How many verbs are there in English?

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How many verbs are there in English?

Post by Archived Topic » Fri Jan 04, 2002 1:01 pm

How many verbs are there in English?

I have been asked this question.
Submitted by Julie Kay (Bronnitsy - Russia)
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How many verbs are there in English?

Post by Archived Reply » Fri Jan 04, 2002 1:29 pm

Julie, I think that this question is just as ambiguous (and possibly as unanswerable) as the question “how many words are there in the English language?” It all depends on how you do the counting and you will find that the answers (to these types of word count questions) vary all over the lot. For example, many words have multiple meanings. Do you count the number of different meanings for that word (and how different has the meaning have to be to be considered different – e.g. consider the verb ‘bear’) or do you count such words as just a single word? Also, should multiple forms of a verb be counted or just the root form (e.g. walk/walks/walked, begin/began/begun, swim/swam/swum)? And what about jargon, slang, Latin words used in law, medical and scientific words, French words used in cooking, foreign words used in academic writing, Scots dialect, obsolete words, etc.? I think that the answer is, that since opinions differ on these counting questions, there is no clear answer. However, for want of anything better, I did some estimating using some information from the OED.
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The Oxford English Dictionary says the following:

The Second Edition of the ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ contains FULL ENTRIES for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter adjectives, and ABOUT A SEVENTH VERBS; the rest is made up of interjections, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. These figures take no account of entries with senses for different parts of speech (such as noun and adjective).

This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the ‘OED,’ or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.
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Using the OED’s crude estimate of 1/7, this would imply about 25,000 verbs (1/7 of ~ 171,000) as ‘full entries in current use’ in their Second Edition. And, if we apply the 1/7 rule to their above qualified definition of ‘distinct English words, . . .’ (if it still applies) we get about 36,000 verbs (1/7 of ~ 250,000). Finally, if we apply the rule to the above ‘three quarters of a million,’ which includes distinct senses, we get about 100,000 verbs (1/7 of ~ 750,000).

So there you have it. According to the above method of estimating, the answer is the fairly meaningless (at least without the litany of qualifiers – and perhaps even with them) ‘somewhere between 25,000 and 100,000 verbs.’ However, if I were put on the spot to give an estimate, rather than citing any absolute numbers, I would just say, ‘about 1 out of 7 or about 15% of all words in the English language’ – however many that is.
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Ken G – October 3, 2004

Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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How many verbs are there in English?

Post by Archived Reply » Fri Jan 04, 2002 1:44 pm

There is also the question of phrasal verbs, in which an element that is additional to the infinitive modifies the latter's meaning. For instance: 'set OUT', 'set IN', 'set FORTH', 'set BACK', 'set DOWN', 'set UP', 'set ASIDE'.

It can plausibly be argued that such modification of the basic verb creates a new verb entirely. Given the huge number of phrasal verbs that exist in English, their inclusion or exclusion from any count of the verbs that exist in the language would make a significant difference to the total.
Reply from Erik Kowal ( - England)
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How many verbs are there in English?

Post by Archived Reply » Fri Jan 04, 2002 1:58 pm

Yes, thanks Erik, I am well aware of phrasal verbs and how a verb changes its meaning depending on a postposition. I'd say I'm interested in getting exact info on verb headwords + the number of phrasal verbs. Slang/jargon verbs constitute a rather narrow margin, don't they? I can easily write them off.
Reply from Julie Kay (Bronnitsy - Russia)
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How many verbs are there in English?

Post by Archived Reply » Fri Jan 04, 2002 2:13 pm

Julie, Good luck! And don’t forget ‘luck’ can be both a noun and a verb, and some dictionaries consider the verb slang/informal (e.g. Random House Unabridged, which, incidentally, lists it under one headword) and some don’t (e.g. Merriam-Webster Unabridged, which, incidentally, lists it under two separate headwords). And if you consider each of your verb choices and make some quick and snappy decisions, working at a steady pace, you might just have all your ‘exact info’ together before it’s time to move to higher ground as the icecaps melt! (<;)
____________________

Ken G – October 3, 2004

Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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How many verbs are there in English?

Post by Archived Reply » Fri Jan 04, 2002 2:27 pm

Ken, if I got you right there are no ready figures. I'm afraid I haven't all the time in the world to count and you somehow made me sorry I asked.

I found this info, though
'. . .How many verbs are there in the English language? We don't have an exact count, but we know how to find the answer. According to Professor Louis Milic of the Dictionary Society of North America, the five-volume English Word Speculum includes a volume subtitled the Reverse Part-of-Speech Word List. By counting the number of verb entries on a single page, and multiplying by the number of pages of verbs, one could estimate the total number. (The same, of course, would apply to nouns, adjectives, and the other parts of speech.)'

I just wonder if anyone has undertaken the counting venture.

