In computing, word is a term for the natural unit of data used by a
particular computer design. A word is simply a fixed-sized group of
bits that are handled
together by the machine. The number of bits in a word (the word size or word
length) is an important characteristic of a
The size of a word is reflected in many aspects of a computer's structure and
operation. The majority of the
registers in the computer are usually word-sized. The typical numeric value
manipulated by the computer is probably word sized. The amount of data
transferred between the
processing part of the computer and the memory system is most often a word. An
address used to designate a location in memory often fits in a word.
Modern computers usually have a word size of 16, 32, or 64 bits. Many other
sizes have been used in the past, including 8, 9, 12, 18, 24,
36, 39, 40, 48, and 60 bits; the
is an example of an early word size. Some of the earliest computers were
binary, typically having a word size of 10 or 12 decimal digits, and some
early computers had no fixed word length at all.
Sometimes the size of a word is defined to be a particular value for
compatibility with earlier computers. The most common microprocessors used in
personal computers (for instance, the Intel Pentiums and AMD Athlons) are an
example of this. Their IA-32 architecture is an extension of the original Intel
8086 design which had a word size of 16 bits. The IA-32 processors still support
8086 (x86) programs, so the meaning of "word" in the IA-32 context was kept the
same, and is still said to be 16 bits, despite the fact that they at times
(especially when the default operand size is 32-bit) operate largely like a
machine with a 32 bit word size. Similarly in the newer x86-64 architecture, a "word" is still 16 bits, although 64-bit ("quadruple word")
operands may be more common.
Uses of words
Depending on how a computer is organized, units of the word size may be used
Integer numbers – Holders for integer numerical values may be
available in one or in several different sizes, but one of the sizes
available will almost always be the word. The other sizes, if any, are
likely to be multiples or fractions of the word size. The smaller sizes are
normally used only for efficient use of memory; when loaded into the
processor, their values usually go into a larger, word-sized holder.
Floating point numbers – Holders for floating point numerical
values are typically either a word or a multiple of a word.
Addresses – Holders for memory addresses must be of a size
capable of expressing the needed range of values, but not be excessively
large. Often the size used is that of the word, but it can also be a
multiple or fraction of the word size.
Registers – Processor registers are designed with a size
appropriate for the type of data they hold, e.g. integers, floating point
numbers, or addresses. Many computer architectures use "general purpose"
registers that can hold any of several types of data; those registers are
sized to allow the largest of any of those types, and typically that size is
the word size of the architecture.
Memory-processor transfer – When the processor reads from the
memory subsystem into a register, or writes a register's value to memory,
the amount of data transferred is often a word. In simple memory subsystems,
the word is transferred over the memory
data bus, which
typically has a width of a word or half word. In memory subsystems that use
caches, the word-sized transfer is the
one between the processor and the first level of cache; at lower levels of
the memory hierarchy larger transfers (which are a multiple of the word
size) are normally used.
Unit of address resolution – In a given architecture, successive
address values designate successive units of memory; this unit is the unit
of address resolution. In most computers, the unit is either a character
(e.g. a byte) or a word. (A few computers have used bit resolution.) If the
unit is a word, then a larger amount of memory can be accessed using an
address of a given size. On the other hand, if the unit is a byte, then
individual characters can be addressed (i.e. selected during the memory
Instructions – Machine instructions are normally fractions or
multiples of the architecture's word size. This is a natural choice since
instructions and data usually share the same memory subsystem. In Harvard
architectures the word sizes of instructions and data need not be related.
When a computer architecture is designed, the choice of a word size is of
substantial importance. There are design considerations which encourage
particular bit-group sizes for particular uses (e.g. for addresses), and these
considerations point to different sizes for different uses. However,
considerations of economy in design strongly push for one size, or a very few
sizes related by multiples or fractions (submultiples) to a primary size. That
preferred size becomes the word size of the architecture.
Character size is one of the influences on a choice of word size. Before the
mid-1960s, characters were most often stored in six bits; this allowed no more
than 64 characters, so alphabetics were limited to upper case. Since it is
efficient in time and space to have the word size be a multiple of the character
size, word sizes in this period were usually multiples of 6 bits (in binary
machines). A common choice then was the 36-bit word, which is also a good size
for the numeric properties of a floating point format.
After the introduction of the
IBM System/360 design
which used eight-bit characters and supported lower-case letters, the standard
size of a character (or more accurately, a byte) became eight bits. Word sizes
thereafter were naturally multiples of eight bits, with 16, 32, and 64 bits
being commonly used.
