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 chosen by David Crystal to tell The Story of English, 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
  36. General
  37. Get
  38. Give
  39. Good
  40. Government
  41. Happy
  42. Have
  43. History
  44. Idea
  45. Important
  46. Interest
  47. Knowledge
  48. Law
  49. Let
  50. Level
  51. Living
  52. Love
  53. Make
  54. Material
  55. Measure
  56. Mind
  57. Motion
  58. Name
  59. Nation
  60. Natural
  61. Necessary
  62. Normal
  63. Number
  64. Observation
  65. Opposite
  66. Order
  67. Organization
  68. Part
  69. Place
  70. Pleasure
  71. Possible
  72. Power
  73. Probable
  74. Property
  75. Purpose
  76. Quality
  77. Question
  78. Reason
  79. Relation
  80. Representative
  81. Respect
  82. Responsible
  83. Right
  84. Same
  85. Say
  86. Science
  87. See
  88. Seem
  89. Sense
  90. Sign
  91. Simple
  92. Society
  93. Sort
  94. Special
  95. Substance
  96. Thing
  97. Thought
  98. True
  99. Use
  100. Way
  101. Wise
  102. Word
  103. 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.

Sources

  • Crystal, David. The Story of English. St. Martin's Press, 2012.
  • Richards, I. A. Basic English and Its Uses. 1943.
  • Richards, I. A. How to Read a Page: A Course in Effective Reading. 1942.
  • Ogden, C. K. and I. A. Richards. The Making of Meaning. 1923.