David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

The 100 Most Important Words (to I. A. Richards)

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, Example, 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.

I. A. Richards, How to Read a Page (1942)

Richards began with the 850 words included in C. K. Ogden’s “Basic English” lexicon, intended to teach foreigners the maximum amount of English with the minimum amount of vocabulary. He selected those which he deemed most abstract and multifaceted, those which possessed “extreme versatility and ambiguity.” In fact, a word’s risk of being misunderstood is a significant criterion for inclusion.

This systematic ambiguity of all our most impor­tant words is a first cardinal point to note. But “am­biguity” is a sinister-looking word and it is better to say “resourcefulness.” They are 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.

I have, in fact, left 103 words in this list—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.

I. A. Richards, How to Read a Page

Richards calls out a handful of words—Soul, God, Time, Space—as being equally ambiguous and important, but not functioning as tools of thought. (In the case of Time and Space, I’m not certain I agree.)

Learning to read—like learning to see how the catch on a door works—is becoming able to grasp some of the ways in which the parts of a complex sys­tem are dependent upon one another. The experience from which skill in reading derives is, of course, a vastly more complex and potent growth of universals than anything the cat can develop. Nonetheless, as with the cat, though much more so, the secret of suc­cess lies in the stabilization of universals in the soul. But the universals which good reading calls for con­cern the wide general ways in which minor universals of less scope may and may not fit together. What counts most is not familiarity with the senses of words taken separately but knowledge of their interdepend­encies.

If we can see how we read or misread “cause,” “form,” “be,” “know,” “see,” “say,” “make” . . . how we omit or fail to omit in taking their meaning, we develop our experi­ence as readers better than in any other fashion. It is with these words that the major universals which should order our reading can best be held up for less ‘exclusive attention.’ These words, as we all know, vary their sense with their company. Their variations are patterns for all other words which follow the same forms. As these patterns grow in our minds they be­ come operative in thousands of places in connection with thousands of other words and without our ever being aware what unnamed forms have become our guides in interpretation.

I. A. Richards, How to Read a Page

This is not such a bad summary of why I have maintained that artificial intelligence has such a long way to go before it can comprehend and engage in human language. Human language has been constructed in the most ad hoc, holistic way imaginable.

Computers don’t manage so terribly with concrete and technical words, but what will AI do when it can understand those words and yet fall down on Richards’s list? What would language be like without those words?

Is that where human language is going under the influence of computers and AI?

A friend has suggested “Taste,” “Health,” and “Care” as worthy additions/substitutions to the list. I think “Value” and “Real” deserve a place. Do readers have other suggestions?


  1. I would replace “Government” with “Govern” as being more flexible or variable in the terms you and Richards set. Same with “Representative”, which should be replaced with “Represent”. As for AI, it seems likely that our exchanges with AI objects in future will tend to diminish the richness Richards sees, because AI will for all intents and purposes never reach human mental flexibility. It won’t be like talking to a child — as all your posts about your girls show, children’s use of words in many senses expands almost instantly as soon as any meaning is grasped and exfoliates from there, enriching the grownups own sense of meaning. This would be the opposite of the AI interaction: the AI would demand an increasing impoverishment of human expressivity in order to act efficiently.

  2. I was responsible for designing the vocabulary and its use for what remains as the only automatic Basic English simplifying and summarizing online tool: http://www.simplish.org We did mostly follow the grammar ideas such as the use of operators but not fully, so have allowed the use of some nouns as verbs; which strictly was not allowed originally. I identified really three groups of words that had to be included in a reduced-vocabulary representation of English: commonly used words, fundamental concepts such as representative, and auxiliary words such as prepositions. Using only fundamental concepts is not really very useful in itself. We are currently working on a Chinese writing representation of Basic English words, which should be fun because we are trying to order the words according to the logic of Chinese ideograms… We’ll upload it to the “Basic English Books” section in that site as soon as we are done!

  3. Am delighted to find your piece on I.A. Richards. Thank you. Have not seen anything new on him in many years. Your efficient summary is superb. In 1970 I was struggling to make sense of the news. No matter how much I read I could not determine what was true and what wasn’t.
    Varindra Tarzie Vittachi, one of the great journalists and UN officials of our time, told me to pick up “How to Read A Page”, without explanation. I did, not knowing what to expect or why this would help me, but he was a mentor so I just followed his instructions.
    The first day I could not make head or tail of it. I got through about 10 pages and had to stop. My head was packed to the brim with stuff I didn’t understand.
    That night I picked up a newspaper and as I read, I felt a new sense of detachment. Moreover I could tell when a given writer was speaking the truth, whether he knew what he was talking about or not. It was like magic.
    As the days passed, my seeing got better and better. I had a similar experience writing. I was more sure in putting sentences together. I
    I think the reason is that when someone doesn’t use one of the important words properly in a sentence, it reveals a lack of thought or that they indeed don’t really know what they’re talking about. It’s like a boxer’s tell.
    To my mind “How to Read a Page” and basic English should be the basis for English education the world over. Thanks again for your wonderful post.

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