86,000 most frequently used words in English

At Word Count:

Wordcount is a visualization of the way we use language. It presents the 86,800 most frequently used English words, ranked in order of commonness. Each word is scaled to reflect its frequency relative to the words that precede and follow it, giving a visual barometer of relevance. The larger the word, the more we use it. The smaller the word, the more uncommon it is.

Wordcount data currently comes from the British National Corpus®, a 100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent an accurate cross-section of current English usage. Wordcount includes all words that occur at least twice in the BNC®. In the future, Wordcount will be modified to track word usage within any desired text, website, and eventually the entire Internet.

Wordcount was designed with a minimalist aesthetic, to let the information speak for itself. The interface is clean, basic and intuitive. The goal is for the user to feel embedded in the language, sifting through words like an archaeologist through sand, awaiting the unexpected find. Observing closely ranked words tells us a great deal about our culture. For instance, “God” is one word from “began”, two words from “start”, and six words from “war”.

Wordcount was designed and developed by Jonathan Harris while doing a fellowship at Fabrica.

Wordcount won AIGA’s 2003 Award for Information Design.

Some Wordcount games have emerged:

Wordcount tracks the way we use language, while
Querycount tracks the way we use Wordcount.

Wordcount coincidentally contains a number of
apparently conspiratorial sequences, which people
send in via email.

Wordcount contains various sequences of words
which make excellent 1970s movie character names.

“Open” and “closed” word classes

Word classes can be divided into open classes and closed classes. Open classes are readily open to new words; closed classes are limited classes that rarely admit new words. For example, it is easy to create new nouns, but not new pronouns.

Greenbaum, Sidney and Nelson, Gerald. An Introduction to English Grammar. 2nd ed. London, England: Pearson Education, 2002. Print.

AND SEE:
Will this relationship last? (“Function words” can predict)

Parts of speech and classification papers

In English 109, we write three kinds of papers:

  • Classification
  • Definition
  • Simple argument

I’m especially fond of classification papers because there are so many ways to classify practically any subject you can think of. Classification is a puzzle.

Consider the “parts of speech.” How are English words classified into groups?

And: how should English words be classified into groups? Which classifications work best? (And how do we know?)

These are the questions we ask when writing classification papers.

Below are three ways of classifying English words.

First, the traditional parts of speech used by dictionaries:

NOUN the name of a person, place, thing, or concept Jesly, Devin; Dobbs Ferry; Mercy College; book, person; love, grammar, macroeconomics
PRONOUN a word used in the place of a noun I, you, he, she, you, we, they; me, him, her, us, them; my, mine, your, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs; who, that, which, that, whom, where, when, what, why, whose, whose, of which…
VERB usually expresses action or being (what the subject does or is/is not) The book is long.
The book is not long.
The sand feels hot.
He sat down.
She stirred the soup.
ADJECTIVE a word used to modify, or describe, a noun or pronoun black cat; brown dog
ADVERB a word used to modify, or qualify, a verb, an adjective, or another adverb The bird sings sweetly. (“sweetly” modifies the verb “sing”)
The bird has a very beautiful voice. (“very” is an adverb modifying “beautiful,” an adjective)
The birds sing very beautifully. (“very” is an adverb modifying “beautifully,” another adverb)
Sometimes adverbs modify nouns: the room upstairs (“upstairs” is an adverb modifying “room,” a noun)
PREPOSITION a word placed before a noun or pronoun to form a phrase modifying another word in the sentence of the people, for the people, by the people, etc. See: Common prepositions | Sierra College
CONJUNCTION a word that joins words, phrases, or clauses and that indicates the relationship between the elements they join FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so
SUBORDINATING CONJUNCTIONS: whenever, after, although, etc.
SEE: Subordinators & Relative pronouns | Sierra College
INTERJECTION a word used to express surprise or emotion oh! wow! wait! omg! etc.

(from Hacker & Sommers; adapted from Rider University Student Success Center)

A second approach: Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum divided the parts of speech into “open classes” and “closed classes.”

Greebaum and Nelson explain: “Open classes are readily open to new words; closed classes are limited classes that rarely admit new words. For example, it is easy to create new nouns, but not new pronouns.” (Greenbaum & Nelson, 86)

Open classes “Open” because new words frequently enter the group.
NOUN Paul, paper, speech, play
ADJECTIVE young, cheerful, dark, round
MAIN VERB talk, become, like, play
ADVERB carefully, firmly, confidentially
   
Closed classes “Closed” because new words rarely enter the group.
PRONOUN she, somebody, one, who, that
DETERMINER a, the, that, each, some
AUXILIARY (VERB) can, may, will, have, be, do
CONJUNCTION and, that, in order that, if, though
PREPOSITION of, at, to, in spite of

And finally, here is Huddleston and Pullum‘s list from 2002:

i NOUN The dog barked. That is Sue. We saw you.
ii VERB The dog barked. It is impossible. I have a headache.
iii ADJECTIVE He’s very old. It looks empty. I’ve got a new car.
iv DETERMINATIVE The dog barked. I need some nails. All things change.
v ADVERB She spoke clearly. He’s very old. I almost died.
vi PREPOSITION It’s in the car. I gave it to Sam. Here’s a list of them.
vii COORDINATOR I got up and left. Ed or Jo took it.  It’s cheap but strong.
viii SUBORDINATOR It’s odd that they were late. I wonder whether it’s still available. They don’t know if you’re serious.

