, slithy, toves, gimble and wabe are all words invented by Lewis Carroll, but if we can recognise brillig and slithy as adjectives, toves and wabe as nouns, and gimble as a verb, doesn’t that make them words? If they aren’t words, then what are they?

Whatever general definition of a word we may agree on, there remain difficulties. Are house and houses one word or two? How about do and does? Same word or different words?  Part of the answer is that you wouldn’t expect to find houses or does as the main entries in a dictionary. What you’d look for would be house and do. Fortunately, there are labels to help us get around this kind of difficulty. The word as it occurs in a text, or the word that a word processing program counts, is called an orthographic word (or a token). The word you look up in a dictionary is a lexeme (also known as a lemma).

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7 responses to “Grammar Basics: Words (1)

  1. Pingback: Grammar Basics: Morphemes | Caxton

  2. I am liking this series. Thanks!


  3. I like this series too.

    If we look at the series morpheme, word, sentence, one stands out for being much less easily defined than the others, and less linguistically fundamental.

    What we write is not a very principled guide to identifying words: writing is not essential to language, so if words are an artefact of writing, then they are not fundamental. It only became common to identify the end of sentences in European writing with the advent of miniscule scripts (writing systems with both capital and lowercase letters, superseding the capitals only majuscule scripts) around C6th, and consistent use of space that could be used to identify (or define) words only emerged rather later than that. Even today, with dictionaries, spacing is sometimes indeterminate – e.g., all of the spellings “copyeditor”, “copy-editor”, and “copy editor” have been in continual use in both BrE and AmE for most of the past century – is that sometimes one word, sometimes two?

    In speech, I have been told that it does not appear that we can infer the same word boundaries seen in dictionaries from pauses used in conversation or monologue, so instead linguists prefer to talk about lexical items than words; lexical items being what we learn to say (and maybe write) when we learn to talk about things. The problem is, while words are lexical items, lexical items also include lots of things that are not words, such as compound proper names like “Golden Gate Bridge”, idioms such as “sooner or later”, as well as semantically atomic items that fail the between-spaces test, such as intransitive phrasal verbs like “get along”.

    Perhaps words were created by the needs that led to the creation of dictionaries, rather than being the independently existing phenomena that dictionaries catalogue?


    • Thank you. The study of speech is a relatively recent development, partly because earlier linguists seem to have thought that speech was a debased form of the language, and partly because it was elusive. Technology has changed that. As Michael Halliday wrote, ‘Perhaps the greatest single event in the history of linguistics was the invention of the tape recorder, which for the first time has captured natural conversation and made it accessible to systematic study.’ There is much work to be done, and it is still not without its difficulties, as anyone who has tried to transcribe speech will know.


  4. Pingback: Grammar Basics: Words (2) | Caxton

  5. Pingback: Grammar Basics: Determiners | Caxton

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