• Lyn Coffin


Updated: Apr 30, 2020

I'm obsessed with Zipf's law. Zipf's law states that given a large sample of words used, the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. So word number n has a frequency proportional to 1/n. Thus the most frequent word will occur about twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word, etc. For example, in one sample of words in the English language, the most frequently occurring word, "the", accounts for nearly 7% of all the words (69,971 out of slightly over 1 million). True to Zipf's Law, the second-place word "of" accounts for slightly over 3.5% of words (36,411 occurrences), followed by "and" (28,852). The same relationship occurs in many other rankings, unrelated to language, but I'm interested only in the language repercussions. When a friend told me about Zipf's law, I took it as a writer's challenge: Could I write a story without using the 10 most frequent words in English? (Alphabetically-- a, and, in, is, it, of, that, the, to, was).

The result was "Sylvia," the story posted below. (But would my obsession be satisfied with this?)


Once there existed some random woman named Sylvia. Sylvia had an obsession: staying free from predictability. Sylvia vowed she would never succumb or crumble when people tried categorizing her within parameters prescribed by any law or graph claiming her behavior therefor became generally or usually unpredictable. Sylvia went her merry way, chaotically charming, unfailingly spontaneous. She did exactly what she wanted, nothing else.

Then one day Sylvia encountered an obstacle: her mother had read about Zipf's law. "Sylvia," she said. "Your behavior embarrasses me. Such behavior requires immediate reprimanding. Kindly behave like all circumspect young ladies should behave. If your father were here, your father would start rolling over within his grave. So. Now let's enjoy our dinner."

Sylvia capitulated, completely cowed by her mother's stern words. "Yes, mother," she said. "From now on, your daughter will behave quite differently." Sylvia's behavior altered radically.

There are morals aplenty hidden within this fable, but none shall manifest itself outright. Story writers (particularly this story writer) know how stories best proceed. Trust me.

Finis. [ps Caught up in my obsession, I had two "wases" in my first Zipf story. Egad! A mind is a terrible thing to have obsessed.}

This is Zipf. Is it my imagination or does he look a little smug?

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