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I'm writing a computer program which will randomly generate a string of letters. It then looks up the random letter collection in a dictionary, to determine if it is in fact a real word, in English.

Are there common terms in linguistics to distinguish between 'words', 'non-words', and 'possible words'?

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    As long as you're using English spelling you're in trouble. You can't get enough information from English spelling to tell reliably what might be a possible word. It'll have to be looked up, and there are gotchas around definitions of "word", as @Aspinea has pointed out. – jlawler Jul 8 '13 at 18:23
  • +1 jlawler. The same goes for all languages. Basically when you're doing a project of this sort you have to decide for yourself what definition of word you want to work with. – hippietrail Jul 9 '13 at 0:08
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"Token" is a term for a string that might or might not be a word.

I don't think there is a term for non-word.

The definition of the term "word" is not always entirely straightforward itself; for further information compare http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Word.

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    In fact even string might be a good enough term. For instance you might have some sequences you reject immediately and others you decide to tokenize for further processing, and only later decide whether the tokens represent "words* or whatever ... – hippietrail Jul 9 '13 at 0:10
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The short answer is that there is not a universally recognized set of terms to cover your needs within linguistics.

Non-word or nonce are often used in the context of psycholinguistic experiments but they generally refer to word-like strings like "trulky" and measure speed of recognition. They would not apply it to a random string like "hsuwoqjlxs".

The term "token" is also no good because it just refers to string instance as opposed to type. It still mostly implies a word.

As recommended, I'd stick with "string". You can divide them between lexical and non-lexical (meaning they are or are not in your lexicon). You could use pseudo-lexical for nonwords that are not in the lexicon you're comparing your strings to but look like possible English words.

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Concatenation is what you're looking for.

From David Crystal's Dictionary of Linguistics, 'A term used to refer to strings of elements, the elements being seen in a relation of linear succession'. In my logic and semantics texts, a concatenation basically denotes 'any string of symbols - well formed or otherwise'.

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  • This is a little short. How about pasting in the specific definition of concatenation that you have in mind? – kaleissin May 3 '14 at 12:31
  • From David Crystal's Dictionary of Linguistics, 'A term used to refer to strings of elements, the elements being seen in a relation of linear succession'. In my logic and semantics texts, a concatenation basically denotes 'any string of symbols - well formed or otherwise'. – Hal May 3 '14 at 16:37
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    @Hal: You should improve your answers by editing them to add material, not by appending additional material in comments. – hippietrail May 4 '14 at 8:06

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