I'm writing a post about word length in various languages in the world. It seems that English have (relatively) a lot of one-syllable words. Is there a count or an estimate of how many one-syllable words exists in English?

*I think it's because English have a lot of vowels and possible consonant clusters, they are a lot of possible syllables. This allows English to have a lot of one-syllable words.

  • I suspect that it's because English retains a lot of Anglo-Saxon words, which are usually monosyllablic. (I think that English has kept a lot of old words, which tend to have just one sound.) – Andrew Leach Jul 19 '15 at 18:23
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    @Andrew Leach: Maybe the ones you know are, but Anglo-Saxon words are not "usually monosyllabic". – TRomano Jul 19 '15 at 19:46
  • Perhaps what he meant is that Anglo-Saxon words are more likely to be monosyllabic than Latinate words. – Barmar Jul 20 '15 at 16:19
  • Of course, the ability to add numerous affixes to most words means that the total number of words will be many times more than the number of monosyllabic words, because you can create numerous variations of most of them. – Barmar Jul 20 '15 at 16:21
  • By some measure, one could say that in Chinese all words are monosyllabic. Can you give an indication what knowing such a number for English would mean in comparison to other languages? (You've given a possible cause, I'm looking for your expected use of this number) – Mitch Sep 18 '15 at 17:35

The Phonetic Word Search website returns nearly 12,000 one-syllable words — input !* @ !* to the search function.

Some of these words have two pronunciations. For example, the database has both a one-syllable pronunciation and a two-syllable pronunciation of fire. So you should think of this as the number of words that can be pronounced with one syllable.

Further, many of these words are extremely rare, so you should probably view this as an upper bound.

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    What's the base line? (Total number of words) – Mitch Mar 25 at 22:30
  • @Mitch: there are around 80,000 words in it. – Peter Shor Mar 26 at 0:19
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    For corroboration, I did the same on the pronunciation file from cmudict: egrep '^.+ [^0-9]+[0-9][^0-9]+$' ~/Downloads/pronc.txt | wc; I got: 14094 out of 116521 words – Mitch Mar 26 at 1:00

In the Beginning was Information by Werner Gitt may provide you with a starting point for your investigation. Gitt claims that 71.5% of English words are monosyllabic. You'll have to decide whether Gitt's sampling universe is to your liking.

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    Is Gitt calculating the percentage of words in the vocabulary, or the percentage of words in the corpus? Almost all of the 100 most common words in English are monosyllabic, and these top 100 words make up half of all written material in English. – Barmar Jul 20 '15 at 16:25
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    It seems like he must be talking about the corpus. There are around a million words in the English language, but I can't believe there are over 700,000 words with just one syllable. – Barmar Jul 20 '15 at 16:28
  • In fact, reading the linked site carefully, he definitely is talking about that. He writes "These frequency distributions were obtained from fiction texts". – Barmar Jul 20 '15 at 16:29
  • Sorry, but his name is Gitt? That's definitely homophonic.....:) – Lambie Mar 26 at 0:42

It seems certain that the number of monosyllabic English words is somewhere between 3000 and 40,000. If you exclude inflected forms (see below), I'm fairly certain that the number would be below 30,000.

Definitional issues

Past at certain point, you have to decide on a clear definition of "word" in order to get an accurate answer:

  • probably the most important thing is whether you count inflected forms like walks and walked as separate words from the word walk; because so many English words can inflect (nouns to make plural forms, verbs to make the past-tense form or the third-person present tense form) counting these as three words rather than one will probably substantially increase the number of monosyllabic words.

  • Many infrequent dictionary entries are proper nouns; you need to decide which, if any, of these are included in your definition of "English words".

  • Presumably, unrelated homophones (like steel and steal) will be counted separately. I would also count unrelated homonyms (like bat "flying mammal" and bat "club") separately. It may be a bit less clear whether related words that are homophones and homographs, like walk (n.) and walk (v.), or moved (v.) and moved (adj.), should all be counted separately.

Upper limits

There are probably fewer than 15,831, since Chris Barker gives that as an estimate for the total number of distinct syllables found in any position in real English words ("How many syllables does English have?", link to archived version found in Andrew J. Lintz's answer to the question How many syllables are in the English language?).

Lower limits

The abstract of "Sensory experience ratings for over 5,000 mono- and disyllabic words", by Barbara J. Juhasz and Melvin J. Yap, refers to "2,857 monosyllabic words used in the Juhasz et al. study" on "sensory experience ratings". I would infer that for a word to be useful in this kind of study, it would have to be reasonable to expect an English speaker to be familiar with it, so I think that we can say that there are definitely at least 2,857 monosyllabic words that are fairly well established in English vocabulary. The list of words is available to download in the "Supplementary material" section; I glanced at it, and it does not seem to contain inflected forms ending in -s or -ed.

The Wiktionary category "English 1-syllable words" has 8,671 pages, but there are certainly erroneous inclusions; e.g. 50 or so suffixes (like -ous) and some polysyllabic terms where the pronunciation has only been entered for only part (e.g. slough of despond). It also includes a number of proper nouns and obscure acronyms like BRUK, which you might not want to include in a list of "words". So it's not a hard lower limit, but it might give you an approximate idea of how many single syllables might be considered by some definitions to be English words.

Patrick Corliss wrote an answer to the earlier question "Is there a list of syllables contained in US English?" saying that he had found over 10,000 single syllable words (including names, adopted foreign words, and inflected forms of words).

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