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The Most Common English Words

by writer, Michael Rumsey - this post contains a mini writing challenge

Quick links on this page:

Introduction

Michael Rumsey is one of the contributing authors to my flash fiction writing challenges. He also posts informative articles regularly on his Facebook page.

Michael Rumsey

Michael Rumsey, with some of the writing challenge anthologies

Recently, Mike contacted me regarding a post he was writing. It was about English word usage and referenced the nonsense writing challenge. He asked if I had any comments to contribute to the post.

I read the piece and really enjoyed it – it was fun, interesting and contained a mini writing challenge, which I thought my website users would enjoy. In addition to that, talking about commonly used words highlights the issue of writing tics - those words that can sneak into our stories over and over again without us realising it, spoiling the pace and flow. Words like 'the', 'was', 'of' and so on.

So, I provided Michael with a comment for the post. At the same time, I cheekily asked him if I could use the post on my website. He said, "Yes."

I guess this goes to show that if you send me requests to contribute to a post, I may well agree, but am then likely to hijack your writing in the process. You've been warned.

I hope you enjoy Mike's post. As always, comments are welcome, as are attempts at Mike's common-word-usage-challenge. You will see that towards the end of the post.

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English Word Usage

An estimate of the number of words available in written and conversational English is 250,000, at least. The average person knows between 20,000 and 30,000 of these words, but can get by on much less than half of that.

Words

The Top 15 Words

From a list of the most used 500 words, the following are the top 15, in order of popularity.

  1. THE
  2. OF
  3. TO
  4. AND
  5. A
  6. IN
  7. IS
  8. IT
  9. YOU
  10. THAT
  11. HE
  12. WAS
  13. FOR
  14. ON
  15. ARE

The top 15 are not surprising, as most are conjunctions that connect phrases. They are short words – to find a five letter word, we have to run down the list until we get THERE at number 34, then move on for a six letter word to NUMBER 86 and for seven letters we must scan THROUGH to position 128.

Does The Order Of Usage Reflect The Way We Think And Act?

Interestingly, we have ALL (40) long before we have NOTHING (435). On the other hand, no sooner do we GO (89) than we COME (90), but thankfully we START (232) before we STOP (250).

I am not sure how polite we are, as neither please or thanks appear in the top 500. We can, however, say GOOD (121) MORNING (375).

OK, so we get by, but the frequency of the top 15 words used is remarkably high.

3 Common Word Usage Examples

To illustrate this, let's look at these three examples.

  1. My short story, 'Coaster Nights', published in an anthology, contains 4,200 words. The top 15 appear 545 times, accounting for 12.98% of the whole.
  2. As usage also includes conversation, my story 'Tittle-Tattle' contains 370 spoken words of dialogue, 51 of which are top 15, accounting for 13.38% of the word count.
  3. Even when directed to write something, in this case for Nonsensically Challenged Volume 1, a story of 200 words offers up no less than 50 top 15 words, which is 25% of the total.

Adding all of the words in these three examples together, the top 15 represent almost 14% of all the words used.

A Comment From Chris

This is the comment I asked Chris for, just before he stole offered to use my post on his website:

I’ve been editing Nonsensically Challenged Volume 2 this week, and my spellchecker almost had a meltdown. With over 250,000 words available in the English language, you might think inventing new words is unnecessary. Apparently not…

I think the authors featured in the nonsense anthologies are probably responsible for coming up with 100s of new words, although sometimes their meanings are unclear, meaning definitions have to be decided by the reader – a good exercise for the imagination. This indicates the inventiveness and creativity of writers, and their propensity to dabble with phantasmagorical wordage.

It also suggests our vocabulary is likely to have an ever-increasing number of words at its disposal, even if ‘the’ remains in the number 1 spot. If nothing else, this constant development of language keeps the editors of dictionaries busy, and us writers entertained.

Theories & Maths

There is a theory linking the top 15 words to a mathematical precept. That is, the first word THE will occur twice as much as the second word, three times that of the third, four times the fourth and so on.

In the above examples, THE is the most frequently used word in all three cases, but its mathematical relationship occurs to only IS, FOR and ON. The sample is very small, so if someone fancies churning through a million-word epic, please do so and write your findings in the comments below.

As a compromise I selected a bestselling novel of 266,350 words and did a rough estimation that produced the following results:

  • THE occurs 17,600 times
  • TO 8,800
  • AND 4,800
  • A 9,600
  • IN 3,200
  • IS 2,400
  • IT 2,400
  • YOU 1,600
  • THAT 4,000
  • HE 4,000
  • WAS 6,400
  • FOR 1,600
  • ON 1,600
  • ARE 1,600

That results in a total usage of 68,000 top 15 words. This represents about 25% of the total and nine of the 15 fall roughly, give or take, into the mathematical sequence.

