First off, some data:

According to COCA word-for-word has 60 usages, 3 of them are "word-for-word translation". Word-by-word has 26 usages, none of them are "word-by-word translation" (but some with "transcription").

The definition of word-for-word:

Oxford: In exactly the same or, when translated, exactly equivalent words
Merriam-Webster: being in or following the exact words, verbatim
The Free Dictionary: one word at a time, without regard for the sense of the whole

Only the last dictionary contains a definition for word-by-word, too:

The Free Dictionary: one word at a time

The definitions given by The Free Dictionary are, obviously, identical to each other.

Google hits:
Word-for-word ~21m
Word-for-word translation ~318k
Word-by-word ~3.8m
Word-by-word translation ~95k

According to usages and dictionaries word-by-word is, at least, less popular. And assuming that there may be a lot of usages from non-natives among the Google hits, this could be an indicator for word-by-word being even utterly wrong.

In another forum I found the following statement:

When I translate something "literally," (wörtlich) it still follows the main rules of the language I'm translating into. What you mean is "word-by-word" (wortwörtlich) to me.

I assume that this was written by a German but I don't know it. However, if this would be true a "word-by-word translation" would be a translation where I keep, for instance, the order of the words, disregarding if it makes sense in the target language.

Some examples:

Original: word-by-word
Word-by-word translation: Wort bei Wort (That's a terrible translation!)

Original: It is critical to know...
Word-by-word translation: Es ist kritisch zu wissen... (That's a terrible translation!)

Original: Ich glaub, ich spinne.
Word-by-word translation: I think I spider. (I guess only Germans understand this.)

A "word-for-word translation", however, would be an attempt to keep the word-choice as close as possible but following the rules of the target language (e.g. order of words) and also considering if the statement still makes sense in the other language. Here are better translations for the examples above:

Wort für Wort
Es ist wichtig zu wissen...
I think, I'm going nuts. (Actually, this is not a word-for-word translation but rather a sense-for-sense translation.)

So, my questions again:

  1. As neither Oxford nor Merriam-Webster have any entries for word-by-word in their dictionaries: is word-by-word actually valid?
  2. If yes, is there any difference between "word-by-word translation" and "word-for-word translation"? If yes again, what is it specifically?

4 Answers 4


The standard idiom word for word doesn't particularly relate to "translation" contexts at all. It's about accurately copied/reported words, as in the book title...

Elvis: Word for Word
What you'll read are Elvis's words and only Elvis's words. From his first minor radio appearance to the last letter he wrote before his death...

In a translation context, such as this page explaining the French expression...

Appeler un chat un chat
Meaning: to call a spade a spade, to be honest and frank, to tell it like it is
Literal translation: to call a cat a cat

...we're much more likely to describe the "exact" translation as literal, not word-for-word.

There are no dictionary definitions for word by word, because it's not an idiom as such - it's just one possible form of the X by X construction (a succession of consecctive X's)...

Foot by foot, and house by house, the enemy were driven in towards the Plaza.
Day by day he worked on, and day by day the postman delivered to him rejected manuscripts.
Book by book, he decimates the Bible for factual errors and internal contradictions.

It's perfectly possible to translate "word by word" or "word for word". Of those two, the second is about ten times more common, but I see no reason to suppose there could ever be a difference in meaning. Overall though, there are far more written references to "literally translated" and similar variations.

