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The Most Frequent Words in English

  • January 3, 2011
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The English language is a living entity that is constantly growing and changing to adapt to modern culture and technology. Despite the increasing size of the lexicon, the most frequent words in English remain largely the same. According to statistics, the 100 most frequent words make up approximately 50% of all written content while the top 25 words comprise 30% of the same content. Among the list of the 100 most frequent words in the English vocabulary are restrictive determiners like definite articles and possessive pronouns as well as prepositions, conjunctions, verbs, helping verbs and a variety of other essential parts of speech.

In the interactive infographic from WordCount™, the articles “a” and “the,” which are always paired with nouns, are listed among the top five most frequent words. Likewise, the numbers one through six, which function as nouns, pronouns and adjectives, are included among the 500 most frequent words. Helping verbs also called auxiliaries, which include have, had, has and will, was, is, were, etc., consistently rank among the among the most frequently used words.

The analysis and study of the constantly growing vocabulary is an art form of its own. Not only is the study of word usage important from a cultural standpoint, character frequency is also an essential element of code breaking. Google, Harvard and the Oxford English Dictionary as well as organizations like the British National Corpus are all involved in compiling a comprehensive representation or corpus of the English language. The Oxford English Corpus includes a scientific sampling of more than one billion words collected from news sources, scientific journals, novels, chatrooms, emails and everyday correspondences that reflect current language trends.

In June, 2009, the English lexicon officially reached 1 million words with more than 1,000 new words added every year. Although research shows 14 new words are created every day, the most frequent English words remain quite static. The newest additions to the dictionary range from sociological terms like viral video, which was coined by journalist Douglas Rushkoff, to obscure entries like the 2003 addition Nipkow disc-nuculoid and humorous blend words like ginormous. Historically, the definition and function of words has also changed over the decades, a phenomenon seen most recently with words like cool and awesome.

Despite regional differences in American vernaculars like soda and pop as well as international differences between American English, British English and Australian variations, the most frequent words in English are extremely consistent. On a larger scale, anyone who has taken a foreign language course will recognize many of the 100 and 500 most common English words as the same vocabulary words stressed in foreign languages courses and textbooks, which shows the prevalence of common words and parts of speech is universal.

Although current vocabulary estimates for college graduates range from 25,000 to more 100,000 words, only 100 words make up roughly half of written English. What buzz words have you noticed popping up in the media or in your own conversations recently?

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