Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Tilting Ly-Ward

I've long been skeptical of the conventional wisdom on more important vs. more importantly, but until recently I've been applying it. The New York Times stylebook, for instance, puts it this way:
important(ly). Avoid this construction: He is tall. More importantly, he is young. Make it more important. The phrase includes an implied what is (What is more important, he is young). Thus important is an adjective modifying what.
As with the hopefully mess, parallel examples tend to back up the more common usage. Nobody (that I know of) insists on changing "Interestingly . . ." and "Significantly . . .," but do these usages not work the same way? Come to think of it, what about "Importantly . . ." without the more?

All that (well, maybe not the last part) was quietly simmering on a back burner for me when Wendalyn Nichols, editor of the Copy Editor newsletter, told me some months ago that she had given up on enforcing "More important . . .," and I finally turned up the heat on that kettle when I saw an interesting Mark Liberman soliloquy on the matter on the Language Log site.

Liberman points to Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage. The Merriam-Webster book isn't always a useful guide for setting style, as it (like some Language Log entries) is so anti-prescriptivist that "apologist" might be a better description, but there's some nice research there, and it traces the "More important . . ." prescription to a 1968 Theodore Bernstein entry in his Winners & Sinners newsletter for the New York Times staff. Merriam-Webster says Bernstein changed his mind in 1977 and declared both options valid.

Why, then, does the Times stylebook still come down on the anti-ly side? Well, for the same reason that I'm about to come down on the other side: because it's in the business of setting style. If I get frustrated at seeing Rumanian or axe in Washington Post copy, it's not because the spellings are out-and-out wrong; it's because the spellings are not Washington Post style. Few would disagree that it would be distracting for readers to see "an axe-wielding Rumanian" on A17 and "an ax-wielding Romanian" on A18, and so it makes sense to standardize such things.

On the other hand, I'm with the write-and-let-write folks at Language Log when I get questions like "Is it 'a top lawyer at the firm,' 'a top lawyer with the firm' or 'a top lawyer for the firm'?" (Answer: See your primary-care physician about a refill of that chill-pill prescription.) I suppose it's debatable whether the presence of "More important . . ." side by side with "More importantly . . ." is more like an axe-wielding Rumanian or a top lawyer for the firm (when does a consistency become foolish?), but I think it's a good idea to make a -ly decision and stick with it.

As I point out in an uncharacteristically wimpy taking-no-sides passage in "The Elephants of Style," Bryan Garner has an interesting entry on more important(ly) in Garner's Modern American Usage. He starts out with an assertion that Liberman and Merriam-Webster might have a problem with ("As an introductory clause, more important has historically been considered an elliptical form of "What is more important . . ."), but he goes on to bring up the "Importantly . . ." issue, the parallel-example issue (he cites "notably" and "interestingly"), and the fact that the omission of -ly just doesn't work anywhere but at the start of a sentence. He concludes:
The criticism of more importantly and most importantly has always been rather muted and obscure, and today it has dwindled to something less than muted and obscure. So writers needn't fear any criticism for using the -ly forms; if they encounter any, it's easily dismissed as picayunish pedantry.
I agree. Sorry it took me so long.


DV said...

No need to apologize Bill. More important(ly), you've now set a strong stand on the issue!

Doug Fisher said...

Bravo. Just as I don't teach "over" or "host" or "premiere" and am about to swear off the AP's guidance on "another" because it is so widely ignored, this is another that about a year ago I just dropped, except for requiring consistency. I spend a lot of time trying to explain to those who complain that "grammar" is going to hell that what they are putting under that rubric is not grammar at all, but very fluid usage. Sometimes, you would think I said something about their mother.