Over on English Language and Usage, there are many, many questions of the form "What is a single word for [phrase]".

The poster usually seems to be very keen to use a single word — which may be obscure, or have a subtly different meaning — than to use the idiomatic multiple word phrase that a native English speaker would always choose to use.

For example (and this is not intended as a slur on the questioner), one poster wants single word for "lack of clarity" — "unclarity", "obscurity", "ambiguity" are all unsatisfactory suggestions.

I am assuming that the questioners are not native English speakers, and wonder whether there is something about their native language that leads them to expect English to have a vocabulary full of words with very specific meanings.

My question is: is there a characteristic of non-English languages such that single words are considered particularly desirable? What families of language show this characteristic in particular?

  • 1
    It's not clear...are you asking 'does a similar phenomenon occur in other languages than English?'?
    – Mitch
    Jan 3, 2012 at 20:46
  • There are SE sites for German, French, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese too. And I get the impression they are all English-based sites. Have you explored them?
    – prash
    Jan 3, 2012 at 21:05
  • 3
    Maybe the reason is just convenience, not linguistics. I can think of some possible reasons - Something is more effective if it's less wordy, say, slogans, warning, etc. - If you intend to use it multiple times in a story, it's better to use a word, rather than clumsily repeating the same phrase throughout the story
    – Louis Rhys
    Jan 4, 2012 at 9:15
  • 2
    Sometimes even native speakers want a one-word answer, for some rhetorical effect, or even because the way they've started constructing their sentence makes them expect a single word instead of a phrase. For example I recently was in a conversation where someone said that something had changed "audibly, visibly, and whatever the word is for touch". He thought there was one word that should go there, though the best answer was "to the touch". [Yes, there are single words that would work, but none that were what he had in mind.]
    – Muke Tever
    Jan 4, 2012 at 14:35
  • 1
    I've reached the conclusion that many of the questioners are programmers looking for concise names for their variables and types.
    – slim
    Jan 18, 2012 at 14:25

3 Answers 3


Might simply be that they trust dictionaries too much. If it's in the dictionary it's real. Unfortunately, collocations (transparent combinations of words preferred for a specific meaning, like "lack of clarity" instead of "missing clarity") and multiword expressions (MWE, non-transparent collocations, like "kick the bucket" for "die") often aren't in dictionaries even if they need to be memorized just like "spaceless" words. Hm, maybe it's the spaces they object to?

English uses more spaces than other Germanic languages. You can make large compounds in English too but recently made ones are written with spaces and thus probably insufficiently word-like for the sort of posters you told us about.

Then again, it might be they consider it prestigious to use spaceless words instead of collocations and so strive to replace the latter with the former.

So, to your question: other languages use spaces differently, if at all. The other Germanic languages aren't afraid to write newly minted compounds without spaces, and languages like French (if my Francophile French-teacher in high-school is to be believed) and Russian do tend to prefer "spaceless" words to standardized collocations.

I don't know of any research specifically looking at this, anyone?

  • 3
    English is also notorious for having a particularly large lexicon and a wealth of synonyms, so perhaps this contributes to an expectation that it will be possible to express more concepts in single words. Jan 4, 2012 at 11:59
  • I think its simply for convenience's sake. It's much easier to properly tense a single word than it is a phrase. Jan 5, 2012 at 21:22
  • Literacy is the fundamental reason for this, I think. In Europe the prestige languages are Latin and (Ancient) Greek, both of which are only written, and both have fairly complicated systems of word formation. So it’s a demonstration of high literacy to be able to use obscure words based on Latin and Greek models that nobody ever says. Compare this with Chinese-influenced languages where literacy prestige is gained through use of obscure characters. But in more oral cultures metaphor and poetry are more emphasized, so phrasal constructions and analogy are more favoured.
    – James C.
    Jan 11, 2012 at 1:38
  • On a practical note, being one-word also makes the term incapable of being mangled by search engines and indexes. Many search engines still do not do quotes.
    – smci
    May 14, 2012 at 11:48
  • As a reaction to your comment on research, the Académie française (and I guess most language regulators) generally go the other direction, by insisting on creating authentically French words for neologisms. Often these are necessarily compound words. See new words in the 9th ed dictionary . They tried to launch direnepasdire.org but it seems to have flopped.
    – smci
    May 14, 2012 at 11:53

I'm not a native English speaker, so here is why I would ask such a question: Often there is a single word for X. If I have to talk about X in English, I would be concerned about preserving the precise meaning together with all surrounding context so that no information is lost to the audience. When there's an exact match (occasionally it's a loanword from French or another language which is not in the dictionary) I do this much more easily. Alternatively, if German and French have a single word for X, I might suspect English has one, too, which I don't know. English is a very malleable language and I'm a bit hesitant to coin new phrases if established ones already exist.

  • 2
    Thanks for this answer. What bothers me on EL&U is when someone asks for a single word for a phrase, where the multi-word phrase is what people use.
    – slim
    Jan 9, 2012 at 14:13
  • There are collocation dictionaries, you could try "Oxford Collocations Dictionary" for instance. ISBN 0194325385
    – kaleissin
    Jan 11, 2012 at 9:55

Some other languages (particularly German, Russian) have more means to construct words with specific meanings through inflections and concatenations. That is where those speakers can construct a new word from the existing stem, in English they would need to learn a new stem or use a word combination.

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