A Frequency Dictionary of Contemporary American English

A dictionary which provides a superb snapshot of the most frequent words in modern American English, and whose novel way of presenting information about headwords will undoubtedly prove stimulating for teachers in search of inspiration and for higher level learners who want to study in greater depth the way words are really used today.
Reviewed for Teflnet by Carmela Chateau
Frequency Dictionary of Contemporary American English

Frequency Dictionary of Contemporary American English

What is a frequency dictionary? Routledge is producing a whole series of these books: so far, the list includes Spanish, German, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, French, and now Contemporary American English.

According to its authors, this book will tell you all about the 5000 most frequently used words in contemporary American English. It is based on the COCA corpus, which contains 385 million words of running text, evenly balanced between five types of English: spoken, fiction, magazines, newspapers and academic. It might seem superfluous to have a dictionary based on data from a corpus that is freely available online, but a great deal of thought has gone into the design of the book and the result is quite intriguing.

The introduction explains in depth how the dictionary was created and how the words were chosen. The score for each word was based on its raw frequency multiplied by its dispersion. This shows how evenly distributed a word is over the 100 different corpus sections. Low dispersion indicates words that are used in very specific contexts whereas high dispersion indicates words that are equally frequent in all sections. Words that can be used more generally are likely to be words that learners will want to focus on first. Studies have shown that the 5000 most frequent words account for up to 95 percent of a written text, and that a text is easier to understand when only a very small percentage (2-5%) of its vocabulary is unknown (as explained in Teaching ESL/EFL Reading and Writing by I. S. P. Nation, p. 51).

The main body of the dictionary gives detailed information about the selected headwords, including the nouns, adjectives and verbs most frequently associated with them. Collocates listed by frequency can be used to explore in greater detail the meaning and use of the word, which makes the dictionary more similar in approach to a thesaurus than to a traditional dictionary.

The headwords are classed, as might be expected, in order of frequency, but there is also an alphabetical index to help find a word you are interested in. In addition to the alphabetical index, there is a part of speech index, so that learners can focus on frequent verbs, for example. The parts of speech are verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and function words, a category which includes articles, determiners, numbers, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections, and the catch-all miscellaneous.

Unfortunately, “dictionary” is not among the 5000 most frequent words in modern American English, but the noun “frequency” is (ranking 3117), associated with various adjectives (high, low, great, increasing, different, increased, relative, resonant, various, descriptive), nouns (radio, table, response, use, distribution, range, behaviour, intensity, percentage, duration), and with verbs (increase, report, occur, reduce, determine, measure, indicate, shift, vary, decrease). It occurs 10415 times in the corpus, with a dispersion of 0.83: it is used far more frequently in academic English than in other sections of the corpus.

In addition to individual word frequency profiles, the dictionary also contains thematic boxes. The first of these is Animals, with a rider to the effect that specific usages, such as figurative expressions or animals which are mascots for sports teams are marked by parentheses. Such information might be used as the starting point for an exploration of modern American culture. Box 21 would be even more useful for this type of exercise, as the theme is New Words in American English. Here the list is based on words that are three times more frequent after the year 2000 than in the previous decade. The most frequent of these new words is e-mail; second and third are terrorism and terrorist. These new words show changes in technology, but also in geopolitics.

The thematic vocabulary lists are probably the most readily exploitable elements in the dictionary. Teachers wishing to explore differences in register will be interested in boxes 16 to 20, which cover the vocabulary most typical of the five main sections of the corpus. Higher level students will undoubtedly find the Vocabulary of Academic Journals an invaluable starting point.

All in all, this dictionary provides a superb snapshot of the most frequent words in modern American English, and this novel way of presenting information about headwords will undoubtedly prove stimulating for teachers in search of inspiration, and for higher level learners who want to study in greater depth the way words are really used today. It should definitely be in your school or university library, but its paperback format also makes it affordable for individuals. It is not intended to replace more traditional dictionaries, but could provide an interesting complement, much as a thesaurus does. And readers wishing to explore language in greater depth can use the frequency dictionary along with the COCA corpus (http://www.americancorpus.org)

Reviewed for Teflnet by Carmela Chateau
April 2010 | Filed under Vocabulary

One Comment on “A Frequency Dictionary of Contemporary American English”

  1. Justin Says:

    Just feel it is sad to be a Chinese. This useful book is nowhere available in China.

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