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The 100 Most Important Words in English

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

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The 100 Most Important Words in English

How to Read a Page: A Course in Effective Reading, With an Introduction to a Hundred Great Words, by I.A. Richards (W. W. Norton, 1942)

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:
Amount, Argument, Art, Be, Beautiful, Belief, Cause, Certain, Chance, Change, Clear, Common, Comparison, Condition, Connection, Copy, Decision, Degree, Desire, Development, Different, Do, Education, End, Event, Examples, Existence, Experience, Fact, Fear, Feeling, Fiction, Force, Form, Free, General, Get, Give, Good, Government, Happy, Have, History, Idea, Important, Interest, Knowledge, Law, Let, Level, Living, Love, Make, Material, Measure, Mind, Motion, Name, Nation, Natural, Necessary, Normal, Number, Observation, Opposite, Order, Organization, Part, Place, Pleasure, Possible, Power, Probable, Property, Purpose, Quality, Question, Reason, Relation, Representative, Respect, Responsible, Right, Same, Say, Science, See, Seem, Sense, Sign, Simple, Society, Sort, Special, Substance, Thing, Thought, True, Use, Way, Wise, Word, 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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