linguist • writer • editor • lecturer • broadcaster
[Thursday 03 January, 2013]
Here’s a question you’ll never get on Mastermind. What’s a word? Sounds too easy, I expect you’re thinking. In fact, it’s quite a difficult question to answer. You’ll see why, if you read on. (If you don’t feel like a difficult answer, I suggest you read the entry on word games instead!)
The easy answer is this: a word is the smallest piece of language you can have which has a space on either side in writing. So, there are 12 words in the sentence you are reading now. Some of them are small (such as in), and don’t have any parts except for the letters which make them up. Others are a bit bigger, and break down easily into parts - such as words (word + s) and reading (read + ing). (There’s an entry which tells you about this kind of thing: look up affix.)
So what’s the difficult answer, then? Well let me put the question this way? How can you tell what a word is in speech? There aren’t any neat printed spaces there. In speech, sentences sound something like this:
Ihaveputallthedirtywashinginthewashingmachine.
What are the words here? Here’s the way to find out. Read the sentence very slowly, pausing whenever you think it’s right to do so. Go on, do it, before you read on. You probably started off like this:
I -- have -- put -- all -- the -- dirty -- washing --
I don’t think you will have stopped in the middle of dirty, for instance, and said dir--ty, or in the middle of washing, to say wash--ing. Because your brain already knows what the words are, it tells you where to pause - between each one.
So where’s the difficulty? The problem comes at the end of the sentence. What did you do after in the? Did you say washing machine, as if it were one word, or washing -- machine, as if it were two? In writing it, would you write it as two separate words (washing machine) or as one, using a hyphen (washing-machine)? Whatever you decide, if you try this exercise out in class, you’ll find that not everyone agrees with you. The question ‘What is a word?’ turns out to be tricky after all.

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