The Ten Most Common Words In English (And The Three Grammar Mistakes They Cause)

Just 10 words make up 25 per cent of all written English, according to the Oxford English Corpus. Yet while all of them comprise four letters or less, they're still associated with three extremely common errors.

Picture: Getty Images

Business Insider reports that ongoing analysis of the two-billion word Oxford English Corpus confirms that these 10 words comprise a quarter of everything we write:

  • the
  • be
  • to
  • of
  • and
  • a
  • in
  • that
  • have
  • I

Despite their frequency, there are three obvious errors which occur when these words are used:

  • The most heinous? Mistakenly using 'of' instead of 'have' in constructions such as 'would have', 'should have' and 'could have'. Few expressions appear to rile up Mind Your Language commenters more than "should of", and I don't blame them. It's simply wrong and there's no excuse for it.
  • Not using a capital for 'I', a pestilence which plagues text messages and online forums in particular. To those who argue that shouldn't matter in informal contexts, we remind you that this is how bad habits are formed.
  • Less frequent than these two but still irritating: using 'too' or 'two' when 'to' is required. (Fortunately, mistakenly using 'bee' instead of 'be' seems rare.)

Because these words are common, using them correctly should be less of a challenge, but that doesn't mean you can let your standards slip. Accuracy matters.

Lifehacker's Mind Your Language column offers bossy advice on improving your writing.


Comments

    I got 'to' and 'too' mixed up for a long time until someone finally told me about it.

      Pretty sure I covered that in Year 1.

        Not everyone did Year 1 in English.

          Fair point. No excuse if you did though.

            I gather from your comments that sentence construction wasn't covered until Year 2.

            Many kids I know who are in year two are still mixing up to, too and two. Also, the "I know everything from year 1" is not a very helpful comment Dman.

            There are a few other ones that I'm often stamping out with my kids' friends. The most common is much/many. When you think about that one, it's not so simple. Eg.

            Much : Are you having much fun? How much money do you have?
            Many : How many ways can you have fun? How many coins do you have?

            The difficulty in English is inconsistency. I before E, except after C. Did you receive that hint yet? I believe the rule is not consistent. Even sounds like "n" for now, know, knife, nest, never, knight ... English is a hard language to learn.

            What if you they were just a, y'know, kid, who when in Year 1 wanted to run around rather than sit still and listen to the fat old hag who took away their crayons for mucking about in class.

              Believe it or not, I was a kid once too, and I also wanted to run around outside rather than be stuck in class. I still managed to learn these basic rules sometime between Year 1 and Year 12 though. Unless English is your second language or you actually have a learning disability, there's no excuse for entering adulthood still making these basic grammar mistakes.

                Wow you must be a lot of fun at parties.

              I eated all my crayons.....

          Wong!!!

    The most heinous? Mistakenly using ‘of’ instead of ‘have’ in constructions such as ‘would have’, ‘should have’ and ‘could have’. Few expressions appear to rile up Mind Your Language commenters more than “should of”, and I don’t blame them. It’s simply wrong and there’s no excuse for it.

    To be fair, I think there is an excuse, which is that the contraction of 'have' statements (should've, would've, etc.) does sound remarkably like the statement "should of" - particularly in spoken Australian English, which has a tendency to merge words for the sake of brevity, more often than not. If you speak the language more than you write it, it's understandable - though still not acceptable - to confuse the two.

      It's more of an explanation than an excuse. This one annoys me particularly because another decade or two of people using it and the wrong way will become the correct way.

        Like when they caved and put 'yous' in the dictionary. Great job on keeping the English language safe, yous buttholes.

    Where's "your" and "you're"?
    Where's "there", "they're" and "their"?

      Those weren't such a problem a 10 years ago, but now it's just exploded.

        That extra 'a' made me read your comment in Mario's voice... I'll move along now.

        I remember quite a few kids who struggled with the your and you're / there, their, they're / was, were when I was younger. One of my friends would often say "we was gunna go out" - I nicknamed him the gunna. We were from a reasonably well off suburb in Victoria - so I'd argue that it wasn't lower socio-economic conditions that drove the "we was" ;)

        I think it might be a case of more people writing who, in the past, wouldn't have written a word outside the classroom. People are writing more than before, at earlier points in their education, and in relaxed social situations.
        Personally I'm hoping it forces the English language to evolve and drop some of these stupid rules. There, they're and their are an embarrassment. The other languages are laughing at us.

