I need advice how to do a word count in English. I am supposed to write 400 words and I do not know if contractions count as one word or two words. How does this work with hyphenated words, like big-hearted. Additionally, what about the word cannot.

I did some searching and I mostly found that all my examples above should count as one word. On the other hand, the rules used for teaching English may be different… I was told by a teacher once that cannot does count as two words.

Is there an official definition released by some prestigious institution that would tell me what is one word and what is two words?

  • 2
    You have an assignment to write exactly 400 words?
    – user6951
    Oct 12, 2014 at 21:03
  • @CarSmack Probably not exactly, but I imagine he or she is over the word limit by some margin, and is trying to reduce the count by whatever means necessary.
    – Damien H
    Oct 13, 2014 at 1:35

5 Answers 5


If there is an "official" definition, I am not aware of it - so, no.

As you've found from your research, hyphenated words and contractions usually count as one word; I would disagree with your teacher, and tell you that "cannot" counts as one word, not two.

Also, it's quite possible that you're "supposed" to write approximately 400 words - in my experience of academia, word or page counts were intended as indicators of how thoroughly the topic should be covered rather than strict limits - and if that is the case, counting contractions as one word or two shouldn't significantly affect your results.


As far as a practical answer, you shouldn’t be counting words yourself anyway. Use the tool built into your word processor or paste your text into an online tool like this one.

In either case, the count will be determined mostly by spaces, consistent with this definition:



  1. a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning. Words are composed of one or more morphemes and are either the smallest units susceptible of independent use or consist of two or three such units combined under certain linking conditions, as with the loss of primary accent that distinguishes “blackbird” from “black bird”. Words are usually separated by spaces in writing, and are distinguished phonologically, as by accent, in many languages.

Source: dictionary.com definitions for “word”

The teacher you remember saying that “cannot” is two words was probably speaking in some other context. Technically speaking, “cannot” is a contraction of the words “can” and “not”, but it would be somewhat difficult to defend the stance that the statement “fish cannot sing” has four words in it where most native speakers would count three. Similarly, nobody is helped in thinking that “runaway boxcar” consists of more than two words. Presently, “cannot” is its own word with its own definition, even if that definition is “can not”.

“Big-hearted” also has its own definition, and M-W doesn’t even bother with the hyphen. This is a good example of what the definition of “word” above calls “a principal carrier of meaning”. If your hyphens are well placed and meaningful, they should cause the words they join to communicate a new concept—something the two words weren’t saying when they were separate. That means that your hyphenated creation is now “the smallest isolable meaningful element”, also known as a single word. The key here is that the meaning comes as a package, not as one element modifying another within a sentence (such as could potentially be rewritten with the words even farther apart).

In school assignments, word count requirements can usually be thought of as guidelines; they are meant to provide an approximation of the desired length. Some instructors might be more specific if they want to restrict the length of students’ writing with a word-count limit, and some might specify that they want at least a certain number of words on a topic if they are worried students will not write enough. If they don’t specify either way, it usually means there’s some wiggle room and any essay reasonably close to the word count will be accepted. If you’re worried about it you can make sure you are over the number, but I believe most instructors would prefer a submission that is slightly shorter than the assigned count over one that goes over the number because it contains unnecessary fluff (this is assuming they bother to check the length this closely at all). The other criteria for the assignment are much more important; word counts just give you an idea of how much detail to include while answering the question.


If you want a practical and semi-official standard for word count, use your word processor's word count feature.

In LibreOffice Writer, I can reach this feature by selecting some text (such as this paragraph), and then choosing menubar → Tools → Word Count. According to LibreOffice Writer, this paragraph contains 34 words.

Microsoft Word is the most common word processor for English-language text. I have seen requests for submissions that stated that the word count would be checked using Microsoft Word.

  • "If you want a practical and semi-official standard for word count, use your word processor's word count feature" Some, such as MS Word, allow you to change the setting to either count them or not. So I really wouldn't call that "standard."
    – arkon
    Sep 2, 2015 at 11:31

As for contractions - in the world of research papers and style guides (APA etc.) contractions are generally frowned upon - when in doubt it's better to err on the side of not using contractions.

If you have a hard word count because it's for some kind of application such as college, grad school, a spot on a research project, etc. then it's better to be conservative and not use contractions as well. Or I should say "it is better to be conservative..."


EXAMPLE: carbon-based


Describing any form of life based on the organic biopolymers present in all forms of life on Earth.

So ONE word if word is defined in a good dictionary as such. Otherwise it's not defined so I would count as two words.

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