I had participated in a quiz recently and one of the questions was 'which is the largest island in the world?'. I wrote Australia as the answer remembering that it was the 5th largest country in the world and none of the top 4 were islands.

However (and rather dreadfully) the answer given was Greenland.I took this up with the committee providing the solutions, but they simply said that Australia isn't an island and is a continental mass?

I googled it and found the same argument online which seemed to confirm that Greenland was the largest island.

But Australia is a country and the collection of islands which is a continent (more accurately described as Oceania ) is sometimes called Australia. Neither of these names would still change the fact that Australia (the country) being an island is the largest island in the world! Can someone please clarify this for me?

  • $\begingroup$ Australia is a country which consists of the continent of Australia, plus a number of islands (over 8000, per Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_islands_of_Australia ) Tasmania is the largest of these. Some of those are part of the Australian continent, others aren't. Politics being politics, it's certainly conceivable that Australia the country could fragment into several countries, or merge with/be conquered by some other country within a human lifetime. Not really plausible for the continent to do so :-) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 1, 2019 at 4:34
  • $\begingroup$ This question is on topic in my opinion $\endgroup$
    – marsisalie
    Dec 2, 2019 at 11:22
  • $\begingroup$ Following your argrument Eurasifrica would be the largest island. All three continents are connected, they are sorrounded by water... which makes them an island? $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Dec 3, 2019 at 7:13
  • $\begingroup$ Another point one could argue about: do you count the ice sheet or the bedrock? Apparently, Greenland would remain a single island, and probably remain the world's largest if measuring the above-sea-level bedrock (or quickly become so again due to isostatic rebound). $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Dec 3, 2019 at 12:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Just a note: Australia is the 6th largest country, not 5th. Minor point. $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2022 at 1:14

4 Answers 4


Australia does get widely referred to as an island as well as as a continent - an island-continent sometimes. My understanding is that "continent" in terms of geology refers to the largest land mass of a continental plate and is more a matter of convention - a general agreement - than precise definition. Such definitions have been subject to revision.

This definition would have come after continental plates and plate tectonics were confirmed and widely accepted; proposed first by Alfred Wegener in 1912, acceptance did not come until the 1950's and 60's. Naming Australia an island predated this definition and still persists in popular usage but using the current definition it is a continent.

Greenland, being a part of the North American Plate but not it's largest landmass, gets defined as an island and is now considered the world's largest island.

  • $\begingroup$ I still don't get it something is a continent as opposed to being an island just doesn't make sense? $\endgroup$ Dec 2, 2019 at 16:41
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @SchwarzKugelblitz - It looks like an Etymology issue, rather than Geology, ie the study of words. Geology, like other sciences, seeks to clearly define the terminology they use, but these terms existed before the clear definitions; a continent was really big and Islands weren't. Which was which was a matter of agreement, or, for Australia, disagreement. If an island were simply land surrounded by water then Africa, Europe and Asia would be 1 island, the largest, then 2 islands after the Suez Canal opened. I suppose Geological Societies decided on the current definition. $\endgroup$
    – Ken Fabian
    Dec 2, 2019 at 22:16

Assuming an island is defined as a body of land surrounded by water, then the largest island in the world is the Europe and Asia land mass (with Africa included if the Suez canal is not regarded as a body of water because it is man made).


Australia can be seen as a very "continenty" continent. It contains very old stable continental lithosphere in cratons, like for instance the Pilbara or the Yilgarn craton.

I fear, the quiz makers were correct with classifying Australia as a continent.

  • $\begingroup$ But like Australia is a country as well? $\endgroup$ Nov 30, 2019 at 22:45
  • $\begingroup$ And the group of islands just happens to be named Australia as well? $\endgroup$ Nov 30, 2019 at 22:48
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, well, a "country" is a political concept, or not ? Difficult to discuss without getting political :-) There is a convention about what's a continent and what's an island, and that tells us Greenland is an island. And not for sale, it is rumoured .... $\endgroup$
    – user18411
    Nov 30, 2019 at 22:53
  • $\begingroup$ Country or not it's still an island? $\endgroup$ Nov 30, 2019 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ If this is a sufficient condition, then Greenland is also a continent: part of it pertains to the Laurentia craton and contains very old crustal rocks (at Isua for instance). $\endgroup$ Dec 1, 2019 at 17:26

You've all missed the point. If you define an island as a continuous piece of land surrounded by water, then Europe-Asia is the biggest island, not Australia. the Americas are also bigger than Australia. However that is also the definition of a landmass, of which Australia is one. So if you exclude Europe-Asia and the Americas on that basis, then you have to exclude Australia too.

The question was not what is the largest island country, but what is the largest island. Totally different question.


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