We rely on software to provide a word count on our documents, but what counts as a word might surprise you. Punctuation marks, special characters, and spaces may or may not affect the word count. Footnotes, running heads and footers, captions, and text in comments (or tracked changes) may also affect the word count.
Software uses text segmentation rules to determine what makes a word. This includes indicators of word boundaries (such as a space) and dividers. Not all software follows the same rules. There may be great discrepancies in word count depending on what word processor (or other tool) you are using to get the numbers. Below are some of the factors that affect whether a string is counted as one or more words.
What might count as a single word
What might count as separate words
What usually is not counted
I ran a very short test document through a word count in the most popular word processing programs. Here are the results:
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Alternative to a word count
Character counts might give you a more accurate estimate of manuscript length. Like words, a character count gets around the problem of page counts, which are affected by the width of individual letters and spaces, which vary by font and the styling applied.
Science and other topics with a preponderance of really long words make a lot of sense to be sized by character counts rather than giving terms such as electromagnetic and phosphofructokinase the same “counted weight” as cat and lion. A manuscript full of such long words might fill up five more pages; that affects your page rate and pace.
Manual counting and estimates used to be the norm. It was common to not count prepositions or conjunctions. Some estimates were based just on a typical number of words per line or page (such as 250) and multiplied out. In newspaper writing, that meant multiplying a typical line count by the inches of column the piece took up (column inches).
Why it matters
Copy fitting, billing, time estimates for editing and to lay out the materials, these are all reasons we use a word count. For any one editor or publication, consistency matters more than some ideal of “correctness”—so pick one way to count and stick to it.
This article was originally posted on the Copyediting website.