WHAT ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT WORDS IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE? by Cheryl Pierson

If you are a reader, or a writer, or both, at some time, you probably have wondered about what words are the most important ones in our language.

In an article by Richard Nordquist for ThoughtCo., a list of the 100 most important words was drawn up by British rhetorician I.A. Richards, author of several books including “Basic English and Its Uses” (1943).

These words are not the most frequently used words in the English language. This list of words has been chosen more for their meanings, and the importance they have to our language.

According to Nordquist, 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 beings.
  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.

With these parameters in mind, it’s interesting to think about the words that were chosen to be representative of the 100  most important words in our entire language, isn’t it? And reading over the list, I find myself nodding my head in agreement and saying, “MMM-HMMM…”

 

Here 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.

Richards says, “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 earlier writings, Richards had explored the fundamental notion that meaning doesn’t reside in words themselves. Instead, meaning is rhetorical, or 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 mis-communicating 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.”)

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.”

With these thoughts in mind, can you create your own list of the top 100 words in the English language? Would they be important for the same reasons cited above?

I see several on here that I agree with…now I’ve got to put my mind to thinking about some of the others I might rather have in place of some of his suggestions! What about you?

  1. Nordquist, Richard. “The 100 Most Important Words in English.” ThoughtCo, Feb. 11, 2020, thoughtco.com/important-words-in-english-1692687.
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A native Oklahoman, I've been influenced by the west all my life. I love to write short stories and novels in the historical western and western romance genres, as well as contemporary romantic suspense! Check my Amazon author page to see my work: http://www.amazon.com/author/cherylpierson
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27 thoughts on “WHAT ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT WORDS IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE? by Cheryl Pierson”

  1. I agree that words matter. And the placement of the words and punctuation can change the entire meaning.
    As a retired technical writer this has been proven to me and my product users.

    • Oh, yes, I agree, Jerri. Punctuation is so important–it changes everything!And you are so right–word placement can change the meaning of things too!

  2. Great blog. Words are truly powerful in so many ways. I had never thought of a 100 top words, I’ll have to put my thinking cap on as well. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I don’t think I could come up with my own list of words. Now maybe if I were to pick a few number of them it would be easy. I have never actually even thought about listing important words, but looking at this list I can agree with quite a few of them.

    • Janine, it’s a lot harder than a person thinks at first glance, isn’t it? Especially to come up with 100 of them!

  4. Interesting post.I just have never thought about important word before so I do have to agree with most of them.

    • Quilt Lady, it made me want to see about getting my hands on some of the books he wrote and seeing what other lists he came up with, and why.

    • I agree, Debra! I’m so glad he put that list together, because I can just look at it and see what’s there, and think of — as you say — so many possibilities!

  5. Welcome. I agree that words are important and not only have meaning, but matter. Cool post today. Thank you for sharing. Makes me think a bit more about “words”

    • Hi Lori! So glad you enjoyed this–I was so glad I ran across this and now I’m going in search of some of his other writings. I think someone who studies words like this and comes up with this kind of thoughtful list is soooo interesting.

    • Hi Caryl! Yes–they are very powerful–and for so many reasons! I never stopped and thought about “important words” in the context of this list.

  6. Interesting list! Words are very powerful. They can tear down or build up. In the written word, punctuation is important, as that helps the reader know what is being emphasized.

    • Trudy, as an editor, I spend a lot of time correcting punctuation. There are so many things that can “go wrong” when punctuation is not used correctly. LOL And yes, words can tear down and build up–a good way of putting it. One of my friends posted something on Facebook about being “an encourager”–I’d never thought about “encourager” being a word to describe someone until I saw that post. I was so glad to see it because it gave me a new word and a new way of looking at people. Also, made me want to be “an encourager” too!

  7. Words can be so powerful, it’s important to know when to use them with kindness versus using them in anger and to hurt one another

    • Hi Denise, YES, I agree so much. Sometimes we get frustrated and say things we shouldn’t–and then of course there is no way to “undo” the damage. They are so very powerful.

  8. This is so very interesting and this is so true. You have to know how and where you should use different words. Thank you for sharing this very interesting post. Have a great week.

    • Hi Alicia! Yes, you are right. You do have to know how and where to use different words and to be careful–damage can be done so easily, and is hard to undo. I like how these words are “important” because of their contextual use. I never would have thought of that. Hope you have a great week too.

  9. The first words I thought of are not on this list: thank, please, forgive, trust, assist,. These are still very important in a society, but maybe not as ambiguous as Richards would have liked.

    • Right, Patricia. I think there are tons of words that can be important for so many different reasons. So glad you stopped by!

  10. Words are so powerful and it’s funny how a word can mean different things. Very interesting blog, thanks for sharing. I’d have a hard time picking out the 100 most important words or even 100 words you couldn’t live without.

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