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The Craft of Writing: 200 Most Common Words As Parts of Speech

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Lexical Density Proportions
Lexical Density Proportions

Two hundred words are said to comprise eighty percent of all English sentences. Here is the list broken down into parts of speech. Why? Because you should know what weapons you are hurling at an unsuspecting public.

It’s been nigh many years when the nuns at my Catholic grammar school made me memorize parts of speech at the age of seven and had me parse sentences at the tender age of ten. Funny thing is that my children never had to struggle with such exercises. Instead they were immersed in “whole language” where they were encouraged to write and express themselves whether or not they knew how to wield words. This is such a stark contrast to me and my classmates having to copy compositions and types of letters out of books to learn how to write such things that it is no wonder that writers today use sentence fragments and feel perfectly comfortable using them.

Remember that the researchers at Stony Brook University determined that the most popular books had a greater percentage of nouns, adjectives, pronouns and prepositions than less popular books. Less popular works used a greater percentage of verbs and adverbs than popular books.

I grabbed the two hundred most commonly used words that form eighty percent of all English sentences. Then I separated them into parts of speech with some online help and whipped up the charts below.

I color coded the things, putting the lexically desirable words with green headers and “Danger Will Robinson” parts of speech in red. NOTE: This does not mean you don’t ever use the words in red. That would be silly. Just be aware of the number of times you use these words. In a balanced diet you eat all foods. In constructing your prose you need all of types of words but in the right proportions as illustrated in the chart above.

NOUNS, ADJECTIVES, PREPOSITIONS, PRONOUNS AND CONJUNCTIONS

Now, while nouns and adjectives are desirable to load up in quantities, these specific words below should be used sparingly. Why? These words are used so often that relying on them may result in tired prose.

Nouns and adjectives of the 200 most commonly used words
Nouns and adjectives of the 200 most commonly used words

Conjunctions, prepositions and pronouns are used in lesser by no less important degree than nouns and adjectives. While conjunctions are not on the chart above, the Stony Brook research paper did mention that more popular books used more conjunctions than less popular books.

conjunctions, prepositions and pronouns
Conjunctions, prepositions and pronouns

VERBS, ADVERBS AND QUANTIFIERS

We need verbs. They move the action along. But how many verbs to use? I think the real point of the Stony Brook paper is that not that books that are “less successful” don’t use verbs and adverbs more, they use nouns and adjectives less than what many readers find interesting.

There are different kinds of verbs too, which is reflected in the chart below.

Nowadays, there is a movement to cut the use of adverbs. Heck even Pro-Writers Aid advises to “use adverbs sparingly.” They advise using a stronger verb instead of using an adverb to prop up a weak verb.

Adverbs in tags (he said, she said) is now considered especially onerous. Tags are necessary in pegging the speaker in dialogue. However using adverbs to modify the tag slows the reader’s pace and reduces readibility These are called a “said bookisms.”

Verbs Adverbs Quantifiers
Verbs, auxiliary verbs and quantifiers from the list of the 200 most common words

I personally find that reducing adverbs makes the prose glide more smoothly. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for adverbs. Adverbs makes the reader stop and think. Use them when you want the reader to do that. You are the puppeteer, after all, bawahahahaha. Oh, sorry. Back on point.

Notice the little box that says quantifiers. Those little words. Use them as sparingly as possible. They are vague filler words and add nothing to what you are trying to express. In fact, viscously slash them from your drafts with your wordsmith’s sword laughing in glee at improving your prose so easily with so little effort.

Oh dear. Did I just use some of those words? Which only goes to show that all writing rules should be taken with a grain a salt and nothing replaces a writer’s brain in making word choices.

Use safe wordsmithery. Take your word choices well in hand.

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Image credits: All images in this post produced by Starry Night Graphics.

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