A brush too many with 'more importantly'

A writer's tic leads the Monitor's language columnist to a little research on 'sentence adverbs.'

"You don't want to be a find-and-replace editor."

That advice from a colleague has come back to me in recent weeks as I've labored on a particular editing project.

What my colleague meant was that someone who works with other people's prose doesn't want to fall into the habit of making changes automatically. Not every change an editor habitually calls for involves a rule. Sometimes it's just a personal preference that is at issue.

This same colleague has also pointedly remarked that a lot of editors she knows seem to maintain quite a mena­gerie of pet peeves. Ouch!

I remembered all this when I noticed that the phrase "more importantly" kept coming up in the aforementioned project. The writer kept building paragraphs on the model of, "A is true. B is also true. More importantly, C is true, too."

The newspaper copy desk orthodoxy that I was trained on holds that "more importantly" stands for "what is more important," and is therefore better shortened simply to "more important." That saves a syllable, for one thing. Newspaper people are always looking to save a syllable.

But Wendalyn Nichols, editor of Copyediting newsletter, held forth recently on this topic in one of her "Tip of the Week" columns. She argued that there is no reason to avoid "more importantly" – it fits into a pattern of other acceptable usages, she maintained.

She noted that those who avoid "more importantly" tend to fall into two camps: natives of newspaperland and those who follow Strunk & White's unelaborated advice: "Avoid by rephrasing."

"More importantly" is an acceptable sentence adverb, in other words. We use sentence adverbs all the time. For instance, "Ideally, we would be able to find a flight that would get us home on Sunday night." The introductory adverb refers to the whole idea, in this reasoning. Another example: "Significantly, he didn't call his family when he got into town."

My own quibble with "more importantly" is that I'm not sure "importantly" quite works as an adverb. It makes me think of the "knowing, self-important old gentleman, in a sharp cocked hat," who figures in Washington Irving's story of Rip Van Winkle. It is this man who confronts Rip after his long sleep and challenges him to identify himself as a Democrat or a Federalist – and poor Rip has no idea of the Revolution that unfolded as he was asleep.

I'd never heard the word "self-important" before I heard it when Irving's story was read aloud to me as a child. But I knew what it meant the first time I heard it. And so I prefer "significantly" as a better word choice than "importantly."

Editing can be a very personal business – and not just for writers who fret, "How can that doofus be allowed to mangle my copy?" Editors, too, tend to have specific teachers or copy desk chiefs or sometimes parents who taught them "the rules." I can still remember my 11th-grade English teacher trying to get the point across that "He said such-and-such with irony" is better than "He said such-and-such ironically." I don't remember the reasoning, but I do remember the tone of voice.

In the end, as I dealt with my text, the "ly" went; it became "more important." I don't want to be a "find and replace" editor. But maybe, as a native of newspaperland, I can't resist an opportunity to trim a syllable.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.