Most often used words in speech and writing

One of the books on my holiday reading list is the Cambridge Grammar of English by Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy (a bit tragic, I know, reading grammar textbooks during the holidays). One of their focuses is the differences between spoken and written English. On p 12 they list and briefly discuss ‘the twenty most frequent word-forms in spoken and written texts’. I want to explore those lists further.

The 20 most-used words in spoken English are:
the – I – and – you – it – to – a – yeah – that – of – in – was – it’s – know – is – mm – er – but – so – they

The 20 most-used words in written English are:
the – to – and – of – a – in – was – it – I – he – that – she – for – on – her – you – is – with – his – had

Twelve words appear on both lists:
the – I – and – you – it – to – a – that – of – in – was – is

The eight other words on the ‘spoken’ list are:
yeah – it’s – know – mm – er – but – so – they

and the eight others on the ‘written list are:
he – she – for – on – her – with – his – had

Of the words on both lists, two appear in the same place on each: ‘the’ in first place and ‘and’ in third. Words used more in speech are: I – you – it – that – is, and words used more in writing are: to – a  – of – in – was.

Combining all this, we can conclude that:
• speech is more likely to be about ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘it’ (probably as a ‘dummy pronoun’ as in ‘it’s a nice day’) and ‘they’, and writing more about ‘he’ and ‘she’ (though ‘I’ and ‘you’ are still very common). (Note that ‘her’ appears on the list, but ‘him’ doesn’t. This is probably because ‘her’ is both the object and possessive forms (I’ve got another blog post in mind about that), while ‘him‘ corresponds to ‘his’. I suspect that ‘him‘ and ‘his‘ together would occur more often than ‘her’.)

• speech is more likely to be ‘present’: ‘is’ is used more in speech and ‘was’ and ‘had’ more in writing.

• speech is more likely to be informal: ‘it’s‘ (alongside ‘it‘ and ‘is’) – you know – yeah – mm – er (either for ‘back-channeling‘ or for hesitation), and to involve turn-taking: but – so. (Formal writing rarely involves turn-taking, but computer-mediated writing (text messages, instant chat, emails) might.)

• writing is more likely to be organised: to – of – in (on both lists but used more often in writing) – for – on – with.

Clearly, the most frequently-used words in English are the ‘grammar words’ and not the ‘content’ words. My students sometimes grumble that I emphasise grammar and sentence patterns so much, but the actual usage points to their importance. At the end of the book (pp 828-39) there is a section on ‘word clusters’ – two, three, four or five words which are often said or written together, starting with ‘you know‘, ‘I don’t know‘, ‘you know what I‘ and ‘you know what I mean‘ in speech and ‘of the‘, ‘one of the‘ ‘the end of the‘ and ‘at the end of the‘ in writing. (Perhaps that’s another blog post, after I get to p 839.)


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