The Grammarphobia Blog

The importance of being open

Q: When editing other people’s writing, I often encounter a sentence like this: “Most important, we should consider these issues at our meeting.” I prefer “importantly,” but many erudite writers believe otherwise. Any comments?

A: A while back, the New Yorker published an article with a sentence beginning, “And, most important, in 1969 it hired as its managing director….” Some daily newspapers (I won’t say which ones) might have begun it this way: “And, most importantly, in 1969….”

Purists (and there are none so pure as the editors of the New Yorker) prefer the adjective “important” to the adverb “importantly” here, since “importantly” could conceivably be interpreted as modifying the verb “hired.”

In other words, somebody (I can’t imagine who!) might take an “ly” version of that New Yorker clause to mean “it importantly hired,” which makes little sense. The literal meaning is this: “And [what is] most important [is that] in 1969 it hired….”

I once shunned “importantly” myself. But I now believe that it can legitimately be used as a sentence adverb — an adverb that modifies an entire statement rather than a single verb.

Similar sentence adverbs are “fortunately,” “obviously,” “generally,” and even “hopefully,” which I’m sure the New Yorker would avoid at all costs.

Some years ago I changed my position on “hopefully,” and the second edition of my grammar book Woe Is I now endorses its use as a sentence adverb. No one can accuse me of having a closed mind (I hope).

Although I regard “importantly” as a legitimate sentence adverb when used unambiguously, I don’t use it myself. It’s vastly overused, it’s graceless, and it’s clumsy, especially in a sentence where it might have a literal meaning.

Example: “Importantly, she acts the role of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.” How does one interpret “importantly” in that sentence? Is it important that she’s acting the role or is she acting like her self-important character?

This is all a very windy way of saying the usage in the New Yorker is correct, but these days so is “importantly.”

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