          All languages have crazy rules. No one is free from that.

      I'll assume they aren't mentioned because those words are not in that "top 10" list.

      Yes it's a problem that people constantly get those wrong, but this article wasn't about that, it was about the 10 most common words in the English language.

      some of those are 2 words (i.e. not one word) and hence not on the list.
      the others that are one word are probably 11th, 12th and 13th on the list...

    I'm loving the Mind Your Language column. It's great to be able to brush up on the rules that were learned long ago.

    It's interesting that in/definite articles (the, a, an) make up 2 of the top 10 spots on the list. In Japanese (my native language) articles don't exist, so I had great difficulty understanding their use when learning English. At least English doesn't have gender forms for every noun!

      Yeah...English is often criticised for being inconsistent and breaking rules all over the place, but it's not as if other languages are easier by comparison. The masculine and feminine nouns that most European languages use (some such as Russian even have a third "neutar" form) are a classic example of that. Also, a lot of words that seemingly break the rules of English aren't actually English words at all, but words from other languages that we've assimilated into English that remain almost unchanged from their original form (and therefore adopt the rules from their original language).

      The biggest aspects of English that I see foreigners struggle with are the usage of plurals (a lot of Asian languages don't have plurals as such, they'll say "two apple" rather than "two apples") and the ordering of words in sentences (in many European languages they would say "the cat that is black" but in English we say "the black cat").

      Last edited 28/10/13 5:37 pm

        Yes, I still struggle with English plurals. So much simpler without them.

        I always thought having a different words for the animal and their meat was strange. In Japanese, it's just 'pig meat' instead of pork and 'cattle meat' instead of beef. But as you have stated, these are cases of words borrowed from different languages and adopted into English.

        And yes, Japanese follows subject-object-verb grammar where as English follows subject-verb-object. Which is totally opposite and weird.

    I hate when people mix up "lose" and "loose"

      Last week I was sitting in an office where there were sheets posted on the walls about good writing techniques, and they spelled "lose" as "loose" everywhere.

      Last edited 28/10/13 4:49 pm

    I have that in a bag and to be king of the hill.

    (Doesn't make that much sense but uses all 10 words in a sentence of 13 words. :D)

    The big problem? Our spelling isn't getting worse, it's just that with the explosion of texting and emailing in the last 20 years, a whole lot of people who never used to write anything (let along publicly) are now having to write. These problems have been problems forever - they've just been hidden.

      Also most English teachers are part of a generation that never learnt English properly* at school. (*as well as foreign learners of English as a second language). The most advanced English grammar text I ever used was in year 3 ( covering IIRC subordinate clauses ). I moved schools just after that and my class never got further than "naming words and doing words" through to HSC.

      My year 11 English teacher was such an appalling speller that she made errors in a spelling test that she set. If she didn't understand a word in an essay she assumed it was a spelling error of some other word (that made no sense in context).

        I remember when my youngest brother was in primary school, his teacher was correcting him on the pronunciation of the word "Zoologist". He was pronouncing it correctly as "Zo-ologist" but she was insisting it was "Zoo-ologist". My mother ended up going down to the school to tell her off about it :P

          I hope she wasn't as vindictive as my teacher, who decreed that anyone who misspelled words as she had would get the mark, and the correct spellings would stay marked as wrong. She came pretty close to having a tantrum in class.

          Too bad both are right. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/zoology?q=zoologist

            Uhh, no.

            "Zo-ologist" in the correct pronunciation. If it was supposed to be pronounced "Zoo-ologist" it would be spelled with three o's in a row, not two.

            You could make an argument that it can be pronounced "Zoo-logist", but definitely not "Zoo-ologist".

            Last edited 29/10/13 9:29 am

              Except for the fact that the English language is inconsistent so many exceptions are made, many things don't make sense in English but they're still there.

                In what alternate reality is two o's in a row in a word pronounced like it's three o's? There's no exceptions to the rule here. If you're pronouncing it as "Zoo-ologist", you're just wrong, plain and simple.

              Do you not know of phonetic alphabets/pronunciation guides? Or do you just not trust the Oxford Dictionary?
              Pronunciation: /zuːˈɒlədʒi, zəʊ-/

              The first pronunciation shown for the 'oo' is "uː", which Oxford says is the same sound as found in 'too'; this is the more common pronunciation. The alternative is "əʊ", which is as found in the word 'no'; this is the pronunciation you prefer.
              Either way it is followed by a "ɒ" before the "l", which is the same sound as in 'hot'.

