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The General Service List is a list of roughly 2000 words published by Michael West in 1953. The words were selected to represent the most frequent words of English and were taken from a corpus of written English. The target audience was English language learners and ESL teachers. To maximize the utility of the list, some frequent words that overlapped broadly in meaning with words already on the list were omitted. In the original publication the relative frequencies of various senses of the words were also included.
The list is important because a person who knows all the words on the list and their related families would understand approximately 90-95 percent of colloquial speech and 80-85 percent of common written texts. The list consists only of headwords, which means that the word "be" is high on the list, but assumes that the person is fluent in all forms of the word, e.g. am, is, are, was, were, being and been.
Researchers have expressed doubts about the adequacy of the GSL because of its age and the relatively low coverage provided by the words not in the first 1000 words of the list (Engels, 1968). Engels was, in particular, critical of the limited vocabulary chosen by West 1953, and while he concurred that the first 1000 words of the GSL were good selections based on their high frequency and wide range, he was of the opinion that that the words beyond the first 1000 of the GSL could not be considered general service words because the range and frequency of these words were too low to be included in the list. Recent research by Billuroğlu and Neufeld (2005) confirmed that the General Service List was in need of minor revision, but the headwords in the list still provide approximately 80% text coverage in written English. The research showed that the GSL contains a small number of archaic terms, such as shilling, while excluding words that have gained currency since the first half of the twentieth century, e.g. plastic, television, battery, okay, victim, drug, etc.
The GSL evolved over several decades before West’s publication in 1953. Contrary to popular belief, the GSL is not a list based solely on frequency, but includes groups of words on a semantic basis (Nation & Waring, 2004; Dickins). Today there is no version of the GSL in print; it only exists in virtual form via the Internet. Various versions float around the Internet, and attempts have been made to improve it (Bauman, 1995). However, for practical purposes, one of its most accessible formats exists in the Compleat Lexical Tutor web site created by Tom Cobb, where it can be viewed, downloaded or used for vocabulary profiling of texts. The headwords and family members in this version of the GSL conform to Bauer and Nation, level 6.
The Classic Vocabulary Profiler, produces output in coloured form—blue for K1 (the first 1,000 words of the GSL), green for K2 (the second 1,000 words of the GSL), yellow for Academic word list, and red for words that are not in any of the lists.
For other types of reading different lists may be required. For example when reading texts in the academic genre, a person may wish to consult the Academic word list. For students studying English as a foreign language, a person may wish to consult the BNL2709 and use the BNL profiler at the Compleat Lexical Tutor web site.
The actual list, along with a more detailed discussion is available here
Heatley, Nation, and Coxhead have made their RANGE and FREQUENCY programs available for download and include the GSL and the AWL as TXT files for vocabulary profiling.
An extended version of the General Service List in Excel format produced by Dickins (http://www.languages.salford.ac.uk/staff/dickins.php) can be found on .
This provides in a manipulable format all the information in the General Service List, plus a semantic-field categorisation of each entry using the categories in the Longman Lexicon of Contemporary English(LLCE) by Tom McArthur (Longman, 1981). This latter allows entries to be ordered or extracted according to semantic categories. Details of the LLCE categories can be found on the same webpage. The full categories for the extended version of the General Service List are as follows:
- Line numbering (order in which entries appear in the printed version of the General Service List);
- Headword as given in the General Service List;
- Lemmatized headword, i.e. standard dictionary-type headword;
- McArthur category;
- Word count 1, as given in the General Service List;
- Word count 2, 'raw' word count without additional information given in the General Service List;
- Percentage scores for occurrences of words in a particular sense in the General Service List;
- Word-in-sense frequency;
- Source of information (given throughout as GenSerList);
- Meaning (as given in General Service List).
Bauer, L. and Nation, I.S.P. (1993). Word families, International Journal of Lexicography 6, 3 (1993) 1-27.
Billuroğlu, A. & Neufeld, S. (2005). The Bare Necessities in Lexis: a new perspective on vocabulary profiling. Retrieved September 2007 from http://lextutor.ca/vp/BNL_Rationale.doc
Dickins, J. (n.d.). Extended Version of Rank Frequency List: Spoken English, retrieved 3 December 2007 from http://www.languages.salford.ac.uk/staff/dickins.php.
Engels, L.K. (1968). The fallacy of word counts. IRAL 6: 213-231.
Heatley, A., Nation, I.S.P. and Coxhead, A. 2002. RANGE and FREQUENCY programs. http://www.vuw.ac.nz/lals/staff/Paul_Nation
Nation, P., & Waring, R. (2004). Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists. Retrieved September 2007 from http://www.wordhacker.com
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