A Word, Please: It¿s all 'picayunish pedantry¿

A reader named Jayne wrote to me recently to ask why “more importantly” is used so often in place of “more important.”

“Please comment on the use (over use) of ‘more importantly,’” she wrote. “‘Importantly’ is the adverb of ‘important.’ It seems to be used inappropriately and too frequently.”

Jayne’s complaint is a common one with a long history.

In 1968, “Winners and Sinners,” a periodic bulletin published by the New York Times, noted that, at the head of a sentence, “the adverbial phrase ‘more importantly’ modifies nothing in the sentence. What is wanted in constructions of this kind is ‘more important,’ an ellipsis of the phrase ‘what is more important.’”

Other authorities felt the same way, including Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style,” which categorized the sentence-modifying “more importantly” as a misuse and told writers to avoid it by replacing it with “more important” or some other term.

Strangely, this flurry of opposition to “more importantly” was concentrated mainly in the 1960s and ‘70s as people got to thinking about the term and decided that it didn’t make sense. Adverbs modify verbs, so people figured that to say, “More importantly, I passed the test” must mean that I passed the test in a more important manner.

Unfortunately, this boils down to some widespread misinformation about adverbs. Actually, as demonstrated in this sentence and the last, adverbs can modify whole sentences. And “more importantly” is just as grammatical and logical as “more important” as a sentence-modifying element.

“H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage” calls “more importantly” standard and useful. “Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage” agrees that “more importantly” is grammatical.

And “Garner’s Modern American Usage” has some straight talk for anyone who disagrees: “The criticism of ‘more importantly’ and ‘most importantly’ has always been rather muted and obscure, and today it has dwindled to something less than muted and obscure. So writers needn’t fear any criticism for using the -ly forms; if they encounter any, it’s easily dismissed as picayunish pedantry.”

Of course, fans of the venerable “The Elements of Style” may discount the commentators who support “more importantly.” After all, where do any of these schmoes get the nerve to defy the great William Strunk Jr.?

Those Strunk fans should take note of two points.

First: “The Elements of Style” wasn’t written for you and me. It was never intended as a universal style or usage guide to apply to the general masses. It was written as a classroom guide to tell Strunk’s English students over a century ago how to format their class assignments. The only reason it ever ended up in the general readership is that some clever publisher saw the book’s on-campus popularity as a bigger profit opportunity.

Second: It’s true that if you open Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” you’ll see admonitions against “more importantly.” But if you open up Strunk’s original “The Elements of Style,” you’ll see nothing on the subject whatsoever.

Strunk’s original guide, first published in 1918, contained no mention of the supposed error. Only when E.B. White and some editors put their spin on Strunk’s guide did the anti-”more importantly” message appear. It makes you wonder whether White and company were just tossing in rules they believed to be true in order to build up the page count.

Either way, you can use “more importantly” any time it seems best to you, just as you can use “more important” if you prefer it.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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