Is there a term for simply "a unit of language"?

  • 2
    Phrases are not considered a “unit” of language, but if you want to get super general, you can use “texts” (though note that under Postmodern analysis, texts can be almost anything, eg movies). At the other end of the spectrum, you have “lexemes”, which cover words as well as set phrases (like “kicked the bucket”), which operate like words (in short: strings of characters which function as an atomic unit, with an assigned meaning, not derivable from the component words).
    – Dan Bron
    Jul 12, 2021 at 1:20
  • You used it in your question: terms. MW.com 1a : a word or expression that has a precise meaning in some uses or is peculiar to a science, art, profession, or subject. A term cannot be broken down into smaller segments without losing its meaning. Jul 12, 2021 at 2:10
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    You might get better responses over at Linguistics because this is more about very specific domain knowledge (linguistic terminology)/ That said, what you are looking for depends a lot on details you haven't mentioned. If you are looking for a hypernym fro word and phrase, then 'term' might be what you're looking for (ie if you ant to ask for either a word or a phrase but don't care which, then 'term' could work).
    – Mitch
    Jul 12, 2021 at 2:20
  • 3
    Or maybe you want a 'unit of language, a linguistically parsable entity that corresponds to a subtree of a parse' then 'constituent' might work (this means it does not cross syntactic boundaries/does not include parts of separate subtrees).
    – Mitch
    Jul 12, 2021 at 2:21
  • According to Crystal, 'John', 'I', 'inkwell', 'ink-well', 'ink well' (the open compound), 'ship of the desert', 'kick the bucket' (when used metaphorically for 'die') ... are all units of language. He coined the word 'lexeme'. There are 5 examples given here (spelling variants being counted as the same lexeme). But collocations such as 'plastic spoon', 'cold tea', and free combinations like 'plastic ruler' are not single lexemes. Jul 12, 2021 at 10:38

1 Answer 1


The term Constituent marks a particular kind of syntactic unit, one that has a coherent structure. It doesn't apply to just any string of words.

Constituents include sentences, clauses, and various kinds of phrases, like noun phrase, verb phrase, and prepositional phrases. They can be nested inside one another -- a sentence can contain a clause that can contain a verb phrase that can contain a noun phrase, for instance -- and these relations are sometimes sketched with brackets or with tree diagrams. It can get complicated.

For instance, the sentence

  • The old man in the raincoat lit a cigarette.

has the following major constituents (all italicized):

  1. the subject noun phrase the old man in the raincoat,
    containing the noun phrase the old man,
    and the prepositional phrase in the raincoat,
    containing the noun phrase the raincoat.

  2. the verb phrase lit a cigarette,
    containing the object noun phrase a cigarette.

Phrase is the term used for a constituent that is not a clause (i.e, no subject plus verb). Any other string of words that go together is just a string of words, unless it's a constituent of a sentence. For instance, the following are not constituents of that sentence:

  • old man in, in the, lit a, old man lit, the old, ...

All individual words are constituents, but it's the combinations that make the difference. The most important thing to know about constituents is that all syntactic rules apply to constituents only, so you can't tell how the sentence is constructed without finding the constituents.

There are hundreds of syntactic rules that are used to make tests for constituents, but I'm not gonna get into that here. See McCawley 1998 on tests for constituency.

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