36. Wrong Word Use

by H. W. Moss

George W. Bush is by no means a grammarian, but his wife, Laura, was a school teacher and librarian. Even if she could not get him to pronounce “nuclear” properly, she should explain to him that “more importantly” is not proper use of the English language. He said it all the time in speeches. Maybe his writers didn’t know any better and he was just following orders.

There are those who would argue the English language is ever under siege and change is inevitable.

To which I reply, Yes, but.

That phrase and its equally illegitimate sister, “most importantly,” have come into common parlance even though they are almost always bad grammar.

Why, you ask. Several reasons, I reply.

The word “important” is an adjective describing a degree of significance and should be used to modify a noun. When you add “ly” at the end you change it into an adverb. Adverbs modify verbs. The word “more” can be used as an adjective, noun or an adverb but it is not a verb. In “more importantly,” two adverbs are being placed together with no verb to modify and their height was reached without the additional suffix, “ly.”

The word “importantly” may be used alone as an adverb to emphasize a point or a matter. In its adverbial form, “more” means “in addition” and takes the subject under discussion to a greater or higher degree. “Importantly,” as mentioned above, also describes a degree of significance but is at its tallest when standing alone. The correct phrase should simply be “more important” or “most important,” which is to say of the incorrect adverb forms which have “ly” at the end, one is a failed comparative, the other a failed superlative.

A comparative relationship exists when “more” is used as an adjective. “Importantly” is not a comparative; it is, again, an adverb which should be used as a verb modifier that does no comparing. Drop the “ly” and the word becomes a comparative in a hierarchical sense. Things are important, more important or the most important and it just sounds pompous to try and elevate their magnitude by adding the adverbial ending.

Grammatical declension is a form of inflection. We have all been taught the declension or superlative order that goes: good, better, best. Important, more important, most important is the proper superlative flow for the word “important” in a language known to be low in inflection.

The phrases, however, do have defenders. Some feel comfortable with the argument that English is alive and this just goes to show how it is changing and growing. There is some truth to that, but they remain grammatically incorrect anyway.

This is what webster.commnet.edu said: “‘More important’ and ‘more importantly’ are used as full-sentence modifiers, often in the initial position and treated parenthetically (set off with a comma). Either phrase can usually be translated as ‘what is more important.’ . . . ‘more importantly’ was a despised construction during the 1970s and 80s, but that nowadays both phrases seem to be used about equally and with equal acceptability.”

It is my contention that incorrect grammar should never become acceptable even if the English language is alive and well. Further, I rather like the description that a certain type of usage was considered “despised.”

If that’s not enough, George, allow me to offer one more reason why you should not add the despised “ly.” A librarian responded to the question of why “more importantly” is bad grammar with: “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.”

Ok, ok. That explanation was a bit hard for me to follow, too. However, if you object to calling “more importantly” bad grammar, another way to think of it might be to call it, as the librarian did, “a potential objectionable word form use.”

Words have the power, depending on how they are used, to amuse or annoy. Whenever I read the phrase “more importantly” or hear someone such as the president of our country speak it, I cringe. Then I get annoyed and want to email a message to the author. Which is why I wrote this short essay and why you have received it today. You recently used “more importantly” or “most importantly” in a speech, lecture, article or interview and I thought you would be willing to learn why you should never say that again.

Yes, this incorrect usage abounds. The San Francisco Chronicle is a local daily and just as frequently a staff writer makes the “more importantly” error. When I found within their pages a request for “comments on our coverage, standards or accuracy,” I emailed, “You have a perpetually incorrect grammatical structure I would like to discuss.”

Never heard back. Probably should not have made it sound so frequent or flagrant an error.

A Washington State University analysis suggested more importantly is employed by the pompous, “When speakers are trying to impress audiences with their rhetoric.”

There are proper ways to modify a verb and allow comparison. “Smallest,” “best” and “most carefully” are superlative forms of small, good and careful. Equally valid:

more, more, most
bad, worse, worst
little, littler, littlest
white, whiter, whitest
big, bigger, biggest
good, better, best

It is not proper to call such hierarchy a “declension” because these are comparative modifiers as opposed to a verb which “declines” as it is modified for voice, number and gender. These are superlative forms of verb and adverb modifiers which are of, pertaining to or noting higher degrees. Thus, the correct superlative would be “most important” because nothing can be of a higher degree of importance.

There are people who do know better.

You will never find more or most “importantly” in The New Yorker unless it is a direct quote, in which case journalistic integrity is at stake. John Lahr reviewed a theatre production of “Richard III” in that magazine and said, “But, to a man whose deformity could cause him to be easily overlooked, the venom of others is perversely comforting. It insures that he is seen and, more important, remembered.”

R. Douglas Fields wrote in “The Other Half of the Brain” for Scientific American, “We wanted to know if glia (a type of brain cell) could monitor neural activity anywhere as it flowed through axons in neural circuits. . . More important, how exactly would glia be affected by what they heard?”

In an interview for Face the Nation, Edmund Morris, author of “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan,” said, “And he was changed physically and, more important, philosophically . . .”

Unfortunately, there appear to be many more who do not know better.

CBS correspondents Clarissa Ward, Bob Orr, Major Garrett and Jim Axelrod do not know better. Jonathan Karl and Dr. Richard Besser on ABC, Arizona Senator John McCain, SF Chronicle writer Joshua Kosma and Harvey Fierstein on a PBS interview did not know better.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, political analyst Bruce Cain, Oakland attorney John Burris, Senator John Kerry then a presidential candidate and Vera Gibbons contributing editor to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine have all been heard to use the pompously incorrect phrase.

George is out of office. Will subsequent presidents abstain from using the despised construction? Not likely.