The Grammarphobia Blog

Most important … or importantly

Q: It seems to me that a majority of radio and television pundits use “most important” where I would use “most importantly.” Would you please clear up for me which phrase would be correct at the beginning of a sentence or clause.

A: Either “most important” or “most importantly” (as well as “more important” or “more importantly”) can be used to introduce a sentence or a clause.

In cases like this, “important” and “importantly” are interchangeable, and one is no more “correct” than the other.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says, both “important” and “importantly,” when “preceded by an adverb of degree, as more, most, etc.,” can be “used to modify a clause or sentence.”

The OED describes “importantly” here as a “sentence adverb” that’s “used to emphasize a significant point or matter.” And it describes “important” as part of “a supplementive adjective clause used to modify a clause or sentence.”

We discussed this in a post more than 10 years ago, but it never hurts to take a new look at an old topic.

Examples of both usages date from the 19th century. Here’s the OED’s earliest example using “importantly” in this sense:

“She had been brought up partly by religious parents, but more importantly as it affected her ideas and manners, in the house of a very worthy gentlewoman.” (From an Edinburgh periodical, the Scottish Christian Herald, Oct. 2, 1841.)

And here’s the dictionary’s earliest corresponding use of “important”:

“The loss … of efficiency in the transformers, and, even more important, the great cost of that part of the equipment, would both be avoided.” (Popular Science Monthly, September 1894.)

In constructions like these, the adjective “important” can be compared to “significant” or “remarkable” or “surprising.” And the adverb “importantly” can be compared to “significantly” or “remarkably” or “surprisingly.” All are used with “more” and “most” to modify entire sentences or clauses.

We’ve written before about sentence adverbs, but we haven’t discussed what might be called sentence adjectives.

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985), by Randolph Quirk et al., uses these examples in discussing adjectives that can modify an entire sentence: “Most important, his report offered prospects of a great profit” and “More remarkable still, he is in charge of the project.”

These adjective constructions, according to Quirk, behave “like comment clauses introduced by what.” (That is, they can be regarded as elliptical for “What is most important” and “What is more remarkable still.”)

Furthermore, the book says, with a few such adjectives, the “corresponding adverb can be substituted for the adjective with little or no difference in meaning.”

Nevertheless, Quirk adds, “Objections have been voiced against both most important … and most importantly. Some usage books recommend the one construction, some the other.”

Today that’s no longer the case. While many English speakers may be divided on their preferences, writers of usage guides now accept both.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed., edited by Jeremy Butterfield) has this to say about “important” and “importantly”:

“Preceded by more or most, both words comment on the sentence or clause containing them.” Both, Butterfield notes, “work perfectly well” and are standard. “Choose whichever you prefer, and whichever reads better in your specific context.”

Another guide, Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), notes that “more important as a sentence-starter has historically been considered an elliptical form of ‘What is more important …’ and hence the -ly form is sometimes thought to be less desirable.”

However, Garner’s says, “criticism of more importantly and most importantly” has dwindled and can now be “easily dismissed as picayunish pedantry.”

A final note about terminology.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, would categorize each version, “more important” or “more importantly,” as an “evaluative adjunct,” an element that precedes a statement and “expresses the speaker’s evaluation of it.” The first version would be an “evaluative adjective,” the second an “evaluative adverb.”

The authors themselves use both “more important” and “more importantly,” in case you have any lingering doubts.

In a section about punctuation, Huddleston and Pullum write, “More important, there is some significant regional variation, most notably with respect to the interaction between quotation marks and other punctuation marks.”

And in a discussion of “many,” “few,” “much,” and “little,” they write: “More importantly, all four are gradable, and have inflectional comparative and superlative forms.”

When linguistic superstars use both versions, so can you.

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