  • 1
    Word by word would be more applicable to a reading or critical examination of a document. ("Let's look at this word by word.") Word for word would be incorrect in that context, but would perfectly describe a naïve translation that ignores idiom and context shifting (and may even ignore the grammar of the target language). Literal, used to describe a translation, is usually somewhat more generous than word for word, at least insofar as it doesn't imply a failure of grammar (although it does often imply missing the point altogether).
    – bye
    Commented May 9, 2014 at 16:40
  • 2
    @bye: Well, yes - there are lots of things you can do word by word, including reading, composing [a text], cleaning [graffiti], etc. But word for word can only really be used in copying/translating contexts, since it inherently presupposes two text streams, within which one "input" word corresponds to one "output" word (whereas the by version simply implies one text stream, which is dealt with one word at a time. Commented May 9, 2014 at 16:57
  • Differences in semantics and syntax make "word for word" serialized translation impossible; nevertheless, I have seen it used to refer to cribs and translations in metaphrase. Commented May 9, 2014 at 19:57
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    A literal translation is not necessarily the same as a word-for-word translation. A good translation of Spanish eso no tiene nada que ver con asunto nuestro would be “That's got nothing to do with what we're talking about here”; a literal translation would be “That has nothing to do with our business”; and a word-for-word (or verbatim) translation would be “That not has nothing to see with business ours”. Commented Jul 21, 2014 at 8:58

As you and others have noted, a word-by-word translation, if taken literally, would entail taking each word of the source text and translating it individually into the target language. This is a terrible idea, as it would make mincemeat of idioms and synonyms, and would likely produce incomprehensible results for most texts longer than two or three words. It is therefore likely that any occurrence of "word-by-word translation" are mistakes resulting from someone conflating "word-for-word" with the familiar X by X construction.

edit: As FumbleFingers correctly notes, "word-for-word translation" is also nonsense if taken word-for-word--sorry, I mean if taken literally. As I have very cleverly shown, though, the phrase word for word is itself used idiomatically as a synonym for literal, whereas word by word is not. (Did I say "cleverly"? Sorry, I meant "clumsily.") So I believe "word-for-word translation" would be more likely to be read idiomatically as meaning "literal translation," while "word-by-word translation" lacks this idiomatic sense and forces the audience to consider it at face value. Really, though, you should just avoid using either one.

  • I'm not sure I understand this. Are you saying that you think a word for word translation means a translation that somehow manages to avoid mangling idiomatic usages and invalidly replicating inappropriate foreign grammar? And that translated text that does contain such errors is more accurately described as being a word by word translation? I've downvoted @Sam's answer because it quite clearly does claim such a distinction, which I think is complete tosh. But I can't actually tell if you're making the same (or a similar) assertion. Commented May 9, 2014 at 17:13
  • @FumbleFingers - I can definitely see your point, but on balance I believe the customary idiomatic sense of "word-for-word" as a synonym for "literal" makes word-for-word translation defensible where word-by-word translation is not.
    – phenry
    Commented May 9, 2014 at 17:32
  • Well, I did make the point in my own answer that "translate word-for-word"* is far more common than the by version. Given how X for X works in other contexts ("Pound for pound, he is stronger than me"), and how X by X works (Letter by letter, he copied the text), you might be able to make out a case for saying the for version more definitely implies a one-to-one correspondence between each word in the original and the translated text. And that the by version implies the translation process itself was long and laborious. But it's angels on pinheads to me. Commented May 9, 2014 at 18:06

Word-for-word - translate each word/phrase for its equivalent in the target language; retain meaning of sentence at expense of loss of precise idiom ("Ich glaub, ich spinne" becomes "I think I am going mad"; the sentiment is retained at the loss of the idiom).

Word-by-word - translate each word to its closest match, overall expression retained, at possible cost of meaning ("Ich glaub, ich spinne" becomes "I think I spider"; the idiom is retained at the likely loss of the sentiment).

Both are valid expressions but as you have indicated, they mean different things.

Ich glaub, ich spinne is an injoke between my German friends and I, so I would personally understand you without consideration either way!


'Word for word'means 'verbatim.' Word by word means 'taking it one word at a time.' (NTC's American Idioms Dictionary) The latter phrase is valid.

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    This answer was automatically flagged as low-quality because of its length and content. An opinion is not an answer. A good answer gives evidence showing why it is correct. Links to external resources are encouraged. For an introduction to the site, take the Tour. For help writing a good answer, see How to Answer.
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    Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 16:28

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