Early machine designs included some that used what is often termed a
variable word length. In this type of organization, a numeric operand had no
fixed length but rather its end was detected when a character with a special
marking was encountered. Such machines often used binary coded decimal for
numbers. This class of machines included the IBM 702, IBM 705, IBM 7080, IBM
7010, UNIVAC 1050, IBM 1401, and IBM 1620.
Most of these machines work on one unit of memory at a time and since each
instruction or datum is several units long, each instruction takes several
cycles just to access memory. These machines are often quite slow because of
this. For example, instruction fetches on an IBM 1620 Model I take 8 cycles just
to read the 12 digits of the instruction (the Model II reduced this to 6 cycles,
but reduced the fetch times to 4 cycles if both address fields were not needed
by the instruction). Instruction execution took a completely variable number of
cycles, depending on the size of the operands.
The memory model of an architecture is strongly influenced by the word size.
In particular, the resolution of a memory address, that is, the smallest unit
that can be designated by an address, has often been chosen to be the word. In
this approach, address values which differ by one designate adjacent memory
words. This is natural in machines which deal almost always in word (or
multiple-word) units, and has the advantage of allowing instructions to use
minimally-sized fields to contain addresses, which can permit a smaller
instruction size or a larger variety of instructions.
When byte processing is to be a significant part of the workload, it is
usually more advantageous to use the byte, rather than the word, as the unit of
address resolution. This allows an arbitrary character within a character string
to be addressed straightforwardly. A word can still be addressed, but the
address to be used requires a few more bits than the word-resolution
alternative. The word size needs to be an integral multiple of the character
size in this organization. This addressing approach was used in the IBM 360, and
has been the most common approach in machines designed since then.
Different amounts of memory are used to store data values with different
degrees of precision. The commonly used sizes are usually a power of 2 multiple
of the unit of address resolution (byte or word). Converting the index of an
item in an array into the address of the item then requires only a shift
operation rather than a multiplication. In some cases this relationship can also
avoid the use of division operations. As a result, most modern computer designs
have word sizes (and other operand sizes) that are a power of 2 times the size
of a byte.
As computer designs have grown more complex, the central importance of a
single word size to an architecture has decreased. Although more capable
hardware can use a wider variety of sizes of data, market forces exert pressure
to maintain backward compatibility while extending processor capability. As a
result, what might have been the central word size in a fresh design has to
coexist as an alternative size to the original word size in a backward
compatible design. The original word size remains available in future designs,
forming the basis of a size family.
In the mid-1970s, DEC designed the VAX to be a successor of the PDP-11. They
used "word" for a 16-bit quantity while they used the term "longword" to refer
to a 32-bit quantity. This is in contrast to earlier machines, where the natural
unit of addressing memory would be called a word, while a quantity that
is one half a word would be called, if anything, a halfword. As well, a
VAX "quadword" is 64 bits.
Another example is the x86 family. The original 8086 architecture used a word
size of 16 bits. The 80386 was based around units of 32 bits. If it were an
unencumbered design, it would have had a 32-bit "word", but as an extension of
the 8086, its "word" continued to be considered as 16 bits. The AMD64
architectural extensions bring the 64-bit size into a major position without
dropping any of the 16- and 32-bit support.
Thus one sees that today a computer architecture is based on a family of
closely related sizes more than on a single omnipresent word size. The sizes are
related by integral factors. Calling any one of them the architecture's word
size may be somewhat arbitrary, and a word size may be designated for historical
In computer science, a dword (double word) is a unit of data that is
twice the size of a word. On the x86 platforms, which have a word size of 16
bits, a dword unit of data is 32 bits (4 bytes) long.
A qword (or quadword, or quadruple word) is a unit of data that is
four times the size of a word. On the common x86 platforms, this unit of data is
64 bits because the size of a word on an x86 system is defined to be 16 bits
(whether the particular machine works primarily with 16, 32, or 64 bit items).
Finally, Intel uses the term double quadruple word, or DQWord, to
denote a 128-bit datum, found in the implementation of Streaming SIMD Extensions
and its ancestors. Microsoft Macro Assembler uses oword (octuple word)
for the same data size.
In 1981 when the original IBM Personal Computer was announced,
IBM released three operating systems for it. How many of you remember that?
Since I wrote the first IBM course on how to fix this original PC, I had to know
at least a little about all three of them.
IBM decided early in the development process of the PC that they
did not want to hire a bunch of programmers to write software for it -
especially an operating system. IBM wanted the hardware business and did not
care about the software. Since there was no clear-cut contender for an operating
system at the time, IBM approached three organizations about writing one for the