The Most Common Words in English

Listening to young tweens and teens speak, one might surmise that the word “like” is right at the top. For now, the English language is safe from the crass proliferation of works like, um, “like.” Of course there is no definitive list that accurately accounts for all written and spoken language. Every list must use a defined corpus. According the venerable Oxford English Dictionary that provides the most comprehensive analysis of the written English language at any given time, the ten most common words are: the, be, to, of, and, a, in, that, have, I — in that order. (Tweens can rest assured that their hackneyed filler word is in the top 100, ranked 54th. Speaking of filler words, the most common filler words are: um, err, ah, you know, like.)

Examining a larger corpus of written English, that includes British, American and Australian English, provides the following list: the, of, to, and, a, in, is, it, you, that. 

In the beginning was the Word: the Bible, like a dictionary, is an impressive and enduring corpus. The King James Bible contains 788,258 words of which 14,565 are unique. One might speculate that “Lord” or “God” would in the top ten. However, that is not the case — the ten most common words in the Bible are: and, the, of, that, to, in, he, for, unto, a. “Lord” is ranked 11; “God” is ranked 28.

Jumping into the works of the Shakespeare, whose complete works use a total of 884,647 words (31,534 unique words), an analysis comes up with the following top ten words: the, and, I, to, of, you, a, my, that, in.

The most common words (top ten) in the works of Dickens (about 4.5 million words in the corpus) are: said, no, very, little, man, more, old, now, know, some.

For further reading: OED,
Investigating Dickens’ Style: A Collocational Analysis by Masahiro Hori, Palgrave Macmillan (2004).

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