The 100 Most Important Words in English

From "How to Read a Page" by I.A. Richards

Love written across two hands
Love makes the list. Jonathan Knowles / Getty Images

First off, a few clarifications are in order.

This list of important words was drawn up by British rhetorician I.A. Richards, author of several books including Basic English and Its Uses (1943). However, these 100 words are not a part of the simplified version of the language that he and C.K. Ogden called Basic English.

Also, we're not talking about the 100 most frequently used words in English (a list that contains far more prepositions than nouns).

And unlike the 100 words recently chosen by David Crystal to tell The Story of English (St. Martin's Press, 2012), Richards' words are primarily significant for their meanings, not their etymologies.

Richards introduced his list of words in the book How to Read a Page: A Course in Effective Reading (1942), and he called them "the most important words" for two reasons:

  1. They cover the ideas we can least avoid using, those which are concerned in all that we do as thinking begins.
  2. They are words we are forced to use in explaining other words because it is in terms of the ideas they cover that the meanings of other words must be given.

Here, at last, are those 100 important words:

  1. Amount
  2. Argument
  3. Art
  4. Be
  5. Beautiful
  6. Belief
  7. Cause
  8. Certain
  9. Chance
  10. Change
  11. Clear
  12. Common
  13. Comparison
  14. Condition
  15. Connection
  16. Copy
  17. Decision
  18. Degree
  19. Desire
  20. Development
  21. Different
  22. Do
  23. Education
  24. End
  25. Event
  26. Examples
  27. Existence
  28. Experience
  29. Fact
  30. Fear
  31. Feeling
  32. Fiction
  33. Force
  34. Form
  35. Free
  1. General
  2. Get
  3. Give
  4. Good
  5. Government
  6. Happy
  7. Have
  8. History
  9. Idea
  10. Important
  11. Interest
  12. Knowledge
  13. Law
  14. Let
  15. Level
  16. Living
  17. Love
  18. Make
  19. Material
  20. Measure
  21. Mind
  22. Motion
  23. Name
  24. Nation
  25. Natural
  26. Necessary
  27. Normal
  28. Number
  29. Observation
  30. Opposite
  31. Order
  32. Organization
  33. Part
  34. Place
  35. Pleasure
  36. Possible
  37. Power
  38. Probable
  39. Property
  40. Purpose
  41. Quality
  42. Question
  43. Reason
  44. Relation
  45. Representative
  46. Respect
  1. Responsible
  2. Right
  3. Same
  4. Say
  5. Science
  6. See
  7. Seem
  8. Sense
  9. Sign
  10. Simple
  11. Society
  12. Sort
  13. Special
  14. Substance
  15. Thing
  16. Thought
  17. True
  18. Use
  19. Way
  20. Wise
  21. Word
  22. Work

All these words carry multiple meanings, and they can say quite different things to different readers. For that reason, Richards' list could just as well have been labeled "The 100 Most Ambiguous Words:"

The very usefulness which gives them their importance explains their ambiguity. They are the servants of too many interests to keep to single, clearly defined jobs. Technical words in the sciences are like adzes, planes, gimlets, or razors. A word like "experience," or "feeling," or "true" is like a pocketknife. In good hands it will do most things--not very well. In general we will find that the more important a word is, and the more central and necessary its meanings are in our pictures of ourselves and the world, the more ambiguous and possibly deceiving the word will be.

In an earlier book, The Making of Meaning (1923), Richards (and co-author C. K. Ogden) had explored the fundamental notion that meaning doesn't reside in words themselves. Rather, meaning is rhetorical: it's fashioned out of both a verbal context (the words surrounding the words) and the experiences of the individual reader.

No surprise, then, that miscommunication is often the result when the "important words" come into play.

It's this idea of miscommunicating through language that led Richards to conclude that all of us are developing our reading skills all the time: "Whenever we use words in forming some judgment or decision, we are, in what may be a painfully sharp sense, 'learning to read'" (How to Read a Page).

In case anyone's counting, yes, there are actually 103 words on Richards' top-100 list. The bonus words, he said, are meant "to incite the reader to the task of cutting out those he sees no point in and adding any he pleases, and to discourage the notion that there is anything sacrosanct about a hundred, or any other number."

So with those thoughts in mind, it's now time to create a list of what you think are the most important words.

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Nordquist, Richard. "The 100 Most Important Words in English." ThoughtCo, Apr. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/important-words-in-english-1692687. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 2). The 100 Most Important Words in English. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/important-words-in-english-1692687 Nordquist, Richard. "The 100 Most Important Words in English." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/important-words-in-english-1692687 (accessed November 17, 2017).