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Importantly

Q From Jerry Miller: I just subscribed and am delighted by the site. The epidemic of importantly, with or without most or more, has bothered me for some time. It has been well over 70 years since I studied grammar here in New York City, so forgive me if I err in terminology. Is importantly a real word; can something be termed as such? It seems that you haven’t used the term since 2007. If so, I am happy for your recovery and, more important, I look forward to your newsletters.

A Thank you. But the cessation of importantly is both temporary and unpremeditated. No doubt I shall use it again sometime soon.

Importantly is a real word all right. It entered the language in the seventeenth century (the first recorded user is our good friend William Shakespeare, in Cymbeline, 1611) and has long since become standard in the meaning “in an important manner”. To take one example out of about a million pretty much at random:

“It certainly does need a chimney,” said John importantly.

Peter Pan, by J M Barrie, 1904.

The big change in the way it's used has been more recent than your studies of grammar. From the 1930s, some adverbs have increasingly been used at or near the start of a sentence to modify the whole of the sentence that follows. These are called sentence adverbs and have been heavily criticised in the past — the case of hopefully is notorious. Importantly appears six times on the World Wide Words site, always as part of a sentence adverb, which is perhaps why you were particularly struck and dismayed by it.

As importantly used in this way became more popular, people came almost exclusively to put more or most in front, which is the way it remains:

More importantly, they require hard currency from customers flowing into their corporate bank accounts.

Daily Telegraph, 15 Dec. 2008.

Objections to sentence adverbs have now largely subsided. In the third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, dated 1996, Robert Burchfield says of more importantly and most importantly that both “must now be considered standard and useful additions to the language”. Even Bryan Garner, usually a conservative in matters of style, says in his Modern American Usage that writers need not fear criticism in employing them and that if any is made, “it’s easily dismissed as picayunish pedantry”, though you shouldn’t take that dollop of clever wordsmithery personally.

However, we remain allowed to wince at examples like this:

More importantly to McBride is this afternoon’s Premiership game at home to Bangor.

Belfast Telegraph, 23 January 2009. Importantly should be important, because the word in that position has to be an adjective, not an adverb.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 14 Mar. 2009

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-imp1.htm
Last modified: 14 March 2009.