Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Twenty-Five Most Used Words in Novels

I'm only just beginning my fall down the rabbit hole of The Readies, by Bob Brown, but I'm in awe of his playfulness, fervor and intelligence. The Readies was written in 1930. Brown was way ahead of his time. I'll leave it at that. You can do your own research.

Yesterday my brain twitched on this tidbit of fascinating information shared in The Readies: According to statisticians, in a novel of 80,000 words the following twenty-five are used the number of times indicated:

The: 5,848
Of: 3,198
And: 2,624
To: 2,339
A: 1,696
In: 1,693
That: 1,076
It: 973
Is: 970
I: 924
For: 828
Be: 677
Was: 671
As: 626
You: 620
With: 582
He: 544
On: 514
At: 498
Have: 494
By: 480
Not: 471
This: 458
Are: 434
We: 423

Only 50,339 to go and you've finished your novel! What I wonder is how this list has changed over the course of eighty years. There's a distinct lack of feminine pronouns. Then I wondered - could a novel be written without these words? They do comprise more than a third of the novel. Hm. I wonder if I could write anything without those words? I managed this bit of strangled prose:

Valentine glitter winks, sparkles from her closet shelf. Hearts collide against Halloween – no - they collude. Winter’s coats hunch over hangers, bamboozled. Her daughter’s paper ghosts fold into halves, then quarters, pressed flat under years. Ornaments wrapped, tissue coddled, become babies. She sighs, unwraps joy. What does everyone else save? Another season. Another holiday. Laughter scotch-tapes itself, wallpapers their rooms. Closets emptied, they smile.

Oh how I love a good challenge! The words I found myself wanting to use the most were: as, of, with. Some of the poet's tools for detail work. I recalled my list of prepositions, once recited while standing at the side of my 8th grade school desk: "about, above, across, after, against ..."

It's surprising to me that "are" is used 434 times, but "be" gets and ranking of 677, and "is" racks up 970 uses. I guess the past is the past, present tense is where it's at, and the future, well, according to the New York Times,Bob Brown saw it clearly.*

* I don't totally agree with the New York Times correlation between what Brown imagined and the Kindle. I believe he was thinking more in terms of cinema. Words as characters onscreen.

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