Can You Guess the Most Common Letters in the English Language?
Those hours of watching Wheel of Fortune might just pay off.
Tatiana Ayazo/ RD, ShutterstockThis paragraph is abnormal. It contains an oddity, a linguistic quirk that you will find in no popular book or journal or script in any library. Want a hint? A crucial bit of vocabulary is missing (saying it all aloud might aid you, but probably not). Can you spot our anomaly? And if you do, can you say what it is without spoiling it?
The answer is as plain as the nose on your face, or the cream in your coffee, or the vowels in your alphabet. The above paragraph is missing the most common letter in the English language: the letter E.
E is everywhere. In an analysis of all 240,000 entries in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, OED editors found that the letter E appears in approximately 11% of all words in the common English vocabulary, about 6,000 more words than the runner-up letter, A. What’s more: E is the most commonly struck letter on your keyboard, and the second most popular key after the space bar. It’s one third of the single most-used word in English—“the”—and appears in the most common English noun (“time”), the most common verb (“be”), in ubiquitous pronouns like he, she, me, and we, not to mention tens of thousands of words ending in -ed and -es.
There’s a reason, in other words, that scribes see composing prose without the letter E as one of the ultimate challenges in constrained writing. This hasn’t stopped masochistic wordsmiths from trying. Author Ernest Vincent Wright’s 1939 novel Gadsby, for example, contains some 50,000 words—none of them containing an E—while the 1969 French novel La Disparition has been translated into a dozen different languages, each edition omitting the most common letter in that language. The French and English versions successfully last 300 pages without the letter E; in Spanish, the letter A gets omitted, and in Russian, it’s O.
On the whole, most of the 5 full-time vowels (sorry, “sometimes Y”) appear more frequently in English than most consonants, with a few exceptions. Anyone who’s spent the evening watching Wheel of Fortune can tell you the most common consonants—at least, the ones Pat Sajak gives you for free during the final puzzle—are R, S, T L, and N (tellingly, he also throws in the letter E). Oxford’s analysis confirms that Pat is on the money. The top ten most common letters in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, and the percentage of words they appear in, are:
1. E – 11.1607%
2. A – 8.4966%
3. R – 7.5809%
4. I – 7.5448%
5. O – 7.1635%
6. T – 6.9509%
7. N – 6.6544%
8. S – 5.7351%
9. L – 5.4893%
10. C – 4.5388%
You can spell a lot of words with those ten letters, including the most complicated word in the English language (hint: it only has three letters). But no letter is an island, and it takes the communal effort of our whole alphabet to make English as wonderful and weird as it is. Case in point: Hubert Wolfe, the man with 26 first names (one for every letter of the alphabet).
As for the least common letter in our language? Ask yourself this: Which is the only letter that doesn’t appear in any U.S. state name? The answer is EZ-er to guess than you think.