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What are the percentages of the parts of speech in English?

For instance, what percent of English is comprised of nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.?

I have done an extensive web search using a variety of formulations of the question but cannot find this information.

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You might find this interesting. –  Callithumpian Jan 21 '12 at 5:22
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I'm afraid that even if we knew (which we don't and never will) the exact numbers for all the words in English, in all the sentences they were ever used in, with each word in each sentence tagged for its part of speech, we would know next to nothing about English. –  John Lawler Jan 21 '12 at 15:37
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"Parts of speech" is what people are usually taught as "English grammar". It's not, though; it's Latin grammar. –  John Lawler Jan 21 '12 at 15:42
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Do you mean dictionary entries or occurrences in discourse? –  Mitch Jan 21 '12 at 18:19
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5 Answers

This is a complex question requiring a complex answer, because it all depends on what kind of language you examine. Corpus evidence used in the ‘Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ shows the following approximate frequencies of thousands of words per million:

LEXICAL WORDS

CONVERSATION

Adverbs 50

Adjectives 25

Verbs 125

Nouns 150

ACADEMIC PROSE

Adverbs 30

Adjectives 100

Verbs 100

Nouns 300

FUNCTION WORDS

CONVERSATION

Pronouns 165

Primary auxiliary verbs 85

Prepositions 55

Determiners 45

Coordinators 30

Modals 20

Subordinators 15

Adverbial particles 10

ACADEMIC PROSE

Pronouns 40

Primary auxiliary verbs 65

Prepositions 150

Determiners 100

Coordinators 40

Modals 15

Subordinators 10

Adverbial particles 5

These figures can give only a crude picture and show only the figures for one kind of written English. In general, though, nouns and verbs are the most common words, and conversation seems to use a higher proportion of verbs, adverbs and pronouns, while written English uses a higher proportion of nouns and adjectives.

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+1 This is a more authentic resource. –  Kris Jan 21 '12 at 12:51
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The first problem is that there is no consensus on how many words the English language comprises. It depends in a very banal sense on the way you define the word "word". For example: Are "eat" and "eats" one word or two?

The other problem is that very many words function as different parts of speech. For example, present can be a noun, verb or adjective.

A better approach is to look at a body of text (a corpus) and analyse that by a process called POS (part of speech) tagging . The proportions of the different word classes will likely vary according to whether the corpus is of written or spoken language, in the academic field or popular media, and so on.

Here is an article that estimated the percentage of nouns in the LOB and Brown corpora at 37%.

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Eric Lease Morgan has created Perl scripts to analyse a number of English texts and written about his findings in a fascinating essay called Foray’s into parts-of-speech, summarising:

Percentage and average of parts-of-speech usage in 9 works or corpra

The result was very surprising to me. Despite the wide range of document sizes, and despite the wide range of genres, the relative percentages of POS [parts-of-speech] are very similar across all of the documents. The last column in the table represents the average percentage of each POS use. Notice how the each individual POS value differs very little from the average.

...

The similarity across all the documents can be further illustrated with a line graph:

line graph of POS

Visit the blog for much more information, charts and conclusions.

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This analysis is based pretty much on works of fiction. An examination of conversation and of other forms of writing gives different results. –  Barrie England Jan 21 '12 at 9:40
    
I wonder why Eric titled it with the "Foray's" having an apostrophe. –  Kris Jan 21 '12 at 12:54
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Please check Wordnet to see number of nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs used in their database. Though there may not be exact numbers it will give you an idea.

Noun: 117798

Verb: 11529

Adjective: 21479

Adverb:4481

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As a contemporary poet who writes in English I have been thinking a lot about this. While we use different parts of speech with similar frequency the number of options available to us to use of one kind or other varies drastically.

It possibly says something about how we see the world that we are more exact in our ability to label something, rather than to describe what it does. Not to be tedious or jump off the bus here, but it could also pose problems as we shift to a paradigm where identity is primarily performative. (We are what we do, not what we appear to be.)

I recently went on an interview where I was asked to describe various scenes from an action movie to create a script that would be read between dialogues for the visually impaired. When faced with such a limited number of ways of defining a mode of attack, I realized that we frequently turn an action (with a high degree of physical specificity) into a noun.

Consider a word like haymaker. We throw a haymaker. This is a big muscle movement with tons of power and commitment behind it. We could force it to act as a verb through syntax... "I haymaker you," but we will more than likely meet resistance from readers and critics.

Transferring a word from noun to verb energizes it and sets it closer to the heat of a kinetic exchange. Reversing this process pulls us back from the primary experience into a more reserved/language/observational state. We suck energy out of the word (the only way to put it back in is to then create a value statement about the word/subject... but I don't want to jump that thread here).

My argument would not be to create new verbs, but to be more open minded about using nouns as verbs. Prescriptivists are probably cringing right now, but creative writers are already jumping this direction instinctively-it will probably spread into common use.

Thank you for your time, I hope you find a more solid answer to your question.

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