Word frequency game

The Red Words Game from Macmillan Dictionary is a new and addictive bit of fun that tests your awareness of word frequencies. It’s named after a feature of the dictionary, the so-called red words and stars.

The idea is that the core vocabulary of English has 7500 ‘red words’, comprising 90% of the language in Macmillan’s huge general corpus.¹ Macmillan Dictionary gives red words special treatment, describing their grammar, collocations, register, and so on. Three-star words are the 2500 most common, two-star words are next, then one-star words.

To play the game you guess how many stars a random series of words have, for 90 seconds. I’ve been scoring 225–300, but to get more than 300 I’d need more luck and free time than I have at the moment. It’s just maddening enough to make you feel hard done by and want another go, like when I had 250 points with 30 seconds to go and got every answer wrong after that.

There are bonus points for fast answers, so don’t dally. The tricky bit is not letting the answers distract you (implication has three stars, anonymous just one!?).² Watch out too for grammatical class, which appears under the word, as sometimes it will affect your answer. For example, the verb find has three stars but the noun has just one.

If you want to pass a few entertaining minutes, go play. It’s even subliminally educational.


¹ Link and description updated for accuracy.

² I suspect anonymous will gain a star or two when more recent data are included in the categorisation.


16 Responses to Word frequency game

  1. Vinetta Bell says:

    Well, Stan, I took your challenge and scored a whopping 105 points. Humility is a tasteless meal.

  2. Mrs Fever says:

    I’m not very good at that game… ‘Chin’ is a two star word? ‘T-shirt’ is a one-star. The mind boggles. o_O

    Perhaps I will try it again another time.

  3. Stan says:

    Vinetta, Mrs Fever: It’s not easy! Only rarely am I confident of the right answer, usually because it’s such a common word it has to be a 3-star. Mostly it’s guesswork and educated-guesswork. T-shirt might be low in the mix because a lot of people refer to it as a Tee or some other variant.

  4. EmmaSofia says:

    155 points, I wonder if this game become more difficult if, as for me, English is a foreigen language.

  5. Claire Stokes says:

    Fun! My score is inching up slowly. I agree that the grammatical class can be crucial. Thanks for sharing this!

  6. Sean Jeating says:

    Tried thrice. Best result: 180. Hm.

  7. Stan says:

    Emma: Yes, I’d say so. Native speakers of a language would (potentially anyway) have better intuition about word frequencies just from their longer exposure to it.

    Claire: You’re welcome! I think it helps when you get used to the clicking rhythm.

    Sean: That’s a good score. I wonder will it tempt you back.

    • Sean Jeating says:

      Old gambler could not resist, Stan. :)
      Currently I end between 195 and 225; once I got 245, but that was a ‘lucky punch’ , I suppose.
      I shall certainly ‘try my luck’ again, one of these days. Thank you.

  8. Claire Stokes says:

    I find it somewhat maddening, actually. I would love more info about it being usage-written or usage-verbal or usage-media or all above. I keep getting side-tracked by analysis of readability etc.. which isn’t the thing. Also by general test-taking practices, which often don’t apply. Yellow = 2, not 3, just very odd. And I wonder, are there 2500 each of 1 star words, 2 star and 3 star? Or fewer 3 stars? I suppose it’s probably equal quantities. But I wonder how the data clusters. Anyway, very very distracting! :)

  9. Just tried it and got 125. I’m with MrsFever, some of these are… surprising. :)

  10. Stan says:

    Sean: I’m waiting until I feel lucky again. It may be a while.

    Claire: You’ll find more information about that via the other links in the post. It’s mostly written English (9:1 written:spoken), and yes, there are 2500 in each star category.

    Annette: Yes, some are unexpected. It all boils down to the corpus used, and each has its own slants and emphases.

  11. David Morris says:

    I’m not even going to attempt this. It’s got ‘I’m going to waste far too much of my time obsessively doing this over and over’ written all over it.

  12. maceochi says:

    The arrangement of the words from one-star at the top to three-star at the bottom is very counter-intuitive. I’ve played twice and each time I’ve started by clicking the wrong category because I associated the top with ‘top usage’. But nonetheless good fun!

  13. Stan says:

    David: You could set the timer and give yourself 10 minutes with it. Consider it a test of self-discipline.

    maceochi: I didn’t find that arrangement counter-intuitive, but I did wish the three options appeared simultaneously instead of at slightly staggered intervals.

  14. […] Can you guess how frequently any random word is used? Find out by playing this game. […]

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