Thursday, February 25, 2010

One that Just Won't Die

Grammar myths are notoriously impervious to truth. But one has a staying power that continues to amaze me. It came up again at a talk I gave today at Glendale Community College.

It's the idea that you can't use "more importantly" to start a sentence. The correct form, according to the folks who believe this is, "more important." It's the logic that's so fascinating.

Take the sentence: "More importantly, the mayor voted for the measure." Opponents of this "more importantly" say that this sentence suggests that the mayor's voting was done in an important manner -- that he puffed up his chest as he dropped his ballot in the ballot box, perhaps while wearing spats and a monacle or standing under a banner that says "mission accomplished."

Here's how I tackle this myth. I say, "Ironically, not all adverbs modify actions. Actually, there are things called sentence adverbs that are different from manner adverbs. Unfortunately, they're not as well known. Tragically, I'm not very good at coming up with examples. Happily, the last five sentences prove that adverbs don't have to modify actions."

Now, what's interesting to me is that the folks who oppose "more importantly" already know that "ironically," "actually," "unfortunately," "tragically," and "happily" can all work this way. But they never apply this knowledge to question the idea that "more importantly" can only be a manner adverb and not a sentence adverb.

I guess it's human nature to embrace ammo for playing "gotcha." But it's weird how we (I'm guilty, too) are so reluctant to question it.

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