T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
Technical Writing: Word Frequency and Effective Writing
In 1965 Bell Labs researcher Mark Mayzner painstakingly calculated
the relative frequency with which 20,000 English words occurred in
print publications (books, magazines, newspapers). In January, 2013,
Peter Norvig, head of research at Google, tapped Google's vast
collection of scanned English-language books to revisit this
project digitally. He created a frequency distribution of 97,500
unique words. Norvig's comparison chart of the 50 most-frequent
English words was recently published (Carl Franzen, "Google
Researcher Finds Most-Used English Words, Letters," TPM Idea Lab,
Jan. 7, 2013, http://idealab.talkingpointsmemo.com/2013/01/
From this empirical frequency analysis come three lessons for
teaching effective technical communication to science students
across the spectrum of literacy levels.
The most frequent English word by far is the definite article 'the'
(with indefinite articles 'a' at 6 and 'an' at 29, close behind).
Managing such articles appropriately is hard for all English
language learners (ELLs), especially for those whose native
language is Asian rather than European. Even good ELL science
students often find article use challenging, and anyone who has
edited technical papers by native Chinese- or Korean-speaking
scientists has seen how this challenge can persist into
professional life. So when you assign science papers, abstracts,
or even just figure captions, make a point of encouraging careful
use of articles. For instance, call attention to correct and
incorrect article uses in samples, so that you provide extra
scaffolding for those students who need it when they write.
Anyone who has studied formal logic will not be surprised to learn
that every logical connective occurs among the top 50 most frequent
English words: 'and' (at 3, with its equivalent 'but' at 27),
'or' (at 22), 'not' (at 17), and 'if' (at 43), along with the
universal quantifier 'all' (at 36). These are the words vital for
framing cogent scientific arguments, an obviously valuable life
skill much highlighted in the Common Core State Standards.
Influential prepositions (which signal important relationships)
are similarly common among the most frequent words: 'of' (at 2),
'to' (at 4), 'in' (at 5), 'for' (at 9), 'with' (at 13), 'by'
(at 15), and 'on' (at 16), for example. Proper and frequent
use of such signal words strongly predicts perceived usability
and reading ease. Some text-scoring algorithms even look for
these proleptics to predict which student essays human raters
would rank highly for the SAT exam. So once again, linguistic
features that might at first seem to have only pedantic interest
for grammarians turn out to help students express scientifically-
relevant claims and comparisons effectively for their readers
in real life. Alerting your students to the reader value of these
useful words can promote respect for and mastery of them.
The English top-50 word list contains many verbs but not a single
action verb. Instead we find...
* verbs of identity and predication:
'is' (at 7), 'was' (at 12), 'be' (at 14), 'are' (at 21), and
'were' (at 33). They assert that two things are identical or
that some thing has some property, but they express no activities.
* verbs of possession:
'have' (at 27), 'had' (at 30), and 'has' (at 40).
'can' (at 38), 'will' (at 46), and 'would' (at 47).
So these most-frequent verbs, while certainly handy, are not
enough to express what one does or finds during a scientific
research project, nor how things change or interact in the natural
world. The other (less frequent) verbs, the ones that your
students ADD to this top-50 set, are therefore the ones that
make what students write informative, distinctive, interesting,
and revealing. Helping students grow beyond the limitations of
the top-50 verb cluster when they write about science is thus
one of the most useful basic literacy skills that you can promote
in science class.
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