Reply from Julie Kay (Bronnitsy - Russia)
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How many verbs are there in English?

Post by Archived Reply » Fri Jan 04, 2002 2:41 pm

You would get a more reliable result following that approach, Julie, if you sampled a much greater number of pages than just one. Consider how skewed your result would be if the page you picked happened to contain the headword 'go', 'get' or 'make'.

In other words, you need a large enough sample in proportion to the overall data set in order to be confident that your sample is fairly representative of the whole. Ideally, therefore, you would need to:

1) Perhaps with the help of a statistician, determine how many pages out of the total number of pages contained in the English Word Speculum you would need to sample in order to be confident of arriving at a statistically valid result;
2) Use a random number table or equivalent method to select the pages to be sampled;
3) Count the occurrences on those pages of the headwords and phrasal verbs you are interested in;
4) Multiply the number of occurrences by the number of pages in the English Word Speculum.

The more pages there are in the English Word Speculum, the lower the proportion of sample pages would need to be relative to the total number of pages (because the effect of sampling error that I referred to above would be less), but the greater the number of pages would need to be in absolute terms.

I don't know if anyone has undertaken this exercise, but it could make an interesting little article in a professional journal, especially if you were able to estimate the rate of growth in the number of verbs over a significant period by carrying out a similar exercise to the one I have just described using previous editions of the English Word Speculum.
Reply from Erik Kowal ( - England)
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How many verbs are there in English?

Post by Archived Reply » Fri Jan 04, 2002 2:56 pm

Julie, I could be wrong, but I smell a rat. According to the information I was able to find the ‘English Word Speculum’ was written by Dolby & Resnikoff in 1964 in 5 volumes, and I found no evidence that it was ever revised. If this is true, then the entire list consists of 73,582 words and, from the publish date, we are really talking an early 1960s compilation (no computers to make easy and quick work back in those days) – that’s 40-year-old material.

I can’t imagine that anyone could get ‘exact info’ on the number of verbs (whatever that means) in the English Language from a 40-year-old compilation containing only 73,582 words (much less the number of nouns and adjectives as your above quote suggests). The latest American Heritage Dictionary (4th edition) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary – 11th edition each have over 200,000 entries. Random House Unabridged has 315,000 entries and Merriam-Webster Unabridged has 472,000.

And as the OED says in their above spanking fresh 2004 comment, “ . . . there are, AT THE VERY LEAST, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, . . .” The 2nd edition (1989) of the OED “contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. . .” The full entries, which does not include the 9,500 derivative subentry words, contains 100,000 more words (and that was in 1989) than there are in this ‘English Word Speculum’ thing. So how anyone could possibly suggest that one could get an accurate count of the number of verbs (or nouns, adjectives, etc.) in the English language out of this dinosaur, is beyond me.

Ken G – October 3, 2004



Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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How many verbs are there in English?

Post by Archived Reply » Fri Jan 04, 2002 3:10 pm

Complicating Julie's quest, we live in an era when practically any word can be used as practically any part of speech
Consider CRASH: n: when there is a security ~ vb: ~ the White House (fr West Wing) adj: in the ~ mode

Reply from dale hileman (Apple Valley, CA - U.S.A.)
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How many verbs are there in English?

Post by Archived Reply » Fri Jan 04, 2002 3:25 pm

Julie: There are twice as many verbs in the English language as half of them. This of course is estimated.

Example: How high is the sky?

Reply from I BU (Squim - U.S.A.)
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How many verbs are there in English?

Post by Archived Reply » Fri Jan 04, 2002 3:39 pm

How many verbs are there in English? So far, I've found 13:

gel
hie
hinge
lie
line
shine
sigh
sign
sin
sing
singe
single
sling

There might be a few I've missed, but I think these are the verbs that can be made from the letters in "English"! *G*
Reply from K. Allen Griffy (Springfield, IL - U.S.A.)
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How many verbs are there in English?

Post by Archived Reply » Fri Jan 04, 2002 3:53 pm

K. Allen, among the verbs you've missed, there is 'shingle.' As you certainly know, in the English language there's no noun that cannot be verbed.
Reply from Hans Joerg Rothenberger (Walenstadt - Switzerland)
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How many verbs are there in English?

Post by Archived Reply » Fri Jan 04, 2002 4:08 pm

Hans, Yes. English is renouned for such reverberations!

Ken – October 4, 2004

Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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How many verbs are there in English?

Post by Archived Reply » Fri Jan 04, 2002 4:22 pm

Congrats Ken, that's one to preserve for posterity.
Reply from Hans Joerg Rothenberger (Walenstadt - Switzerland)
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How many verbs are there in English?

Post by Archived Reply » Fri Jan 04, 2002 4:37 pm

Posterity it then.
Reply from Edwin Ashworth (Oldham - England)
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