…life on the synaptic firing range

Location: Los Angeles, United States

Bent but unbroken Southern California native seeks understanding, companionship, and resonance along and off the beaten path. Teresa plays well with others and makes every effort to perform to her potential. Usually. *processed in a facility that processes nuts and nut products

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

grammar for anti-dummies

Once we leave high school, our composition skills are unlikely to see further instruction. Sad, that. Even we English majors seldom see significant improvement in our core knowledge of sentence structure and grammar post–K-12. Sure, we exit college with a wicked ability to talk smack about Joseph Conrad’s use of symbol and TS Eliot’s meter, but the actual verbiage of our essays? Strictly high school.

The miracle of e-mail distanced us further still from our practice of composition in that even as it encourages greater and more frequent communication, it also prompts faster, less structured missives, its deconstruction of language aided and abetted by the shorthand adopted by users of Internet discussion boards and text-messaging.

But just as the Internet taketh away, the Internet giveth back: Enter blogging, the 21st-century savior of written language. If that seems like an overstatement, consider this: Other than a blog entry, what’s the last thing you wrote that qualified as a composition, with a main idea, reasonably formal sentence and paragraph structure, and a general sense of wholeness? Blogging is good for you!

Sure, there are bloggers who post word vomit, but I don’t read their blogs and I suspect that you don’t either. You’re a discerning reader, a well-versed blogger, and a better person for your attention to detail. It’s that attention to detail I hope to engage here.

I thought it might be fun to occasionally write about something other than myself, but I can make just about anything about me, other than subjects I don't know anything about like nuclear physics or golf, and who wants to hear the pontifications of someone who lacks any authority on the subject under discussion—other than Bill O'Reilly's estimated 2.5 million daily viewers?

Hey, I thought, with a snap of my fingers, maybe I should natter on about instances of grammatical misuse that are so prevalent they have very nearly overtaken correct usage, the kinds of mistakes I routinely encounter among not just casual but professional writers.

Presenting the inaugural entry in what I hope will be continuing series, a sort of Grammar for Anti-Dummies. Read forth and be edified, then flaunt your correctitude proudly. And please don’t fret over whether you’ve personally made the kinds of mistakes cited. In the case of today’s subject, misuse is as epidemic as that crystal meth I hear so much about. And even if you have made such a mistake, no one noticed except the odd English teacher or copy editor, and, really, how many of those types regularly read your blog?

Without further ado, I present today’s lesson:

When using the phrase “more important” or “most important” to give weight to an item in a list, reject the common instinct to write “importantly.”

The boring English-teacher reason is that “important” is an adjective and is used to modify nouns, of which your list items are almost certainly composed. “Importantly” is an adverb and is therefore properly used as a modifier of action and circumstance.

Take the following:

The primary tools of my trade are a computer, a red pen, and, most important, a good dictionary.

While “most importantly” might sound correct in this instance, the subtle addition of that “ly” would imply thought or action on the dictionary’s part, and while dictionaries are important (sayeth the copy editor), they cannot think or do anything—though if they could, they would certainly do it in a self-important manner.

Also note that if you reframe the sentence*, it wouldn’t make sense to say, “A good dictionary is most importantly to my trade.”

*This is a handy tool when questioning usage in your own writing (especially when you don’t have an English teacher or grammar handbook nearby): Try reversing noun and verb order in your head to see whether your sentence still makes sense.

In general, an introductory “more” or “most” will call for the adjective “important.”

Reserve the word “importantly” to color a character:

President Bush strides importantly about the room, knowing as he does that Jesus is on his side.

Take out the word “importantly” and the tone of the sentence is ambiguous, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether the author means to characterize Bush as heroic or arrogant. Inserting the word solidifies the tone as dryly sarcastic and disparaging, a tone one should always employ when discussing the current administration. Instances are few in which you might describe a person as acting “importantly” without conveying mockery.

The adverb form can also color the significance of an action or perception:

Sexy CSI Sara Sidle kicked open the door to the crack den and noted, importantly, that the abandoned warehouse smelled uncharacteristically of bleach and cleaning agents.

Sure, Jorja Fox is a total lesbionic babe, but the more important point of the sentence is that her character has perceived something amiss in the crack den (even more amiss than are crack dens’ general wont).

Pretty simple stuff, this “important” vs. “importantly” distinction. If you’ve read this far, I hope it was worth your time, and, more important, I hope you feel like a total grammar stud. Blog fierce!

(OK, that should properly be “Blog fiercely,” but the proper form just doesn’t have the rat-a-tat cadence I want. Secondary lesson of the day: Never let boring old rules get in the way of your self-expression.)


Blogger WenWhit said...

I enjoy the skill with which you incorporate a Bush bash into your education efforts. More important,you are my hero in all things grammatical.

5:04 PM  
Blogger treecup said...

You should be writing books for English comp. No question about it.

5:24 PM  
Blogger weese said...

I am important.
But that aside.... brilliant post.

I do so hope that you make this a continuing series.

10:30 AM  
Blogger sporksforall said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:25 PM  
Blogger sporksforall said...

I agree that it should be an ongoing series.

Perhaps a treatise on the wrongness of the split infinitive? Star Trek people should just be mortified over that "to boldly go" business. To go boldy, or not go at all.

12:30 PM  
Blogger WordsRock said...


Here's another vote for the continuing series.

5:39 PM  
Blogger Slangred said...

Count me in for an ongoing series. I need your grammar lessons. And the laughs.

10:35 AM  
Blogger the only daughter said...

Marvelously entertaining and informative.

1:39 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Eww, people do make that mistake all the time. Never me, though, nope, never.

The concensus is that this post was entertaining, and, most important, informative.

Right? If that's right it just sounds weird.

As for the Star Trek thing, couldn't that be an example of not letting the rules get in the way of self expression?

4:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bless you for your efforts in explaining "importantly." I would love to be able to forward it to the PR person for the president of my company, who thinks the word is like salt that should be sprinkled liberally throughout press releases.

6:01 PM  
Anonymous g_lou said...

I loved this post! Still not sure I will use importantly correctly, but, more important, I will try.

2:46 PM  
Blogger bryduck said...

In re: Star Trek. As an avid reader of June Casagrande's column that is published locally in the Glendale News-Press, I learned recently that splitting infinitives is not all that condemned any longer. Her column "To Boldly Blow", (unavailable online) specifically mentions the Star Trek prologue, as would be expected by her title . . .
I look intensely forward to future columns by scout--more knowledge is better!

10:38 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home