The degrees of 'important'

Posted: Jul 02, 2006 12:01 AM

The Court of Peeves, Crotchets & Irks resumes its summer assizes with a motion from Mrs. Hattie B. Polk of Waynesboro, N.C. She asks the court to settle an argument over "more importantly" and "most importantly."

The court will oblige: These adverbs of degree cannot be made to fall trippingly from the tongue. They smack of unseemly conceit. If degrees of importance must unavoidably be compared, an answer lies in "of greater importance" or "of paramount importance."

On this issue, the court breaks from Professor Bryan Garner, the eminent lexicographer. He comments that criticism of "more importantly" or "most importantly" has dwindled to "something less than muted and obscure." Indeed, "it is easily dismissed as picayune pedantry." To which the court responds, "Bah, humbug!" Garner is a fine fellow, but on this issue his ear is made of tin. Any writer or speaker who falls into pronouncing adverbial judgments of more or less importance risks conviction for pretentious pomposity. Next case!

Clyde Stauffer of Cincinnati asks the court to ban "once" in the sense of "after," and offers in evidence a table of instructions for a computer: "Once the program is loaded ..." In this clearly sequential context, "after" may be better, but the court doubts that "after" would be much of an improvement if one were saying, "Once you've eaten rhubarb, you'll never eat rhubarb again." Indeed, the substitution of "after" would subtly alter the sense of the thing. Motion dismissed.

Martin S. Nowak of Lancaster, N.Y., moves for a ban -- at least in serious writing -- on such abbreviations as "lab," "perk," "math" and "exam." "What is wrong," he asks, "with laboratory, perquisite, mathematics and examination?"

The court is half-minded to deliver its annual lecture on "Writing to Your Readership!" Nothing at all is wrong with these truncations -- in the right medium. If we're writing for publication, we obey the publication's stylebook. If there is no stylebook, we write for our hypothetical readers. We must imagine their levels of taste and education. What is their tolerance for slang? Sometimes a "math exam" will be entirely appropriate. Sometimes it might better be spelled out. We write to be read. And we must ask ourselves every day, read by whom?

Frank Norris of Anchorage, Alaska, moves for an injunction against "You're more than welcome." (He filed his motion two years ago, but there's no statute of limitations in this forum.) He regards "more than welcome" as "an annoying attempt to be overly polite." This may well be so, but the court's writ runs only to offenses against written English, and it doubts that this particular form of politesse often appears in prose. It's a conversational ploy.

Mary Gardner of Oak Harbor, Wash., asks for an order distinguishing "eager" from "anxious." This is one of those lovely areas of usage that careful writers happily explore. In the court's view, "eager" is less whoop-de-do than "avid," but more whoop-de-do than "keen." In the realms of anticipation, it is more than "hopeful" but slightly less than "psyched up." The metaphorical overtones of "eager" are mainly trills and arpeggios in the treble clef.

On the other hand, "anxious" evokes minor chords down there below middle C. To be anxious is to be distressed, disturbed, worried, troubled, uneasy, fretful, restless, nervous, fearful or antsy. We may be eager for the return of a beloved granddaughter who is spending a year abroad, but we are anxious nonetheless. Has the dear girl fallen for a phony French count?

Such are the nuances of English. The court wouldn't have it any other way.