University of Oxford

The Most Frquently Used Words In The English Language

Although there have been many studies undertaken analysing the most commonly used words in the English language and producing lists ordering words by their supposed frequency, none of these lists can be truly definitive. This is because it would be impossible to analyse every example of English language in use today; although many written texts can easily be obtained, it is challenging to collect numerous and varied enough samples of spoken language.

The list below was created by analysing the Oxford English Corpus, the very large set of texts used by the makers of the Oxford English Dictionary and by the Oxford University Press’ language research programme to carry out hypothesis testing and statistical analysis. This specific text corpus contains more than two billion words, originating from a wide range of sources, from specialist journals and literary novels to everyday magazines and newspapers and the language used in weblogs, emails and chatrooms. The list is also representative of a study undertaken by Oxford Online, in association with the Oxford English Dictionary.

It is important to note that many of the words listed are lemmas; that is, they actually represent more than one word. For example, the item “be”, as the base form of a verb, also includes all the occurrences of “are”, “be”, “was” and “is”.

According to this study, therefore, the ten most common words in the English language are “the”, “be”, “to”, “of”, “and”, “a”, “in”, “that”, “have” and “I” respectively. Prepositions are particularly popular, with “for”, “on”, “with”, “at”, “by”, “from”, “up”, “out”, “into”, and “over” also appearing in the top one hundred most frequent words.

Conjunctions also appear regularly, with “as”, “but”, “or”, “also” and “because”, as well as “and” in the top one hundred. The other most frequent word class is pronouns, the most common examples of which, after “I”, are “it”, “he”, “you”, “this”, “his”, “they”, “we”, “her”, “she” and “my”, which is only number 34. Amazingly, the items in this list of the one hundred most commonly used English words make up fifty percent of all the words in the Oxford English Corpus.

The ten most commonly used nouns are “time”, “person”, “year”, “way”, “day”, “thing”, “man”, “world”, “life” and “hand” respectively, while the most frequent verbs are “be”, “have”, “do”, “eat”, “sleep”, “drink”, “put”, “keep”, “run” and “walk”. The ten adjectives used most frequently, according to this study, are “good”, “first”, “new”, “last”, “long”, “great”, “little”, “own”, “other” and “old”.

Interestingly, this list of the English language’s most commonly used words is not as readily subject to change as one may think. Although changes in society and culture and ever increasing globalisation are constantly shaping and changing our language and forcing our vocabulary and linguistic habits to evolve, most of the most frequently used words are those that are timeless or are functional words, such as pronouns, which have no need to be altered.

Indeed, although most of the words constituting today’s English language do not have Old English roots, but stem from other languages brought over by invaders throughout the history of the language’s development, nearly all of the one hundred most frequently used words do indeed come from Old English. While, for example, words such as “telegram” are ultimately bound to die out, the commonly used “year”, “world” and “life” are far from redundant.

Follow us