(Download as pdf file)

After teaching English 109 for three years, I’m partial to Huddleston and Pullum’s scheme. I like the fact that they designate “subordinators” and “coordinators” as fundamental categories and find this approach terrifically useful.

I think you’ll see why in class.

UPDATE 12/29/2013:

This fall I found the distinction between open and closed word classes useful; I also find that teaching pronouns as a specific class is essential. So I’ve ended up using an amalgam of Greenbaum/Nelson and Huddleston/Pullum:

Open classes “Open” because new words frequently enter the group.
NOUN Paul, paper, speech, play
ADJECTIVE young, cheerful, dark, round
MAIN VERB talk, become, like, play
ADVERB carefully, firmly, confidentially
   
Closed classes “Closed” because new words rarely enter the group.
PRONOUN she, somebody, one, who, that
DETERMINATIVE a, the, that, each, some
AUXILIARY (VERB) can, may, will, have, be, do
COORDINATOR FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet 
SUBORDINATOR in order that, if, although, whenever
PREPOSITION of, at, to, in spite of

S.M.’s sophisticated SVOO sentence

S.M.’s sentence:

Describing fables as informative fairy tales gives you a better understanding of what the story and characters are all about

A wonderful observation! Fables are informative fairy tales. I will remember that always.

Fables are informative fairy tales would be a terrific thesis statement.

S.M.’s sentence has an SVOO form. (Click on the chart to enlarge.)


In S.M.’s sentence, describing is used as a noun. In other sentences, “describing” is a verb.

EXAMPLES:
I || am describing Aesop’s fables. [describing is a verb]
Describing Aesop’s fables|| is fun. [describing is part of the noun phrase]
Describing || is fun. [describing is a noun phrase]

I || am swimming. [swimming is part of the verb phrase am swimming]
Swimming || is fun. [swimming is the noun phrase]

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls the –ing form of the verb the gerund-participle.

(The S.M. of this post is not the S.M. of this post from March 2012. Same initials, different people.)

Pronoun substitution test for nominals
Richard Nordquist’s about.com page on gerunds
OWL at Purdue: gerunds
OWL at Purdue: participles
OWL at Purdue: infinitives

AND SEE:
SVO v. SVC
5 + 2: the 7 ‘canonical’ English sentences
3 ways to combine the 7 sentence patterns
10 basic sentence patterns in the English language
SM’s sophisticated SVOO sentence
DT’s astute observation (reflexive pronouns)

A short overview of English syntax by Rodney Huddleston tablehtml mergecells

5+2: the 7 “canonical” sentence patterns of English

VOCABULARY:

I am using the word “canonical” to refer to the most basic form of the English sentence.

EXAMPLE:

The dog chases the cat” is a canonical sentence.

Non-canonical forms of “The dog chases the cat” include:
The cat is chased by the dog.
It is the cat that is chased by the dog.

All three sentences are grammatically correct, but only “The dog chases the cat” is “canonical.”

The chart below appears in John Seely’s short, clear, and extremely useful book Grammar for Teachers, a 170-page distillation of Quirk and Greenbaum’s 1779-page A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language.

The 7 canonical sentence patterns:

S V    
SUBJECT VERB    
Elephants exist.
S V O  
SUBJECT VERB OBJECT  
Elephants like  grass.
S
SUBJECT VERB (INDIRECT) OBJECT  (DIRECT) OBJECT
Elephants give children rides.
S V C  
SUBJECT VERB COMPLEMENT
Elephants
Elephants
are
are (not)
animals.
animals.
S V  O C
 SUBJECT VERB OBJECT COMPLEMENT
Elephants make children happy.
S V  A  
SUBJECT VERB ADVERBIAL  
Elephants live here.
S V O A
SUBJECT  VERB OBJECT ADVERBIAL
Elephants thrust him away.

In these patterns, all of the “sentence slots” — S, V, O, C, and A — must be filled. If a slot is not filled, the sentence becomes “grammatically incomplete.”

I’ve written “5+2” in the title of this post because the final two patterns – SVA and SVOA – are, in Seely’s words, “much less common.”

As Seely puts it: “They only occur with a very small number of verbs, but they are important.”

NOTE: The basic patterns can be carved up in a few different ways. For a 10-sentence scheme, see this post on Martha Kolln’s 10 basic sentence patterns.

AND SEE:
SVO v. SVC
5 + 2: the 7 ‘canonical’ English sentences
Class notes X-1-2-3
3 ways to combine the 7 sentence patterns
10 basic sentence patterns in the English language
SM’s sophisticated SVOO sentence
DT’s astute observation (reflexive pronouns)

A short overview of English syntax by Rodney Huddleston

“Syntactically ambiguous” news headlines

A syntactically ambiguous headline:

Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years

syntax: the way words are put together in a language to form phrases, clauses, or sentences. “Syntactically” is the adverb form of syntax.
Source:
SIL International

ambiguous: open to or having several possible interpretations
Source:
Dictionary.com

The phrase “syntactically ambiguous” means that a sentence or expression is ambiguous because of its syntax. Change the order of the words, and the ambiguity is resolved.

e.g.:

Enraged Cow Injures Farmer with Axe” could mean one of two things:

  1. An enraged cow used an axe to attack a farmer.
  2. An enraged cow attacked a farmer who was holding an axe.

Unless the axe is critical to the story, I would fix this headline by striking the last two words:

Enraged Cow Injures Farmer

EXERCISE: Syntactically ambiguous headlines

Created by Bucknell University’s Department of Linguistics, Culture, and Languages.