What Is the Definition of Word?

"The trouble with words," said British dramatist Dennis Potter, "is that you never know whose mouths they've been in.". (ZoneCreative S.r.l./Getty Images)

A word is a speech sound or a combination of sounds, or its representation in writing, that symbolizes and communicates a meaning and may consist of a single morpheme or a combination of morphemes.

The branch of linguistics that studies word structures is called morphology. The branch of linguistics that studies word meanings is called lexical semantics.

See Examples and Observations below.


​From Old English, "word"

Examples and Observations

  • "[A word is 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."
    (David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • "A grammar . . . is divided into two major components, syntax and morphology. This division follows from the special status of the word as a basic linguistic unit, with syntax dealing with the combination of words to make sentences, and morphology with the form of words themselves."
    (R. Huddleston and G. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2002)
  • "We want words to do more than they can. We try to do with them what comes to very much like trying to mend a watch with a pickaxe or to paint a miniature with a mop; we expect them to help us to grip and dissect that which in ultimate essence is as ungrippable as shadow. Nevertheless there they are; we have got to live with them, and the wise course is to treat them as we do our neighbours, and make the best and not the worst of them."
    (Samuel Butler, The Note-Books of Samuel Butler, 1912)
  • Big Words
    "A Czech study . . . looked at how using big words (a classic strategy for impressing others) affects perceived intelligence. Counter-intuitvely, grandiose vocabulary diminished participants' impressions of authors' cerebral capacity. Put another way: simpler writing seems smarter."
    (Julie Beck, "How to Look Smart." The Atlantic, September 2014)
  • The Power of Words
    "It is obvious that the fundamental means which man possesses of extending his orders of abstractions indefinitely is conditioned, and consists in general in symbolism and, in particular, in speech. Words, considered as symbols for humans, provide us with endlessly flexible conditional semantic stimuli, which are just as 'real' and effective for man as any other powerful stimulus.
  • Virginia Woolf on Words
    "It is words that are to blame. They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most un-teachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion when we most need words we find none. Yet there is the dictionary; there at our disposal are some half-a-million words all in alphabetical order. But can we use them? No, because words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind. Look once more at the dictionary. There beyond a doubt lie plays more splendid than Antony and Cleopatra; poems lovelier than the 'Ode to a Nightingale'; novels beside which Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield are the crude bunglings of amateurs. It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. And how do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, ranging hither and thither, falling in love, and mating together."
    (Virginia Woolf, "Craftsmanship." The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, 1942)
  • Word Word
    "Word Word [1983: coined by US writer Paul Dickson]. A non-technical, tongue-in-cheek term for a word repeated in contrastive statements and questions: 'Are you talking about an American Indian or an Indian Indian?'; 'It happens in Irish English as well as English English.'"
    (Tom McArthur, The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 1992)