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More Important(ly)

important_pictureAn author publishes a book containing a sentence beginning with “Even more strikingly, …” His mother points this out to him as “a glaring error,” feeling strongly that the sentence’s main clause should not be introduced with the adverb strikingly but rather with the adjective striking. The son disagrees. The question lands in my e-mail box for arbitration.

The mother is far from alone in her objection, but the objectors’ case is not a strong one.

As I wrote to the mother, it is fine to use either the adverb or the adjective in this sentence: “Even more strikingly, …” or “Even more striking, …” Strikingly functions as a sentence adverb here (modified by even more to make an adverb phrase), expressing the writer’s attitude or stance toward the assertion contained in the main clause. The writer believes that what follows is more striking than what came before. There are lots of accepted sentence adverbs in English, such as frankly and mercifully. In “Even more striking,” striking also expresses the writer’s stance, this time as part of a linking adjective phrase.

Now here’s an odd thing about current English usage, which further weakens objectors’ case against an opening phrase like Even more strikingly: If the introductory striking or strikingly were not modified by even more, I think we would all agree that we need the adverb: Strikingly, … not *Striking, …

The same holds for other sentence adverbs that express stance. We can start a sentence with More importantly, … or More important, …; but if we take away the more because the situation is not comparative, just important, it needs to be Importantly, …

When my first book was being copy-edited, my editor kindly pointed out that I started a whole lot of sentences with “Interestingly, …” The issue wasn’t that I used interestingly rather than interesting, because no one would advocate the latter; rather I was overusing a completely legitimate sentence opener. How often do I really need to point out to my readers that what comes next strikes me as especially interesting? Interestingly as a sentence adverb is most effective when used sparingly—it’s a rhetorical issue, not a grammatical one.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage traces the debate over more important versus more importantly as introductory adjuncts back to 1968, with some commentators condemning the adverb construction and others, including William Safire, judging both adjuncts acceptable. Why did this issue come up in the late 1960s? Because there was a change in progress.

The Google Ngrams chart below, based on a search of the Google Books database from 1800 to 2000, shows introductory “More important” gaining some momentum at the turn of the 20th century, taking off around 1930, and peaking in the early 1970s. The introductory phrase “More importantly” starts to rise in frequency in the 1960s and really takes off in the 1970s; its use continues to climb fairly dramatically through 2000. So the late 1960s would have witnessed early competition between these two alternatives for introductory expressions of a writer’s stance or evaluation of the sentence’s proposition.

Ngrams_moreimportantly

Interestingly (!), as a second Google Ngrams chart (below) shows, the introductory phrases “More strikingly” and “More interestingly” are also on the rise, although much less frequent than “More importantly.” According to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the introductory adjunct “Even more strikingly” is also much less frequent than its adjectival counterpart “Even more striking” in written English (two occurrences versus 12 occurrences).

Ngrams_moreinterestinglystrikingly

To return to the mother’s question, both she and her son are using constructions that pass muster with many if not most language pundits, and both constructions can certainly be used effectively. The author, with his use of “Even more strikingly,” is helping along the rise in popularity of this introductory stance adverbial in written English. But it’s not as popular yet as its analogue with the adjective, so the use of the adverb may strike his mother’s ear (or in this case, her eye) as odd, or “wrong,” and worthy of a linguistic intervention.

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