Friday, January 19, 2018

Use Google Books Ngram Viewer to Resolve Word Choice Questions

Many print resources are devoted to proper word usage. See, e.g., Bryan Garner, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage (2011) [Amazon Link]; Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl’s 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time (Quick & Dirty Tips) (2011) [Amazon Link]. Sometimes, however, those guides may not answer your question fully or the phrase giving you pause may be too complex for a static resource to adequately address. That is where the Google Books Ngram Viewer can help.

The Ngram Viewer allows you to see the frequency at which a particular word or phrase (“n-gram“) has been used over time in the body of literature Google has digitized as part of Google Books (a massive collection). For example, if you wanted to determine whether it was correct to write “the defendant pled guilty” or “the defendant pleaded guilty,” you could view the frequency with which each has been used since 1800.

A. Construct a Search

To search, separate your n-grams (in this case bigrams) by commas. You may also refine the years and corpus searched.

Example Google books Ngram search

Google books Ngram search for pleaded guilty, pled guilty

B. Analyze the Results

As you can see, that search indicates that “pleaded guilty” is the more common usage but that “pled guilty” has been growing in acceptance since the 1960s.

Comparing the usage of “pleaded” and “plead” yields similar results.

Therefore, we can conclude with a high level of confidence that “pleaded guilty” is the proper usage.

C. Verify from Search Results

The Ngram Viewer also links to books that have used the n-grams you searched for at the bottom of the page. In this case, we are brought to a list of books that happens to include Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, which is in accord with the results of our search.


Search results containing the n-grams you searched for are displayed at the bottom of the screen.


Search results for “pleaded guilty.”

D. Conclusion

The foregoing should enable you to determine proper word usage in most situations. That said, the Ngram Viewer is an incredibly powerful resource for language analysis and has many advanced features that may prove useful.  See Google books Ngram Viewer Info for a much more detailed explanation of those features.

Disclaimer: The statements and views expressed in this posting are my own and do not reflect those of my law firm. They are intended for general informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion.



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