All this suggests we are heavily reliant upon the 15. The opening sentence above contains 18 words and the top 15 occur 6 times. I assure you, it was not intentional.

My Common Word Usage Challenge

Pick up a newspaper or a book, read a sentence or two and then answer the question below.

Can one write anything sensible, whatever length, ignoring the top 15 used words in the English language? Try it, using just 1 sentence.

Chris and I will look forward to receiving your answers via the comments form below.

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Michael Rumsey Biography

Michael Rumsey

Over the years I've had a few successes with stories and articles. Then along came retirement, allowing time to meet the flood of website opportunities.

I write at least one piece a week, mostly Flash Fiction (150 published), but I especially enjoy producing the longer, factual studies like Portrait Of A Painter and others on my Facebook page.

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Big Thanks To Michael

I'd like to thank Michael for allowing me to hijack this post to use on my blog. While this is not a full blown writing challenge like the others I run, I thought it would be a lot of fun. We look forward to your attempts at sentences containing none of the top 15 words (or writing tics) and, if possible, no short words either.

If you'd like to write for my website, please read my submissions guidelines and then contact me with your ideas.

How to Write a Short Story, book by Christopher Fielden

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Leave your comments

Please use the form below to leave your comments. All comments will be reviewed so won't appear on the page instantly. I will not share your details with anyone else. Most recent comments appear at the bottom of the page, oldest at the top.

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Comments:

Your comments:

Maddy H
Good morning, very interesting article - I've picked up some books I have lying around AND can confirm THAT most contain at least one of THE words ON THE above list.

Oddly enough, Adverbially Challenged 3 (currently in use on my bedside table) gave me the idea for these sentences:

  • Running between looming tree trunks, she stumbled, quickly rendered prone.
  • Parties, she found, always disappointed.
  • Dogs howled longingly towards distant trees, greeting their wild ancestors.

It's a difficult challenge, to be sure!

Chris Fielden
Thanks, Maddy - some fabulous examples there. Congratulations. Very difficult, certainly. Adverbs help. So do very short sentences. See what I've done there?

Maybe we should try again, without using THE top 100?

Michael R
Well done, Maddy, thanks,  your example sentences suggest authors may have had intellectual forethought, therefore they deserve our utmost sincere appreciation.

Another challenge... perhaps sentences, or even a  paragraph, could be produced using ONLY the top 100.

Lynne C
Reading your insightful post reminded me how tricky writing original creative stuff  can be!!!

Chris Fielden
Very good, Lynne :-)

Ann P
What wonderful comments have been made here, benefiting us all who read your interesting articles, Chris.

Chris Fielden
Thank you, Ann - most happily hearing that :-)

Allen A
With apologies – having still used some short words – one person noted an obviously patriarchal language bias around placement eleven within this list.

Chris Fielden
Concocting extensively long sentences, utilising only incredibly long words, certainly tests one's ability when typing fervently upon one's computer... patriarchal indeed.

Ron H
Here's a sentence:

Little kittens always play with mice.

Ron H
A quote from Nemesis, by Max Hastings. First sentence, second para, page 102:

'America's shipbuilding programme almost defies belief.'

Chris Fielden
Thanks Ron. Talented authors like MH most certainly would complete sentences utilising only lengthy wordage...

Ron H
Chris, undoubtedly true. I have been lent the book by an ex-Rear Admiral who flew Seafires from 1942 up to the end of the war, including operations off Japan with the Pacific Fleet.

Sadly, Hastings verbosity does not make the book flow. If anything, his apparent desire to demonstrate the depth of his research gets in the way of what would otherwise be a story well-worth reading.

Chris Fielden
Sounds like an interesting gent, Ron. Verbosity can spoil a good story... at least with today's short attention spans, authors are more likely to be concise.

Suzanne M
Challenge

I accept your challenge requesting prose exempt from fifteen common English words.

Michael Rumsey writes interesting pieces about words. I find articles about language fascinating so his contribution caught my eye when I opened Chris's blog yesterday. There, Michael listed fifteen most-used English words, pointing out how frequently they recur throughout writing by different authors. He gave convincing examples which demonstrated our heavy usage. Chris's comments underlined those points.

Fortunately, most writers have many words at their disposal. Otherwise, few people would read. Although I have succeeded with this piece, I could not write much more without using words from Michael's list; doing so would certainly produce turgid prose, increasing my readers' boredom levels. Therefore, I concur with his findings.

Chris Fielden
Thanks Suzanne :-) Michael's challenge – while both insightful & wise – might also encourage questionable (yet creative) punctuation usage.

