Q&A: Hats off to these adverbs

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're taking our hats off to these adverbs…

Q: Hi AWC. I was reading something today that introduced a sentence with “most importantly” Shouldn’t it just be “most important”?
A: Depends on the exact context, but we’d probably say no. Others may disagree.
Q: How very unhelpful.
A: Allow us to explain. The whole “important” vs “importantly” feud goes back quite some time. It seemed to reach fever pitch in the 1960s and 1970s – so if you were taught back then, you may tend to flinch when you see it. The leading style guide of the day, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, declared war on “more/most importantly” – suggesting that “more/most important” could do the job just as well. As they stated, “Do not dress words up by adding ly to them, as though putting a hat on a horse.”
Q: That’s hilarious. So there’s no question that “importantly” is a word?
A: It’s definitely a word. An adverb even. And it has two main jobs. The first is what all adverbs clock in for each morning – describing a verb. So if that horse with the hat looked important as it strutted about the stables, you would say it “strutted importantly”.
Q: Yep, that’s Adverbs 101. What is its second main job?
A: It’s to elevate a point above the others. So for example, this would apply if “the horse is from South Australia and has a white patch on its nose but, most importantly, it wears that hat like a boss”. We are asserting that this final piece of information is the one of most value.
Q: It’s certainly the most sartorial. So what you’re saying is that if I want to, I could still say “most important”, right?
A: Well of course – and grammar purists will probably put you on their Christmas card lists.
Q: Don’t be daft. No one sends cards anymore. It’s all those emails with your faces superimposed on dancing elves.
A: We’re getting off topic. The main point is that over recent decades, the language has continued to evolve. In fact, the word “importantly” was hardly used prior to around 1950, whereas now it’s very common and in this context, more widely accepted.
Q: Adverb pride!
A: These “sentential adverbs” (which add emphasis to the whole sentence, not just a single word) are pretty cool. “Importantly” is part of the family, along with others like “in fact”, “of course”, “naturally”, “remarkably” or “definitely”. Naturally, you wouldn’t tend to use them in formal writing. In fact, that last sentence was also an example. (Remarkably, so was that one – and this one.)
Q: I see what you did there.
A: So it’s fine to use whichever version of “most important” or “most importantly” you feel more comfortable with. Most importantly, be consistent!
Q: Nice. But can we quickly talk about “first” and “firstly”?
A: This is where we switch sides and suggest that we prefer beginning a sentence with “first” rather than “firstly”. Our reasons? First, it’s less clumsy when your numbers go higher (“Ninth” vs “Ninthly”). And second, because it just feels right.
Q: Just don’t mix and match within the same set?
A: Exactly. You shouldn’t begin with “first” and then make your next point with “secondly” etc.
Q: Thanks for that. Today I have learnt new things, clarified other things, and most importantly, had fun.
A: Has anyone seen the horse? That hat was a rental.


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