kitchen table math, the sequel: Pop quiz

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Pop quiz

What is the most commonly used verb in spoken English?

I have discovered the joys of corpus studies.



GoogleMaster said...

I'm going to guess "goes", as in "and then she goes, 'wow, like, really?' and then I go, 'yeah, no kidding, right?', so she goes, 'yeah, just like that other guy'..."

cranberry said...


"Like, you know? And then I said to my friend, you know, lives down the street, you know..."

Or do you mean utterances which aren't verbal tics?

SteveH said...

To is, or not to is, that is the question:

Barry Garelick said...

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See this post.

Glen said...

There is no clear cut answer. It depends on your definitions, the corpus, whether you lemmatize (treat related verb forms separately or as a single verb), etc.

But my best answer would probably be:

1) to be
2) to have
3) to do
4) to say (writing); to know (speaking)

The first three show up a lot as "helper" verbs, meaning that they are not the main verb but merely grammatical function words:

- I am going. (be & go)
- They've gone. (have & go)
- Did you go? (do & go)

When teaching kids grammar, you want them to identify "the verb" in each of these sentences as "to go."

But in my own corpus research, which examined the question of how much foreign language reading you had to do to be able to read the foreign language, it made more sense to give the helper verbs credit, too. Most corpus research does. If you do, you are likely to end up with approximately the ranking above.

For the fourth verb, I found "to say" in writing but "to know" in speech. For speech, I analyzed a transcript of thousands of phone conversations, one party of whom was a switchboard operator ("Your phone call may be monitored or recorded....) I think that, for the "top 4" question you're asking, those conversations are representative enough that this answer is good enough, but I wouldn't be surprised to see different answers from different sources, even for the top four.

Glen said...

Sorry, I should have said that, though you're only asking for the top 1, I'm volunteering the top 4 in descending order of frequency, not nominating four candidates for #1.

As for #1, I'll stick with "to be" in both spoken and written English, since it's conventionally treated as a verb in mainstream English grammar, but I don't think that "to be" has to be considered a verb.

Hainish said...

To be? (IDK...are we counting helping verbs?)

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

For people wanting to do corpus research on the cheap, try

"is" is clearly the dominant verb in books.