what is a word?

Linguists who try to define word must confront several issues. The most important of these is that if they try to define words using only one set of criteria, e.g., phonological (i.e., pronounceability in isolation), morphological (i.e., potential for taking affixes), semantic (i.e., as units of meaning), or syntactic (i.e., freedom of movement in clauses), they cannot cover all the data that must be accounted for. However, if they try to use criteria from all four domains, they get contradictory results. Is un- a word in What does un– in unlikely mean? Is t a word in That t should be capitalized? Is Queen of England’s a word in the Queen of England’s children? Is kick the bucket a word when it means the same as die? Is n’t a word in Don’t do it now! when it is quite clearly related to not? All five are words by some definition and yet they are not words, certainly not like word itself is a word.

Ronald Wardhaugh, Understanding English Grammar: A Linguistic Approach

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