March 14, 2007

More important, think different

Recent email from a reader brought to mind Ginsberg's Theorem (the generalized three laws of thermodynamics):

1. You can't win.
2. You can't break even.
3. You can't even get out of the game.

The reader's email quoted a sentence from my post "Reading corruption?" (3/9/2007):

"More important, I couldn't tell whether the broader implications of Grunwald's article were the result of valid whistle-blowing, or just intellectual politics presented as anti-corruption activism."

and commented on the first two words:

That threw me for a loop, and I landed back around Apple's "Think different" ad controversy. While I never took the "different" as an adverb (it's a noun, just like the Pink Panther's "Think pink"), yours is inescapably an adverb. Now I'm being sucked into CGEL and LGSWE looking for mentions of usages like this, but haven't found anything so far.

Can you really do that? Or did you run your post through the Ly Detector first? : )

The reader is alluding to Geoff Pullum's post "Automated adverb hunting and why you don't need it" (3/5/2007), and suggesting -- tongue in cheek -- that I might have removed the -ly from "more importantly" in order to lower my adverb count, thereby creating a sentence that seems ungrammatical to him.

This is deliciously ironic.

In fact, I started to write "More importantly", and then decided to change it to "More important" in order to avoid annoying (and thus distracting) those readers who take seriously the prescription of usage mavens like Paul Brians, who advises:

When speakers are trying to impress audiences with their rhetoric, they often seem to feel that the extra syllable in “importantly” lends weight to their remarks: “and more importantly, I have an abiding love for the American people.” However, these pompous speakers are wrong. It is rarely correct to use this form of the phrase because it is seldom adverbial in intention. Say “more important” instead. The same applies to “most importantly”; it should be “most important.”

I recognized at the time that this was a self-incorrection of the first type ("to replace a correct variant that is falsely believed to be incorrect by another, also correct, variant"), but after a few seconds' thought, I decided that it was the right thing to do. I subscribe to the AHD's usage note for important:

Some critics have objected to the use of the phrase more importantly in place of more important when one introduces an assertion, as in More importantly, no one is ready to step into the vacuum left by the retiring senator. But both forms are widely used by reputable writers, and there is no obvious reason for preferring one or the other.

I said to myself: "Both forms are equally good, and 'more importantly' will annoy some readers, so why not choose the other option and avoid unnecessary trouble?" (This was not a purely hypothetical matter, since other readers have taken the time to incorrect me in the past for using more importantly.) I don't always react this way -- sometimes I say to myself "I'm going to write it the way I please, and to hell with the idiots well-meaning but misguided people who think it's wrong". But this time I let the idiots that inner voice of incorrection get to me.

Here as always, of course, no good deed goes unpunished, and my reward in this case was that an innocent, earnest and sensible reader was taken aback by my choice, and went wandering off into the grammar books to try to figure out how important can possibly be used in this context.

According to MWCDEU, no one ever seems to have worried about this question, one way or the other, until 11 July 1968, when Winners & Sinners ("A bulletin of second guessing issued occasionally from the southeast corner of the Times News Room") promulgated this item, attributed to Theodore M. Bernstein:

"More importantly, Shafer will be trying to take the first of the uncommitted power blocs into the Rockefeller camp. . ." (June 13). The adverbial phrase "more importantly" modifies nothing in this sentence. What is wanted in constructions of this kind is "more important," an ellipsis of the phrase "what is more important."

MWCDEU comments that

The subject gained momentum only slowly, reaching its peak in the 1980s. But Bernstein changed his mind in 1977, concluding that neither important nor importantly was wrong. Safire 1984 agreed.

American commentators have tended to object to the adverb and to recommend the adjective. Objections are made primarily on grammatical grounds. Many repeat Bernstein's original statement that more importantly modifies nothing in the sentence. But from the same point of view, neither does more important. [...] The OED Supplement simplifies the grammar by calling more important "a kind of sentence adjective" and more importantly "a kind of sentence adverb." [...]

Proponents of the adjective also assert -- as Newman 1974 does -- that the adjective construction is much older. This assertion cannot be proved with the information now available. The OED Supplement shows more important from 1964 and more importantly from 1938. [...]

I appreciate that dry comment "This assertion cannot be proved with the information now available", a remark that applies to much of Edwin Newman's writings on usage, and might be rendered in more technical philosophical terminology as "This assertion appears to be complete bullshit."

These are the OED citations:

1938 C. WILLIAMS He came down from Heaven ii. 22 The main point is..the first outrage against pietas, and (more importantly) the first imagined proclamation of pietas from the heavens.
1964 N. SPINRAD in D. Knight 100 Yrs. Sci. Fiction (1969) 270 What were these quasi-stellar objects and, perhaps even more important, how were they giving off so much energy?

M-W's own citation slips contain an adverb example from H.L. Mencken in 1919, and an adjective from T.S. Eliot in 1932. Looking the NYT historical archive, I find an example of more importantly from Nov. 17, 1897: "Bishop Doane's Address":

"The outcome of it was, and it was reached not only with the entire approval, but to a great degree upon the suggestion of the present Archbishop, that hereafter instead of the oath of personal obedience, colonial Bishops consecrated by him in England are to make 'a solemn declaration of all due honor and deference to him,' so that the personal obligation is lessened in its force, while at the same time, and far more importantly, the conference suggests what is the real bond of unity among all parts of the communion, not obedience to a single head, but the promise 'to respect and to maintain the spiritual rights and privileges of the Church of England and the churches in communion with her.'"

The prohibition of more importantly is a perfect example of incorrection. It was originally a stylistic whim that struck Theodore Bernstein, one July morning in 1968. There was a lot of craziness around then, and this was his contribution. Through the medium of the Winners & Sinners newsletter, Bernstein's little eruption of grammatical psychedelia percolated out into the maven community, and eventually seeped into my own consciousness, despite my best efforts to avoid exposure to such nonsense.

And now we come full circle: one of our readers ran aground on my more important. Like the third law says, you can't even get out of the game. And just think: if Bernstein's random grammatical neurons had sparked in 1968 the way my correspondent's did in 2007, the prescriptive recipe on this question might have gone entirely the other way.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 14, 2007 06:08 AM