We admittedly geek out on the scientific study of words, linguistics.  We’ve built the CopyOptimizer tool to score copy on Readability and Storytelling using linguistics.

We believe writing is more work, effort, training, study and process than divine inspiration and stroke of genius, hence tools and rubrics that turn writing into more science, less art.

Why should you care?  Processing time kills.   Mental processing that is.  As the amount of mental processing time goes up, the amount of your copy read goes down.  We’re cognitive misers, we want to spend as little energy on processing time as possible.

What Affects Mental Processing Time?

Difficult words increase processing time.  But, what makes a word difficult?   Word length is one marker but only one.  There are many long words that are still processed quickly.

There’s a very cool dataset that has over 65,000 words with frequency of use and prevalence scores.   Words that are used a lot are high frequency.  A high frequency, long word can be processed as quick or more quickly than a low frequency, shorter word.

Frequency matters.  Prevalence is another facet of word difficulty and processing times.  Prevalence is the percentage of folks that know a word.  Prevalence is different from frequency and length.

Here are a few fun screen shots from the Excel file.  These are the High Prevalence, High Frequency words.  If you use any of these they will be processed very quickly.

Here is a list of words that are equally High Prevalence but Low Frequency.  I’m not suggesting you use “submissiveness” in copy with the same frequency as “bad” but those words are equally known among most folks.

I am suggesting you not use any of these words – Low Prevalence and Low Frequency.  If you’re like me, the risk of using these is low as I haven’t the faintest idea what any of them mean.

And just for fun, here are the Top 10 words that men know more than women and vice versa.

And, same for Americans vs. Brits.

(Footnote: the prevalence correlation between genders is really high so the vast majority of words are known equally well.  Same for Americans and Brits, vast majority words equally well known) 

Better known by Males.

Better known by Females.

Better known by Americans

Better known by Brits


P.S.  I’m happy to share the full Excel file of 65,000 plus words with Prevalence and Frequency scores if you want it.  Just ask for it in comments.