Tool Time: Using Google Ngrams

I was sure I’d written about this before, but no. So.

Google Ngrams is a great, easy-to-use tool for finding the frequency of a word or phrase in printed material. Let’s say you want to know how popular the phrase “try and” is, compared to “try to.”

You go here and then you enter the phrases you want to search for, separated by a comma. (You can fiddle with the start/end dates, the corpus to be searched, and more, but for my purposes here I’m not getting in to that. I seldom need to change the default for my work.) Then you press ENTER, and voila. You’re presented with a simple line graph showing which word or phrase is more (or most, if you enter three or more) common.

Here’s the result for the example I used two paragraphs back.

What this means is that in edited, printed texts between the years of 1800 and 2000, “try to” is used far more often than “try and.”

There’s no judgement in that. It’s just numbers.

I’ve used it on the fly when editing to see which phrasing of a given idea is more common. I’ve used it to see whether a spelling is EVER used. (It’s more fun than a dictionary, sometimes.) I’ve changed the dates and checked for usage in a specific time period. Why? Because it’s faster than hauling out one of my reference books, mostly. If I have reason to question the result or I want more information, then I hit the bookshelf.

Click on that little drop-down at the far right of the search term field, and you’ll see more ways to search: wild cards, inflections, parts of speech, and more. It’s easy to get caught up in the process. (Not that I’ve done that, you know. Not me. ::cough::)

If you’re wondering just how useful this tool can be, perhaps it’ll help to know that Bryan A. Garner of Garner’s Modern English Usage used it in the writing of that edition. Many entries include a ratio at the bottom, showing how often one word/phrase is used compared to another. If a usage is clearly an error, there’s no entry; however, for things like “try and” and “try to” you’ll see “Current ratio” as the last line of the entry. We have Ngrams to thank for that. (If you’re unfamiliar with Garner’s usage guides, and thus with his “Language Change Index.” I strongly suggest you rectify that situation. The Index is a time-saver, especially for editors. It helps me and many of my colleagues decide when a stance is worth fighting for.)