English vocabulary · ESL grammar · Grammar · prepositions · Pronoun · Uncategorized

Zipf’s Law or Which English Words Should You Know?

theStefano Mortellaro

zipf3 The Most Popular Words in English

In 1935, the American philologist (= an expert on written language & literature) George Kingsley ZIpf formulated a clever law about the most popular words in any language. We’ll only talk about English of course, which is the only language I know really a lot about.

What does his law say? Zipf discovered that the most popular words — in any text — are twice as popular as the second most popular word. So the second most popular word is half as popular as the most popular word. And the third most popular word is only a third as popular as the most popular word. The tenth most popular word is used a tenth as much as the most popular word. And so on.

So in each case, how much a word is used is inversely proportional to its ranking on the popularity list. Proportional means that when you have two numbers, one number is a part (portion) of the other number in a way that is constant (= the same). Inverse means in the opposite way.

Interesting, isn’t it?

By the way, Zipf’s law is part of a bigger law,. This is called the inverse-power-law, which also applies to other lists, especially things to do with numbers. The richest person in the world is twice as rich as the second richest person, and the poorest person has only a fraction of what the richest person has. If the most popular shoe shop in the city sells 10,000 pairs of shoes a year, then the tenth most popular shoe shop in the city sells only 1,000. The most popular TV programme is watched by twice as many people as the second most popular programme. Etcetera. This law shows you neatly (=nicely) why it’s so hard to achieve equality in our world. Anyhow, let’s go back to our subject.

So what are the most popular words in English?

What do you think?


In the texts that Zipf studied, the most popular word was “the,” which accounted for 7% of words. Then came “of,” which was 3.5% of all words in the texts. Third place was taken by “and,” which was about 2.3%. With a vocabulary of only 135 words you can already read half of the words in a text! Which is all the more reason to learn these very well!

I mean of course that you need to know how to use them. Easier said than done.

I’ve found a few lists of popular words on the internet. The lists differ because they’ve used different texts to run the law on.

1 Here is a list from Wikipedia.

They’ve also made a clever table of most popular words for each word group.

TIP I think it would be good to have a good look at this page. I have a couple of students who keep getting confused about “simple” words such as get, for, of, well, there, their and let’s not forget have and be! I know they are not so simple when you’re a beginner of English. But please make sure you understand what these words are. Write down the words you find difficult. Practise their use.

2 This list is from About.com.

When you click on the word, you hear how it’s pronounced in a very sleepy voice.

3 And a list from English Club.

Different again!

How many words should you know in English? Read this article too.
Now let’s do a quiz with the 10 most common words in English.
You can do this quiz online if you follow this link.

My Holiday Pictures

Fill in: the, be, to, of, and, a, in, that, have, I

1 This is ________ hotel we stayed in.

2 The waiters at dinner were very friendly ________ they wanted to bring us more food all the time.

3 __________ don’t eat meat, so they brought me vegetarian dishes.

4 Here is an example _________ a dish they recommended. Yum!

5 Here you see me _________ my bathing suit.

6 These two boys are trying to _________ funny at the beach.

7 I think Melanie wants to __________ a dark tan, but instead she turns red.

8 And this is Melanie sipping ________ fruit cocktail by the swimming pool.

9 We also went _________ the old castle, where we climbed the tower.

10 The best thing about going on holiday is _________ no one is telling you what to do.

Did you like this quiz? Try more quizzes on the website or become an Exclusive Member of English with a Smile here.

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