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:

  • What words appear in both lists?
  • What words appear only in the spoken list, or only in the written list?
  • What do you notice about the differences between the spoken and written lists?
  • Can you think of any possible reasons for the differences?

They might have noticed the following points:

  • The spoken list has the contracted verb form ’s while the written list has the full form of the same verb, is. Contracted verb forms like this are much more frequent in speech than in writing.
  • The spoken list has the personal pronouns I and you, which are not in the written list. This reflects the personal involvement and interactivity which are typical of spoken dialogue. Speakers often refer to themselves and to the people they are talking to (called interlocutors). Writers do so less often.
  • Only the written list has the past tense form was. The past tense is used more frequently in writing than in speech, as participants in spoken dialogue tend to talk more about the 'here' and 'now' than about the past.

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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