Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Earnestness of being Important

Twice in the current month a poster at UT has criticized Glenn's use of sentence initial "most importantly", insisting, rather pedantically, that the "correct" form is "most important":

"Importantly" means "in an important manner." Thus, the phrase "most important" should replace your frequent "most importantly."
Monday, March 9, 2009 11:00 AM


Glenn writes:

UPDATE II: Rather oddly, the NYT article I quoted above, by David Herzsenhorn, has been moved on the NYT site and is now at this link (see here). Most importantly, it has been re-written to reflect that fact that it was not Dodd who inserted the exception for past contracts:

"Importantly" means "in an important manner." The correct form is: "Most important, it has been rewritten..."
Wednesday, March 18, 2009 02:38 AM

However, despite the poster's certainty about the "correct" usage, the issue is not so clear-cut:
Usage note:
Both more important and more importantly occur at the beginning of a sentence in all varieties of standard English: More important (or More importantly), her record as an administrator is unmatched. Today, more importantly is the more common, even though some object to its use on the grounds that more important is an elliptical form of “What is more important” and that the adverb importantly could not occur in such a construction. More importantly probably developed by analogy with other sentence-modifying adverbs, as curiously, fortunately, and regrettably.
Based on the Random House Dictionary

Usage Note: Some critics have objected to the use of the phrase more importantly in place of more important when one introduces an assertion, as in More importantly, no one is ready to step into the vacuum left by the retiring senator. But both forms are widely used by reputable writers, and there is no obvious reason for preferring one or the other.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language

importantly, adv.
1. In an important manner or degree; weightily, momentously.
Now esp. common as a kind of sentence adverb preceded by more or most; in some contexts it is interchangeable with important and so has the function of a quasi-adj. Cf. IMPORTANT a. 4.

Oxford English Dictionary (subscription required)

important, a.
4. Preceded by more or most: used as a kind of sentence adjective. Cf. IMPORTANTLY adv. 1.
This construction is discussed in R. Quirk et al. Gram. Contemp. Eng. (1972) §5.26 (p. 255).

Oxford English Dictionary (subscription required)

Either the adjectival more/most important or the adverbial more/most importantly may serve as a sentence adverb; both are Standard in this use: More [Most] important [importantly], we now have the right answer.

A nice analysis of the usage was written by Evan Jenkins for the Language Corner blog of the Columbia Journalism Review, which is worth quoting extensively here:
Important ? Well, Interesting

By Evan Jenkins

Steve Parrott, associate director (later director) for university relations at the University of Iowa, e-mailed to ask, “Please consider a few words on ‘more important / more importantly.’ ”

Okay. Mr. Parrott had in mind sentences or clauses that begin with one of those phrases, like “Most importantly, the charges are tied directly to the original topic Mr. Starr was supposed to investigate.”

The short answer is that either form of the word is acceptable. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994) has a lengthy and interesting (really) discussion of the longstanding argument (really) over important vs. importantly, with many citations, and concludes that “both are defensible grammatically and both are in respectable use.”

The tilt here, though, is toward “importantly.” The adverb can stand alone at the start of a sentence or clause — without “more” or “most” or any other modifier — and the adjective can’t.

Try it. Drop the “most” from the example quoted above; the sentence still works. Then, with “most” gone, drop the “ly” from “importantly”; the sentence no longer works.

(Some mindless aversion to “ly” adverbs at the start of a sentence — an extension of misguided rigidity about “importantly”? — must have been at work in the following sentence, since no human being ever spoke this way: “Not surprising, a variety of polls indicate...”)

The arguments for “most important” are strained, as an e-mail discussion with the freelance copy editor Christy Goldfinch of Fort Worth made clear.

“Important” commonly fails to modify any specific part of its sentence, so the adjective advocates contend that it can be understood to modify the whole thing — a “sentence adjective.” Well, “importantly” can certainly be called a “sentence adverb.”

But with “importantly” there’s no need for that dance. The adverb has an element to grab hold of within its sentence, the verb or the overall predicate. (And that, quite apart from any “sentence adverb” justification, makes the literalists’ objection to “hopefully” at the start of a sentence fallacious, as well as outmoded.)

Another argument for “most important” is that the phrase “What is” is understood to precede it. If that were a natural supposition, all sorts of adjectives (with modifiers) could start sentences. But “Most happy, the storm ended,” just doesn’t make it.

The “most” approach is acceptable (not preferable) with the one adjective “important” not on logical grounds but because it is widely used and well established. And in passages that start with modifiers ending in “ly” — “equally” comes to mind — using “important” is handy.

So the consensus is clear. Either more/most importantly or more/most important is acceptable, but it is fairly clear that more/most important is the interloper here. Sentence initials are frequently used as absolutes (i.e., they modify the entire sentence rather than any particular part of the sentence). Generally speaking, such absolutes are usually adverbial (in what manner, by what means). To use more/most important as a sentence initial it must be considered elliptical for (What is) more/most important (is the fact that) ....

Furthermore, 'importantly' is a synonym of 'significantly'. It is quite natural to say "More significantly, there is no other choice available" — considerably more natural than saying "More significant, there is no other choice available." Initial adverbials used as absolutes are quite common (e.g., "regrettably, curiously, surprisingly). One would never think of replacing them with an adjective:

Regrettably, his attempt failed.
*Regrettable, his attempt failed.
Curiously, no one was bothered by this.
*Curious, no one was bothered by this.
Surprisingly, the meeting was well attended.
*Surprising, the meeting was well attended.

even though doing so could be considered elliptical for (What is) regrettable/curious/surprising (is the fact that) ....

Extending this to more/most expressions completes the analogy:

Regrettably, his attempt failed. More regrettably, he died in the attempt.
*Regrettable, his attempt failed. *More regrettable, he died in the attempt.
Curiously, no one was bothered by this. More curiously, some were even pleased by it.
*Curious, no one was bothered by this. *More curious, some were even pleased by it.
Surprisingly, the meeting was well attended. More surprisingly, no one left before the end.
*Surprising, the meeting was well attended. *More surprising, no one left before the end.

Thus the elliptical "(What is) {adjective} (is the fact that)..." model is unnatural and there is no doubt that more/most importantly is the original usage and that more/most important is no more than an accepted interloper.