Grammar Lesson of the Day: Importantly

Grammar Lesson of the Day: Importantly


Adverbs are funny critters. They can modify verbs; they get their name from that habit. They can modify adjectives. They can modify adverbs. They can even stand in for a whole idea, as if they were one-word clauses. Here are a few examples:


Mr. Jones was confident of his reelection. Fortunately, he was wrong.
The rain came down in sheets for ten hours straight. Thankfully, the wind was calm, and that limited the damage.
Luckily, we got out of the mountains before the snowstorm.


In each case, the adverb contracts a clause into a single word:


Mr. Jones was confident of his reelection. It is fortunate for the country that he was wrong.


The rain came down in sheets for ten hours straight. We may be thankful that the wind was calm, and that limited the damage.


We were lucky. We got out of the mountains before the snowstorm.


There aren’t too many of these. One that people use all the time, one that doesn’t really make much sense, is more importantly. The phrase we really want is more important, short for what is more important, with the following sentence in apposition with the pronoun what. More important, since the word importantly doesn’t appear anywhere else, why use it in this lone phrase? Most important of all, the great English stylists don’t use it.


How did more importantly sneak its way into the lingo? By analogy, that’s how. The force of analogy reduces to a quickly perceived order what speakers of a language feel is disordered or over-elaborate. It’s something like a slow glacier, scraping away the tops of mountains and dumping silt in the valleys, so that you end up with the Canadian Shield, flat and flinty, or the Great Plains, rich with loam and silt. Analogy is always at work in languages; even before the monks wrote down the first of our surviving Anglo Saxon sentences, analogy had reduced the inflections on plural verbs for all three persons to -on (-en), had flattened out the dual form to one or two pronouns (wit = we two; git = ye two), and was slowly transferring “strong” verbs to the “weak” category. That is, plenty of verbs that used to change their vowels in the past tense slid on over to the more ordinary -ed past tense, by analogy with most other verbs, including every newly coined verb. This process continues: strived is striving against strove, and the more ordinary weak leaped, leaned, learned, and dreamed are crowding out the less ordinary weak leapt, leant, learnt, and dreamt.


But just as glaciers will also heap up mounds of rocks where the land used to be flat, and gouge out gorges and valleys, so analogy sometimes works to increase regularity in one way by increasing irregularity in another. So we had the old strong verbs grow, grew, grown; fly, flew, flown; know, knew, known. Those are common verbs, and the force of that participle rhyming with own proved too strong for many a weakling verb to resist. That is why, long after the time of Old English, we ended up with show, showed, shown; mow, mowed, mown; sow, sowed, sown; and none of those past participles are original. They should simply be showed, mowed, sowed (cf. German geschaut, gemaeht, gesaet). It’s the same thing with dive, dove, dived: that dove dived in there by analogy with drive, drove, driven; and the once far more common shrive, shrove, shriven, back when people went to be shriven; but now that we’re all sinless and splendid, we don’t need to worry about that anymore. Yet throve is expiring before our ears; thrived is buying up the farm. Thus does the whirligig of time bring in its revenges!

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