F is for Frequency

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

Here are two key questions related to frequency: What are the most frequent words in the English language? and How frequently do we need to be exposed to new words in order to acquire them?

To answer the first question, certain words in every language appear more often than others. A common list of the most frequent 20 words in English typically includes the, be, and, of, a, in, to, have, to, it, I, that, for, you, he, with, on, do, say, and this.

Many would agree that these 20 words seem extremely common, but any comprehensive list of words tends to be drawn from a selective corpus, or body of words. The selective nature of any corpus influences what words will appear most often. For example, the Cambridge International Corpus replaces some of the above top 20 words with, uh, yeah, know, like, they, so, was, and but. Many teachers would take exception to teaching uh and yeah as among the most important words for their beginner students to learn.

The sources for corpora are often dialect-specific, for example, American English or British English, and may focus on written English or spoken English or a combination. Some corpora only collect words related to particular themes and time periods (e.g., 18th-century novels) or specific genres of speech or writing, such as medical English. Some corpora document dead or obscure forms of English, such as those drawn from Old English, Middle English, and Early English texts.

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