What’s a Word?

It may seem like a simple question, but there’s more to the answer than you may think. This post looks at what a word actually is, and how we use that information in Flovoco.

What’s a word? This might seem like a simple question, but in fact there’s actually quite a lot to it! We’ll start with a simple question: How many words are there in the following sentence?

I love Flovoco because Flovoco loves me.

That’s easy. It’s seven. No, hang on, is it six? Hmm, actually maybe it’s five?

Well actually, the answer depends on how you define word. This post looks at what a word actually is, and how we use that information in Flovoco.

So if you answered ‘seven’ to the question above, then you probably counted up all the individual words you could see. This method is often used when counting how many words there are in an essay, or the word limit for a report or job application. In English, this is sometimes referred to as a token, so the sentence above has seven tokens.

But maybe you thought there are six words because ‘Flovoco’ is repeated. This leaves six unique words, sometimes called types in English. When you write an essay or a letter, or even a text message, there are likely to be many more tokens than there are types, this is because a lot of words are repeated, and some words appear much more often than others in general texts and conversations.

But there’s more! You may have noticed that the words ‘love’ and ‘loves’ both appear in the sentence. These count as different types, but they are often classified together. This is because ‘loves’ is a different form of the word ‘love’. If you know the rule that we add an ‘s’ to present tense verbs for the third person (she, he, it), you don’t need to learn ‘love’ and ‘loves’ as two separate words, they’re in the same word family and can be learned at the same time.

As word families can be very big, lots of words may be included but be used in quite different and distinct ways. So within a word family you have ‘love’ and ‘loves’ but also quite different words, like the adjectives, ‘loved’ and ‘unloved’, or even ‘loveable’ and ‘unloveable’. Once we learn that these examples are different, we understand that they should be classified differently, and learned separatedly. For this reason there is a way of grouping words within a word family, based on whether they are a noun, verb, adjective etc. Because the words ‘love’ and ‘loves’ in the sentence above are both forms of the verb, they are part of the same lemma and are often grouped together. The most common forms of a word that share the same part of speech are grouped together as a lemma. Often dictionaries will be divided into lemmas, so you will have separate entries for the noun ‘love’ and the verb ‘love’, showing their most common forms within the same entry.

At Flovoco we group word forms together into lemmas and help you to learn the right information about the different forms and how they are used. We feel this gives you the best possible impact, with the least effort.

Each word, or lemma, may have more than one meaning, or sense. For example, the noun ‘love’ can refer to a feeling that we have; ‘Children need lots of love and affection’ but it can also refer to a person; ‘He’s a real love’, as a way of informally referring to someone we know and like. But this second sense is much less common that the first, and so less useful to learn when you’re starting out. For this reason, at Flovoco we focus mainly on the primary, or most common senses of a lemma, and help you to understand as much as possible about how the words are used in that sense.

So, as you can see, it’s not a simple matter. And the next time someone asks you how many words you know in English, you can tell them it depends on what they mean by ‘word’!

24th October 2014

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