The Language of TV Series

Most common words and phrases in TV series

The frequency lists below are based on my analysis of dialogue from 27 contemporary US American fictional television series (excluding scene headings, descriptions of actions, and so on):

Twenty-Four, NCIS, Rome, Legend of the Seeker, Lost, Tru Calling, Birds of Prey, Bones, The Wire, The Shield, Breaking Bad, Southland, The Big Bang Theory, The Office, Desperate Housewives, How I Met Your Mother , Community, Entourage, United States of Tara, My Name is Earl, Glee, Dollhouse, Grey’s Anatomy, House, In Treatment, Supernatural, True Blood.

The dataset from which the frequency lists have been extracted is described in Bednarek (2014).

There are several reasons why such lists are interesting, aside from a general enthusiasm for language use in popular culture. Screenwriters may want to check what words and phrases are frequent in TV series, either to imitate or to avoid them (cliched dialogue lines). We can also compare such lists with ‘naturally-occurring’ language to find out the extent to which screenwriting language is similar or different to unscripted language. Because this kind of language is broadcast globally to millions of viewers (many of them speakers of English as a Second Language) it is worthwhile investigating it systematically.

There are lists here for the 100 most frequent words, the 50 most frequent 2-word combinations and the 50 most frequent 3-word combinations. Just scroll down to see these. (Note that contractions such as I’m are counted as one word in these lists, because of the software used to compile them.) If you refer to these frequency lists (whether on another website, in teaching, publications or elsewhere), please include a link or reference to this website. For a related study on swearing and taboo expressions in 38 US television series see here.

100 most frequent words

This list only includes words that occur in all of the 27 TV series:

you we she back
I your well when
the was there something
to so go had
a be how or
and just that’s didn’t
it with now were
of he want off
that but did we’re
in are going there’s
this all why say
me right come way
is like look over
what get from doing
I’m about need because
on you’re an what’s
my if time make
know up who sorry
for out take by
no one really too
don’t can some should
not at can’t thing
it’s here tell thank
have got I’ll only
do think them around

 50 most frequent 2-word combinations

This list includes the 50 most frequent 2-word combinations (which may not occur in each episode/TV series).

YOU KNOW KNOW WHAT
I DON’T YOU DON’T
IN THE TO DO
DO YOU TO GET
ARE YOU I HAVE
THIS IS OUT OF
GOING TO YOU CAN
TO BE FOR THE
ON THE I’M NOT
TO THE I MEAN
HAVE TO IN A
OF THE I CAN’T
I KNOW I NEED
AND I NEED TO
I THINK BUT I
YOU HAVE DID YOU
DON’T KNOW FOR A
I WAS YOU TO
WANT TO I GOT
COME ON YOU WANT
ALL RIGHT THANK YOU
YOU THINK AT THE
HAVE A IT’S A
IF YOU A LITTLE
IT WAS WHAT ARE

This excel file shows in how many of the 27 TV series these bigrams occur (in
my dataset): 50 most frequent 2-grams

 50 most-frequent 3-word combinations

This list includes the 50 most frequent 3-word combinations (which may not occur in each episode/TV series). Note that out of here pops up in this list as 42th most frequent phrase. The phrase Let’s get out of here is often mentioned as the most cliched line or stock phrase in cinema (see an interesting montage here). In addition to get … out of here and let’s get out of here, other usages in my data include You gotta let me out of here, f*** up out of here, give me one good reason not to throw you out of here, I’m out of here, we’re walking out of here together, is there another way out of here. Another interesting phrase is oh my god, which is the 22nd most frequent phrase and may be used so frequently in TV dialogue to avoid less ‘family-friendly’ ways of expressing emotion. Interestingly, the most frequent 3-word combination, namely, I don’t know is also the most frequent in ‘real-life’ conversation.

I DON’T KNOW I HAVE A
WHAT DO YOU I HAVE TO
WHAT ARE YOU YOU DON’T KNOW
YOU KNOW WHAT NEED YOU TO
ARE YOU DOING DO YOU MEAN
DO YOU THINK HOW DO YOU
YOU HAVE A I TOLD YOU
YOU KNOW I NO NO NO
A LOT OF WE HAVE TO
I’M GOING TO YOU DON’T HAVE
DON’T WANT TO DO YOU WANT
WHY DON’T YOU THIS IS A
YOU HAVE TO I NEED YOU
YOU WANT TO WANT YOU TO
DON’T KNOW WHAT OUT OF THE
I WANT TO TO TALK TO
I DON’T WANT OUT OF HERE
GOING TO BE TAKE CARE OF
I NEED TO WE NEED TO
DON’T HAVE TO BY THE WAY
I DON’T HAVE GET OUT OF
OH MY GOD GO TO THE
DO YOU HAVE HAVE TO GO
DO YOU KNOW I THINK I
I DON’T THINK I THINK IT’S

This file shows in how many of the 27 TV series these trigrams occur (in my dataset): 50 most frequent 3-grams