Singling out important things

The Monitor's language columnist takes a closer look at a superlative turn of phrase that keeps popping up in Washington.

"Purity of heart," the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, "is to will one thing."

Only one? In today's multitasking world, that sounds like a pretty tall order. I don't mean to get all heavy-theological on you, but I'm trying to think what to make of a phrase I keep hearing of late: "the single most important thing."

One of my e-mail correspondents mentioned it a few weeks ago, and now I'm hearing it everywhere. Should it not be, "the most important single thing"? he asked. His idea was that "thing" is a thing, naturally enough, and "single" modifies it, and "most important" is the superlative modifying the whole phrase. There is by definition one "most important" thing; that's why we call it superlative. Tom is good, Dick is better, and Harry is the best.

All of this makes perfectly good sense. But I suspect that's not how people who start with "single" think about what they're saying. My theory is that their sense of "most important" is that it refers to a whole class of top priorities. The "single most important thing" is the most important one of the most important many, in other words. Single is an intensifier in this sense.

My correspondent was referring to a February comment by Peter Orszag, White House budget chief, in a press briefing on the US federal budget. And since then he has been consistent. A few weeks later, as a guest at a Monitor luncheon for reporters, he said, "The single most important thing we can do to put the nation on a sounder long-term fiscal footing is to reduce the rate of growth of healthcare costs. Period."

And three days later, he wrote in the White House blog, "The single most important thing we can do to put this nation back on a sustainable long-term fiscal course is to slow the growth rate of health care costs."

Other "single most important things" (hereinafter SMITs): Dan Lowengard, superintendent of schools in Syracuse, N.Y., calls early childhood education "the single most important thing we can do as a country and as a community."

A commentary in The Bowdoin Orient ("The Nation's Oldest Continuously Published College Weekly") hails the Obama administration's new initiatives to work with Mexico to end the drug war: "Following through on these promises could be the single most important thing this administration does in protecting our borders."

In Toronto, the Ontario Ministry of Finance calls its comprehensive tax reform, meant to make the province stronger and more competitive, "[T]he single most important thing we can do to create jobs and position our economy for future growth."

Single, as a verb, can mean to separate out or to target. It's a hunting and herding usage going back to the 16th century, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Identifiers of SMITs may be said to be good targeters. Good hunters avoid scattering their fire. One thing at a time.

On the other hand, as President Obama says, we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. The United States is involved in two wars; it faces an unprecedented crisis of the financial system and, in the "real economy," a serious recession. And then, to give Mr. Orszag his due, there's the healthcare crisis, and, oh yes, the challenge of climate change.

Maybe, though, the capacity to single out one SMIT at a time from a group of "most important" things, all clamoring for attention, is the need of our times: the single most important thing.

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