How to tell the difference between words and phrases

Hi y’all! Something’s been bothering me. The things we learn on WK are given their English counterparts which are either words or phrases. Is there any way to know if the Japanese equivalent is a word you could find in a dictionary or more like a phrase/compound word?

For example, is 生物 a word you would find in the dictionary? Or is it a common phrase? Something else?


There’s already a blurry line between what counts as a single word in Japanese. Some linguists treat something like 私の as two words, some treat it as one.

If you look in a dictionary, you will find lots of things that are kind of indisputably single words. For instance, 切る, to cut.

But in the dictionary, you’ll also find 切っても切れない, which literally means “even if you cut it, you can’t cut it.” In other words “inseparable.” In this case, it has basically become a long い adjective that looks like a phrase made from the て form, the particle も, and the negative potential form of 切る.

But it’s still probably best to think of it as a word in Japanese, because it comes as a set in this case.

But you could make similarly structured phrases from new combos which wouldn’t sound like words to Japanese people, because they’d be original to you.

生物 is definitely a single word… there’s no real way to consider breaking that up without losing information / changing meanings beyond recognition.


Yeah, don’t be confused by the fact that English sometimes needs to use multiple words to describe something that’s just a single clump of kanji in Japanese. The fact is that each individual kanji has its own meaning, so sometimes it’s possible to pack a lot of information into something that’s only a few characters long - it’s still a single self-contained item that can be found in the dictionary.

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