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

November 12, 2011|By June Casagrande

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.’”

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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.”

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