Let’s try an experiment. If we start with some large body of text — post-war American novels, say, or twentieth-century British newspapers — and count all the occurrences of all the words in those texts, we can put together a fairly accurate list of the most popular words in English. The word “the” would be at the top, followed by “of” and then “and”. With this list of word counts in hand, you could turn to any other similar body of work — British novels or American newspapers, for example — and have a good idea of how often you’d expect to find each of the words on your list. Simple enough.
Next, imagine that you throw away those word counts. You keep only the list of words themselves, ordered from most to least common. You don’t know if “the” occurs twice as often as “of” or a hundred times more than it. It turns out that you can still predict how often you’re likely to encounter a given word: knowing only that “the” is the most common word, “of” is second most common, “and” is third, and so on, it is possible to guess with quite startling accuracy exactly how likely you are to encounter a given word. The mathematical relationship that underpins all this is called Zipf’s Law, named for its discovery in the 1930s by Kingsley Zipf, a professor of German at Harvard,1 and it is very simple indeed. Eric Weisstein’s excellent Mathworld site explains it as follows:
In the English language, the probability of encountering the rth most common word is given roughly by P(r) = 0.1/r for r up to 1000 or so.2
To put some numbers on it, you should encounter the word “the” around every ten words, equating to a probability of 0.1/1 = 0.1; “of” should occur every twenty words or so, from 0.1/2 = 0.05; “and” will appear once every thirty words or thereabouts, from 0.1/3; and so on. This is an instance of what is called an inverse power law, and if you plot these numbers on a logarithmic scale you get a shockingly straight line. Here’s an example of the raw numbers for the fifty most common words in the so-called Brown Corpus, a million-word collection of texts compiled between 1964 and 1979:3
Not bad, I think. I’ve overlaid the expected word counts (in green) as predicted by Zipf’s Law, and it looks fairly convincing. If we make each axis logarithmic rather than linear, we get this:
Better! The maths behind this are quite involved, but the effect of viewing the data on logarithmic axes is to show the perfectly straight line predicted by Zipf’s Law. Again, our data looks good — not a perfect fit, but our actual word counts conform to the predicted values relatively closely. So far, so good. It look as though Zipf’s Law is in full effect in our million-word test case.
Now the weird thing about Zipf’s Law is that is can be arrived at only by observation. There are no verbs, conjunctions and or definite articles out there in nature, waiting for their physical properties to be discovered; our ancestors made them up as they went along and yet somehow we have constructed a language that adheres uncannily to an abstract mathematical idea. Why should the word “the” occur twice as often as “of”, three times as often as “and”, and so on? No-one really knows.
What is even odder is that inverse power laws crop up again and again in what should, by rights, be entirely random groups of things; Zipf’s Law is to words what Benford’s Law is to digits, and Benford’s Law is absolutely everywhere. The distribution of digits in house numbers, prime numbers, the half-lives of radioactive isotopes, and even the lengths in kilometres of the world’s rivers all follow inverse power laws, with the digit 1 being most prevalent by far and the others falling off behind it. Benford’s Law is so reliable that economists use it to detect fraud: if they don’t see a logarithmic distribution of digits in a given set of accounts, with 1 enthroned at the top, they know that someone has been doctoring the figures.4
My thought, then, was this: does punctuation follow some variant of Zipf’s Law? If we count all the marks of punctuation in some suitably large dataset of English texts, do we see a logarithmic distribution in them? There are many fewer unique punctuation marks than there are words, of course, but then Benford’s Law works quite happily with only ten digits to play with. It’s intriguing to wonder: were the writers and editors who invented the comma, full stop and apostrophe moved by the same inexplicable law that governs baseball statistics, the Dow Jones index and the size of files on your PC? I wrote a computer program to find out.
I started by looking at the Brown Corpus, but given that it contains a paltry million words or so there aren’t all that many punctuation marks to be found. I turned instead to Project Gutenberg, which makes out-of-copyright books available in a variety of formats, and downloaded twelve of the most popular works.* Next, I counted the occurrences of all marks of punctuation and plotted them both as raw numbers and as log-log graphs of their occurrences and rank numbers of those same values. Here’s the equivalent of our first graph, only for marks of punctuation rather than words:
Well then. This looks familiar.
We’ll come to the red line in a moment, but let’s stick with the blue line for now. It represents the number of times that each of the marks of punctuation along the x-axis occurred in my ad hoc Project Gutenberg corpus, with the comma in pole position and the full stop around 50% behind it. There’s a bit of a jump down to the paired quotation mark,† but the fact that the quotation mark is up there at all is doubtless to be expected from the dialog-heavy novels that make up the bulk of the works I analysed. The semicolon is is fourth position, likely because my texts are predominantly of the nineteenth century, and the apostrophe follows it in fifth.
Now to the red line. If you remember, Zipf’s Law says that the probability P of encountering a word with ranking r is given by P(r) = 0.1/r. Guessing that there’s a similar distribution for punctuation marks, I played around with a variety of different values for the numerator of the fraction, eventually settling on 0.3 as a reasonable proposition. The red line, then, is my predicted distribution of punctuation marks, as given by the equation P(r) = 0.3/r. Enter Houston’s Law, I guess…? Not great, but not terrible either; a larger corpus and some more sophisticated mathematics would likely produce a better number.
If we play the same trick as above, making both x– and y-axes logarithmic to smooth out the curve, this it what we see:
The first ten punctuation marks, then, follow a Zipfian distribtion in a quite striking way. The unhelpful behaviour of the last few marks (from ‘*’ to ‘%’) may well be because they’re either logograms or non-standard marks of punctuation; why the colon is under-represented, however, I’m not sure. Even so, this is all rather startling. Punctuation marks are Zipfian to a large degree, just like words; the frequency with which we use them obeys the same eerily ubiquitous inverse power law distribution, and I am none the wiser as to why. If ever there was a time to weigh in, commenters, this is it! What’s going on here, and why?
- “Zipf Dies After 3-Month Illness”, The Harvard Crimson, 1950. ↢
- Eric Weisstein W, “Zipf’s Law”, MathWorld. ↢
- Nelson Francis and Henry Kucera, “Brown Corpus”, The Internet Archive, 1964. ↢
- Eric Weisstein W, “Benford’s Law”, MathWorld. ↢
- I picked the following works from Project Gutenberg’s list of most downloaded titles:
- A Modest Proposal
- A Tale of Two Cities
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
- Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus
- Grimms’ Fairy Tales
- Moby Dick; Or, The Whale
- Pride and Prejudice
- The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
- The Count of Monte Cristo
- The Picture of Dorian Gray
- It’s worth noting here that I chose to consider the paired marks — single and double quotation marks, parentheses and so on — as single marks for the purposes of this analysis, but there’s certainly room to look at them as two distinct units. ↢