                The OED is descriptive not prescriptive. It lists how people say or define things through usage, not how they should by virtue of etymology, semantic or phonological history.

                Appeals to authority on Lifehacker and elsewhere routinely forget this, and also the difference between grammar and style, or between "correct" spelling and stylistic preference/mandate (e.g. ise vs ize, or encyclopedia vs encyclopaedia).

                Even the "grammar checker" in Microsoft Word has actually been a "grammar and style checker" as long as I've been using it (since Winword 1.x over 20 years ago) and allows you to switch off stylistic recommendations individually or collectively separately from grammatical checks.

                  Language changes, and there is no official authority on English language, so a descriptive list is as good as we're going to get for stating what is correct at this point in time.
                  And note that dictionaries don't just accept the consensus without thought, or else "ask" would have "aks" as an alternative pronunciation, and examples of textspeak would be littered through the pages.

                  @piman: Some dictionaries do seem to go for the authoritative/prescriptive mantle at some point in their history e.g. (Merriam-)Webster in the USA and Macquarie in Australia.

                  @memeweaver
                  Sure lets go with Merriam Webster then.
                  Their first zoologist pronunciation matches @WhitePointer's preferred pronunciation, while the second one matches what I'm fairly sure is the more common pronunciation. (After accounting for the General American accent)

                  I'd check what Macquarie prefers, but they don't have their dictionaries freely available online unlike Oxford and Webster, nor do I own a Macquarie Dictionary.

      While I dislike the thought, language is organic. Read Shakespeare and see how much language has changed. The German word for Chemist is apotheke (sp?) - and Shakeseare referred to the apothecary ... over time we changed it. Good morrow changed, as did many other words.

      I believe (and strongly disagree) that TV's is now an acceptable use of apostrophes - I call this the "chuck in a random apostrophe rule" ... however, if enough people use a term or punctuation, it can become an accepted rule. Mutton v/s lamb, gat v/s gun, etc. Many examples of the organic nature of language. I've even seen the occasional "I was going to do .." in formal tests ;)

        Yeah, agree that language is organic, and that's a beautiful thing. Rules can be modified and extended over time. For example, starting sentences with the word 'but'. But written language is about expressing and transferring meaning, and in writing most of the non-verbal prompts and cues are gone. So written language needs to be more precise.

        You're vs. your carry significantly different meanings. "You're your own master" sounds different spoken than read, there is always the possibility when reading something that it's a typo and so reading that statement if it was "your your own master" suddenly becomes tricky. What was really meant by it? Written language incorporates an inability to question the writer as you read.

        Organic language is one thing, but poor expression of the language in writing only leads to poor comprehension.

      *let alone :)

    There is someone I know on facebook, and occasionally I see replies in their posts that go like this: oh no ya back bring ay spiders back with u lol i think yah boyfrein brent missed you hes gone made do u wn himlol

    This is an adult. I don't understand how this person can function in life.

      I worked in an agency where someone who wrote little better than this was putting advertising copy online. It was almost gibberish. People would call the office for clarification, and then she'd put the phone down and bitch about how they should learn to read. You'd think we were setting entrance exams for Bletchley Park.

      Unfortunately the agency owner was not much better in his writing skills and got really defensive when I tried to raise standards (although he'd still get me to rewrite his most important emails). I've heard the same story from colleagues in other work environments.

      Last edited 28/10/13 4:50 pm

        How the hell do these people get jobs? From your story, there was the owner and two employees, so the guy must have been getting business. I don't understand how though.

          The owner has a brilliant gift of gab for marketing and selling, but thoroughly disguises that in written communications. That's fine for one to one negotiations, but all the support operations and advertising suffer as he fails to see how bad text looks compared to the competition.

    Wong!!! Wong!!

      Aah, good old racist English, I was waiting for you to make an appearance here.

    sóþlic Angus, sóþlic. Gif ne for þá ríceiu that ágenspræca begíemunga, wit sméadedest dolspræca --- in some silly form of non-English.

    How'est the aeons doth change. ne?

