Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Playing grammar referee

As an editor, you break up your fair share of grammar skirmishes and pray no one gets hurt. Yesterday afternoon, one of my creative partners asked me whether "important" or "importantly" was the correct word in this sentence:
More important(ly), can you help us find XXXXX?
I'd long ago been taught that's a ly-free zone, with "importantly" being reserved as an adverb to describe to describe an action; for example, "The judge strode importantly to the bench." With a bit of nagging doubt in my head, I did a bit of research to ensure I wasn't wrong.

As it turns out, it's a bit of a sister-kiss: Either one is acceptable usage according to Merriam-Webster's and other authorities, though my web search indicated a slight lean toward "more important." The reasoning is that it's not modifying a verb, it's modifying the entire phrase that follows it--you could think of it as "[What is] more important, can you help us..."

Alas, as with all grammar minutia, whichever way you write it, a stickler on the other side will read it and think "AHA! You big dummy!"...forgetting that it doesn't mean a darn thing in the ability to convey or understand the message. I am reminded of the big-endian vs. small-endian argument among the Lilliputians in Gulliver's Travels. Eat your softboiled egg any way you please.

UPDATED: While we're on the subject, Yolander Prinzel of Freelance Writerville alerted me to "Error Proof: How to defend yourself from grammar pedants" from the October 4, 2009, New York Times Magazine. Clever stuff.


  1. NYT just did a big article about this in their Sunday mag. Even Shakespeare and Chaucer had some questionable grammatical choices.

    I'm a grammar and spelling cowboy. I'm like all those medical dramas currently on television--I take grammar and spelling into my own hands. I don't play by the rules. I do things my way.

  2. Thanks for this, but can you please educate me whether or not I should be angered by the word preventive as opposed to preventative.

  3. Cowboy Yo, I hunted that article down--it's a winner. I'm appending a link to the post. Thanks!

    Anon, "preventive" is widely preferred, though there are some who defend the extra "at" if you're using it as a noun. I even came across a person who takes issue with "preventative" because it messes up online searches in medical journals. So, there's that.

    However, it's certainly nothing to be angered about. Getting angry and/or violent should be reserved for people who insist on using "proactive" or "irregardless."

  4. Duly noted, thanks. I must be one of those medical exceptions. Anger might be a tad strong but it does displease me. There is, however, no excuse for irregardless.

  5. Okay, I am going to jump on the irregardless bandwagon. I hate that almost as much as people who pronounce "height" as though it has a 'TH' at the end. But I still don't judge any of them...I just secretly cringe.

  6. Whath wrong with thath?

    Please, judge away. In fact, you're welcome to openly scoff at, scorn and/or ostracize such folks.