What is a Word?

We speak them every day; so often in fact that we hardly even notice them as we string together sentence after sentence. They’re the building blocks of every point we try to express, every argument we try to win, and every question that we ask. So then what exactly is a word?



At first glance, looking at the contents of a book, it may seem that a word could be easily defined; it’s something made up of letters and separated by a space at the beginning, as well as a space or punctuation mark at the end. This seems like a reasonable answer to our question, but there are just a few problems with this simple definition. Take the word firehouse, a compound word. We could all agree that this is a single word made up of two separate words. Which would mean that, based on our above definition of a word, firehouse is a single word because it contains no space between the two words. This however becomes an inadequate definition once the rules of the English language are applied. Now take the word apartment building; also defined as a compound word, though happens to be separated by a space. Would this then be two words or one? It becomes clear that a strictly orthographic definition of a word isn’t a very satisfactory one when it can’t follow the rules of the language itself.


So then perhaps the definition of a word lies in the way in which we speak them. Phonology dictates that, when spoken by themselves, words can carry just one main stress. This is the main syllable of the word and is often spoke louder and with more duration than the other surrounding syllables. So apártment building would then become a single word, solving our problem in the orthographic definition, and therefore giving us our definition of a word; a word is something made up of letters that can carry only one main stress. Well that’s where it gets tricky. Take the subject the dog, in phonology articles; the, a, and an carry no stress. This then means that the dóg by phonological definition is considered a single word, and using the principles of phonology and orthography alone will probably not clarify what the best definition of what a word is.


This brings us to syntax. Maybe a word could be defined by the rules that govern them. Anyone who has taken an English course in their lifetime would be likely to recognize a word as a part of speech; i.e. noun, verb, adjective etc. So that within the phrase “it was a sunny day.” sunny is an adjective, adjectives are words, and so therefore sunny is a word. This is the definition of a word that has been pounded in our brains since elementary school, and though it is the best of the definitions offered it is still far from airtight. Take the phrase “the farms name was Sunny.” here Sunny, though still a word by syntactic definition, has changed its meaning within the sentence and therefore changed its place within its syntactic definition; from the classification of an adjective to a noun. What this means is that a word could finally be defined properly through its syntax, though only by the meaning that it holds within a given sentence, which is something that someone not wearing their reading glasses, or seeing a billboard from a good distance could rightfully argue. 


  In summation, it is all of these definitions and more that make up what a word is. Language changes constantly as new words are being invented everyday and added to the dictionary simply because someone gave it a meaning and another agreed with its meaning. This leaves the definition of word as more of a concept than a concrete article, allowing the speaker to give their own definitions of the words they speak.