A Word, Please:

Surely, some of you saw my recent column in which I said that it's fine to use “more importantly” at the beginning of a sentence. Clearly, it was the best I could do to explain the concept of sentence adverbs.

Unfortunately, two readers wrote to tell me that, despite my explanation, they still disagreed. Tragically, it's now clear that the best I could do wasn't good enough. Consequently, I can't resist trying just one more time.

In that first column on “more importantly,” I explained that not all adverbs describe actions. Some cast commentary on whole sentences. I used the example, “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a darn.” Turns out that wasn't the best choice. As a reader named Henry pointed out, “frankly” could be seen as modifying an implied verb. “I speak frankly when I say that, my dear, I don't give a darn.”

Therefore, he said, this common use of “frankly” doesn't justify starting a sentence with “more importantly” because in a sentence like “More importantly, the mayor voted yes,” the “more importantly” doesn't describe an action.

Unlike the “frankly” sentence, in which you could imagine a person speaking in a frank manner, no action in the “more importantly” sentence is being done in a more important manner. The mayor isn't puffing out his chest and strutting around as he votes yes. That's why, Henry said, you should use “more important” and not the adverb form “more importantly” in these cases.

It's an insightful analysis that would have won the argument for Henry were it not for the pesky problem posed by every sentence in the first paragraph of this column. “Surely,” “clearly,” “unfortunately,” “tragically” and “consequently” are all used correctly in that paragraph. Yet none is describing an action. Instead, each is casting a thought over a whole sentence. They're called sentence adverbs, and they prove that adverbs don't always describe actions.

That's why it's just as valid to say to use “more importantly” at the head of a sentence as it is to use “more important.” It's also why, contrary to popular belief, “Hopefully, I'll see you tomorrow” is as grammatical and logical as “I hope I'll see you tomorrow.”

And, yes, even “firstly,” “secondly” and “thirdly” are grammatical ways to start a sentence — every bit as valid as “first,” “second” and “third.” (Though if the -ly forms seem ugly to you — well, that's valid, too. Grammar is one thing, aesthetics are another.)

Of course, just because an adverb comes at the head of a sentence doesn't mean it's a sentence adverb. “Quickly, John ran out the door” uses “quickly” to describe an action. It's just another way of structuring the sentence: “John ran quickly out the door.” Sometimes it's unclear whether the writer intended to use a manner adverb as a sentence adverb: “Happily, she accepted the job.” Does that mean she accepted it happily or it's a happy thing that she accepted it? We can't be sure which the writer intended. But this rarely causes problems because, clearly, the happiness could pervade every aspect of this sentence.

Additionally, I know that these concepts can be a little difficult. Luckily, you don't need to worry about them too much. Certainly, sentence adverbs come naturally. Consequently, if it's an -ly word that people often use at the beginnings of a sentences, it's probably fine.


Get in touch JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs -- Even If You're Right.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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