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Our world of words.

Why dull is a four-letter word

Do you find yourself using the same old words to build the same old sentences? Bec Kilcullen tells us why you’re not alone…

Which words do you use the most? We all have favourites that pepper our everyday writing without us thinking twice about them – the linguistic equivalent of a comfy pair of shoes that go with everything even though they’re a little worn out.

There are several I think are overused. Prestigious (used to describe any awards ceremony, no matter how niche), success (just a bit bland), and that – which many sentences work just as well without.

Those are just the ones that niggle me when I spot them. There’s actually a definitive list (compiled by the Oxford English Dictionary) of the hundred commonest English words found in writing globally, based on evidence from the billion-word Oxford English Corpus. To form this wordy roll of honour, researchers looked at everything from literary novels and specialist journals to everyday newspapers and magazines, and even emails and blogs.

Many of the words in the list are much as you’d expect, such as the, I, and, it, and this. But some of them are really quite heartwarming. I smiled when I saw that good makes an appearance, alongside think and people. But then again, work is also in the list, as is over and no.

So just like the famous assertion that most of us wear the same 20% of our clothes 80% of the time, it turns out that reliance on the familiar is much the same with language.

If you fancy changing it up a little and injecting a healthy dose of the unexpected into your prose, how about looking to a few new words?

Our language is evolving at such a rate that the Oxford English Dictionary publishes updates four times a year. In September, additions included hoverboard, telly addict, water baby and underwater hockey, plus sub-entries such as concept album, lottery funding and (this one’s for all you Ed Miliband fans out there) concession speech.

It’s true that none of those will be handy for most everyday sentences, but it does show that our language never stands still. So why should your writing?


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