My question is a little broader than the title and applies to a term which is described by more than one "word". Is the term (in this case "ice cream") one word, or two?

Based on my research, the three dictionaries that I consulted, Merriam-Webster (MW), MacMillian (MM), and the Oxford Dictionary (OX) all seem to provide some leeway in expressing exactly what a word is and if it must be delimited by spaces and/or punctuation. See definitions below:

MW(b)(2): "any segment of written or printed discourse ordinarily appearing between spaces or between a space and a punctuation mark"

OX 1a: "single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed"

MM 1: "[countable] a single unit of written or spoken language"

MW and OX use words like typically and ordinarily indicating that there is the possibility for multi-word words, but don't exactly provide sample sentences with any. Even MM doesn't quite spell out what comprises a single unit. However, I would argue that "ice cream" independently, that is, taken as two separate words, is two units of language, rather than one.

Even in looking up compound word examples, these are delimited by a space on either side, that is, condensed into one clear-cut word by means of placement (such as backstab) or they use a hyphen (such as white-collar).

With this predicament in mind and as a yes or no question (providing justification), is "ice cream" as is, no hyphen and not stuck together as "icecream" or "ice-cream", one word, or two?

  • 6
    Space: The Final Frontier. The answer to the question is "Yes". That is, some people consider it one word, and others two, so it is considered one word or two. Seriously, word is not well-enough defined to allow such precise counting. Aug 7, 2013 at 23:04
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    It depends on your definition of "word". For most situations, if a two-word phrase gets its own entry in the dictionary, then I regard it as a single word. But Scrabble players would disagree, and they'd all scream if I tried to play ICECREAM.
    – J.R.
    Aug 8, 2013 at 2:16
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    Here's a possible test: if it could be listed by the US Army in reverse order (as in "Sauce, Tomato"), then it's two words. Unfortunately, they don't put ice cream in MREs. :)
    – JeffSahol
    Aug 8, 2013 at 2:53
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    The term 'orthographic word' exists for an accepted word (rather than say XXPTF (!!) or zzzzzzz ) delimited by spaces where punctuation such as a full stop does not complicate. The strings particleboard, particle-board and particle board are all endorsed and termed 'compound nouns'. Perhaps the term 'lexeme' is more useful; Crystal coined it, and particleboard, particle-board, particle board and ship of the desert are examples. Aug 8, 2013 at 2:57
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    @JeffSahol Sacks, ruck: pairs, a half! Aug 8, 2013 at 2:59

2 Answers 2


We never say, I want an iced cream, or cream with ice, or cream which is iced, or anything else. We just say, I want ice cream. My point is when something is un-modifiable, that means it exists as a single unit. It may appear to have two words, but those two words, spoken separately, would have different meanings, so that particular word needs to be spoken in one breath to convey a particular meaning. So 'ice cream' is a one word. It has a distinct meaning.

Now consider, 'beautiful day.' Both Beautiful and Day have their own separate meanings and spoken together they convey a different meaning. Yet 'beautiful day' is not one word, because same can be expressed differently like, lovely day, pleasant day, awesome day, etc. More importantly, in 'beautiful day,' beautiful is an adjective. And if we start representing ice cream as having two words, would we say ice is an adjective here?

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    Both ice and cream are nouns.
    – Hannes
    Aug 8, 2013 at 19:20
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    This is not totally thought through. We never say the mained / mainer reason or the reason that is main, but 'main reason' isn't a single lexeme. The non-availability of certain common variations is not a foolproof test for multi-word-lexeme status (and many idioms do allow limited variations). The cohesion or otherwise of the sequence of orthographic words is the key, of course, but the complications are lack of agreement on how the word 'word' should be used, and the fact that idioms display different degrees of fixedness/cohesion. See Fixed Expressions and Idioms ..._Rosamund Moon Aug 9, 2013 at 15:52
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    "And if we start representing ice cream as having two words, would we say ice is an adjective here?" -- I don't see any problem with that. Actually I think both interpretations are equally reasonable. Jun 12, 2017 at 5:18

When you're speaking, you stress an adjective-noun combination differently from a compound noun. This is what makes the following children's joke work:

The red house is on the corner. The blue house is next to it. Where is the white house?
I don't know. Where is the white house?
The White House is in Washington, D.C., of course.

For another example, in the math video "Not Knot", the narrator pronounces "a whole number" like it was an adjective-noun combination, and not a compound noun. That something was wrong was glaringly obvious to me the first time I watched it (although it took me a while to figure out exactly what).

"Ice cream" is pronounced as a compound noun.

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