Geoff H
Since empirical evidence would suggest people prefer talking about themselves rather than others, finding second person pronouns (singular or plural) mentioned more frequently than 'I' or 'me' leaves one's mind utterly boggled!

Chris Fielden
Boggled indeed – maybe this extensive list will need updating, better indicating usage within modern langauge? LOL could well take our number one spot.

Ron H
Ray Rawbone looked like a film star in his youth. Flew 400 deck landings with no accidents. Shot down in France and had to write a report explaining why he had been absent without leave, when he got back to his ship. Commanded a Sea Hawk squadron during Suez crisis on ground attack operations.

Subsequently Commanding Officer of RNAS Yeovilton and Commodore of a Nato fleet of ASW Frigates. Married a WREN during the War and coming up to their 75th wedding Anniversary. Sharp as a pin and in pretty good health for a 95 year old!

Loves talking about aviation (which suits me as an aeronautical engineer, ex-private pilot and past Head of Future Projects at Westland Helicopters Ltd).

One can only hope to be as fit and sharp as he is as one gets older.

Chris Fielden
Wow... thanks Ron - he sounds like an inspiration. Let's hope we make it to 95 with decent health :-)

Geoff H
Your charming challenge provided welcome diversion this dank, drizzly bank holiday weekend, but my previous response now has completely spurious punctuation which appears after my submission terminated, so I would like this removed, please.

Chris Fielden
Spurious punctuation hunted, spotted, targeted, terminated. One professes, "Job done."

Roger A
Fascinating article. 

'Does language reflect the way we think and act?' – the psychologists got there first: this is known as the 'Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis', after the pair who independently developed it. 

Four of the top fifteen English words do not occur at all in Russian. There are no articles: 'the' and 'a' turn out not to be needed.   

The verb 'to be' has no present tense. I cannot say 'I am', 'you are', 'he is'. I have often wondered if these differences may account for Western difficulties in understanding Russian thinking.

Chris Fielden
Thanks, Roger – that's really interesting. I wonder if differences in language structure could be the reason for a lack of understanding between cultures the world over? Each langauge has it's own rules - maybe that is indicative of how the people who speak it think.

Margaret D
Amazingly, or not, 'she' does not appear.

Jan P
Something very amiss, firstly fifteen words then fourteen,  someone having an off day?

Lesley A T
Great Article, Michael. A sentence:  Dogs either eat bones or bury them.

Chris Fielden
Margaret: Interesting indeed, especially as 'he' does make an appearance. 'She' is at number 50. I wonder what that tells us about society?

Jan: Writers tend to be better with words than numbers... Let's just put it down to that.

Lesley: Thanking you :-)

Michael R
Thanks everyone, brilliant, terrific responses proving your deep consideration has cancelled any initial concept regarding what originally appeared virtually impossible. Our genuine heartfelt appreciation, envelopes forthcoming, clever submissions too.

Roger A
Thank you for your swift reply. I am not an expert on Russian, having just learned a bit of the language a few years ago, but have been struck by certain freedoms, which we take for granted, being absent from the Russian language. It strikes me as a language developed by nosey-parkers, where the basic premise is that everybody has a right to know other people's business. 

In English, I can say, "I am going to Leicester," or, "Harry went to Leicester yesterday," without giving any other information. In Russian that is impossible. I must say either, "I am going to Leicester, which I do regularly," or, "I am going to Leicester, which I do not do regularly." Similarly, for Harry. 

Every verb in Russian has these two forms. They are two different words. It is impossible to mention a present or a past or future action, without saying whether that action is isolated or is part of a regular pattern.

Long ago, when travel was difficult and dangerous, I can understand that letting people know whether your journey was regular or not could be useful for safety. However, in modern times, if I was trying to invent a language which would make the job of a secret policeman much easier, I think this would be it. I am not sure that is an accident, that Russia has been a police-state since before historical records began.

I don't know many Russians and have never discussed this with any, but it would be interesting to have the views of some native Russian speakers. I suspect that they must find Western ideas of privacy rather strange. I have always found Russians to be friendly and open. Speaking a language which compels an openness which is unknown in English probably encourages that. 

As you can see, I rather accept the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It seems to cover certain striking correspondences between language and political structures, certainly in this case.

Chris Fielden
Thanks for this, Roger - it's very interesting.

I'm sure there's a guest post in there somewhere... it would need a Russian's take on your observations though, to see how they view it.

Derek M
Easter shows how Christ loved our world.

'Brexit' means different things when used by different people.

Chris Fielden
Succinct. Those 15 words not present. Success.

Eamon O
Bank Holiday Monday, rain, rain, more coming apparently, dear old Emerald Isle floating away, Brexiteers all delighted.

Chris Fielden
Indeed, Eamon. Summer's coming, yet expertly hiding amidst rain storms.