Word frequency in speech and writing

Comparing word frequencies is an interesting way to think about some of the differences between speech and writing. Which are the most frequent words in speech, and how do they compare with the most frequent words in writing?

The Activity page appears in the menu entitled 'This Unit' in the upper right corner of this page. The Activity page can be displayed on a projector or smart board. The Activity page presents the ten most frequently used words in speech and in writing. How do we know which words are used most frequently? We use a corpus! These figures are are based on the British National Corpus (BNC), a very large collection of real spoken and written British English. More information on the BNC can be found here.

Ask students the following questions:

They might have noticed the following points:

We need to remember that these contrasts involve frequency differences rather than hard-and-fast rules. For instance, the past tense is of course not restricted to written English. We can and do use the past tense to discuss past events in spoken interaction too. It’s just that there is a strong tendency to talk more often about the present than the past.

Another point to remember is that not all types of written English work in a similar way, and nor do all types of spoken English. Informal types of written English (like social letters or texts) tend to be more like conversation, while a formal prepared speech tends to be more like writing.

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Word frequency in speech and writing: Activity

Spoken English

the

I

you

and

it

a

’s*

to

of

that

Written English

the

of

and

a

in

to

is/was

it

for

that

Notes: * ’s here is a verb (not a possessive marker), as in He’s in the kitchen.

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