      Indeed, but historical change does not preclude accuracy at a given moment in time :)

    What I find interesting is how sheeple don't think they are being judged by their spelling and grammar. Typos are one thing but poor spelling and grammar makes you look stupid, especially on-line. The other thing I don't get is with SMS - now we all have smartphones, they will spell it all for you, there is no need to type entire words. I sent a 7 word sentence yesterday and only had to type the first three letters of the first word, my phone put the rest together in word suggestions.

    like teenagers can't hardly speak right either but. They should try and arks they're teacher's the right ways'.

    We live in a society where it is commonplace to use acronyms, numerals and symbols in place of words. Is it any wonder so many people can't spell?

      I would hope that would alert them to the creative power of language rather than deaden them to its subtleties.

    Aussies don't do English. Pointless trying to teach them.

    What drives me crazy is the incorrect use of bought and brought.
    I'm sorry but there isn't really an excuse for that, and SO many people that I know or speak to get it wrong. Ok so their spelling is similar, but they mean two completely different things.

    "I brought a new car on Tuesday" .. Oh yeah, where did you bring it from? Man it drives me insane.

    I'm not a grammar Nazi. If people say or spell something wrong I usually just ignore it, but I struggle to ignore this one.

    My pet peeve is the use of "off of" as in "he jumped off of the bed. " The "of" is not required.

    Apparently my big grammar problems are sentence fragments and improper use of quote marks. (From what I can figure out, you're supposed to use double quote marks when you're quoting a section of text, but single quote marks for quoting single words or terms? I have no idea. I just get told that I'm doing it wrong.) I also get confused over sentences in parentheses that are at the end of the sentence outside of parentheses, but I think that's more of a stylistic issue. (I try to avoid having sentences end in parentheses near the end of a sentence. Much easier than trying to figure out if someone's going to be confused by it.)

    I do have a feeling bad English teaching is in no small part to blame though. I corrected a teacher on comma usage once (I used that famous example about the presidents and the strippers, and apparently that made me a 'smartass' and earned me a lunchtime detention - I didn't realize that you're not supposed to correct someone's grammar if they're older than you) and later had another argument with another teacher about using semicolons (I always thought they were for two related sentence fragments; apparently, I was wrong). I spent 5 whole years on spelling, but I picked up most of my grammar from (brace yourselves for the horror) Microsoft Word's grammar checker and YA novels.

    (Alright, the novels weren't that bad but my point is, I never had a teacher who actually told me 'no, you use a semicolon there and not a full stop'. I'm still terrible for sentence fragments. I think the furthest we ever got with grammar was identifying verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs. I never covered components of a sentence, and punctuation was only rudimentary - use of full stops and commas was as far as it went. So when it came to using parentheses, quote marks, semicolons, etc. - I had to hope that either Word had it right, or that the teacher would know what to do. I can only guess that I have parentheses right and that I more or less know where a semicolon should be used. Quote marks...yeah, I'm working on that.)

    It's not entirely impossible to pick it up later - not sure about other countries, but in Australia there's plenty of places that offer low-cost English tutoring or lessons for adults - but you shouldn't need undertake adult learning courses to learn something that you were supposed to learn properly in primary school. (Although I have a feeling I'm the exception more than the rule - I bounced through three different primary schools and two different high schools thanks to constantly moving around, so it's entirely possible that I missed out because every school was doing things differently. That's why I like the idea of a National Curriculum - everyone is on the same page as to what's being taught this year, so it's a lot less stressful for everyone if a kid has to move schools for whatever reason.)

    I always see people write "loose" instead of "lose" when they are referring to something that was lost, and vice versa.

      But then again - do those spellings make sense? In both of them, you have the "oo" sound, yet only one of them has a double-o. In both of them, there is an S but one of them is unvoiced and the other is voiced i.e. it sounds like a 'z', and not an 's'. By the more common spelling rules, "lose" should probably be pronounced "lows", like hose, pose, nose, and rose. (Of course, dose had as an unvoiced s, so another exception). And in "loose" remove the e, and suddenly the s becomes voiced.

      English is English. You just have to learn the rules of spelling, pronunciation (or pronounciation -as so many people say it), and usage. Yet, on the other hand, it is also very forgiving and still comprehensible despite it's abuse and misuse. That's much harder to say about many other languages.

    It's not really what you do or don't learn at school, I think, so much as how vigilant your parents are at correcting your grammar and speech as you grow up. Teachers don't have the time to correct every child for every spoken error. Parents do, if they know, themselves.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now