Several problematic syntactical issues have come up recently where I work, and after discussing some of them with my colleagues, I thought it would be fun to let you in on our research and conclusions. These issues come up frequently in my work as a book editor and in my play as an avid reader.
My new pet peeve is the use of a question mark at the end of a sentence that includes the word perhaps or maybe. A fancy way to say this is “using perhaps and maybe interrogatively.” Here are two examples:
- “Perhaps you’d like a cookie before your steak?”
- “Maybe she really does have malaria?”
This gaffe (sorry, but I feel strongly about it) has become a lot more prevalent in the past few years. Generally, you won’t see it in well-written books or articles, but you will come across it a lot in semi-professional work and on blog posts.
And I find myself using it, too, as it works its way insidiously into our lexicon.
Maybe there’s a reason for this?
The only benefit of the doubt I can think of for writers who use perhaps and maybe in an interrogative sentence is perhaps the author is reviving Upspeak? Like, “You know, I went to the Mall today?” or “I have so much algebra homework?”
Upspeak aside, I think it’s better to make these sentences declarative:
- “Perhaps you’d like a cookie before your steak.”
- “Maybe she really does have malaria.”
Sometimes, however, you will need a question mark in a sentence that uses “perhaps” or “maybe”:
- “Do you think perhaps it’s premature to eat that cookie before the steak?”
- “Could I maybe call her up and ask if she has malaria?”
The problem with these sentences is that perhaps and maybe are completely unnecessary, and bog the reader down with TMW (too many words). They also convey hesitancy, which should never be the goal of the writer unless they are drawing an insecure character.
Bottom line: I suggest you delete both words from these sentences and/or recast them:
- Would you like a cookie before your steak?
- It’s premature to eat a cookie before your steak.
- Do you think she really has malaria?
- Perhaps she has malaria.
But as I have found out from my research, it’s not so clear-cut.
My opinion proves that sometimes diction goes by “it sounds better this way,” because I am in the minority on the “more important(ly)” issue.
Here are the reasons I dislike “more importantly”:
- “Important” is an adjective, which modifies or describes a noun.
- “Importantly” is an adverb, which means it needs to modify a verb.
- “Importantly” means “in an important way”; it does not convey the fact that something is important.
Lessons from the Deena Nataf School of (Comedy) Grammar
Here are some sentences which reflect my bias toward using “more important” instead of “more importantly,” and using “importantly” only when it means “in an important way”:
- “Barbara Tuchman’s books are beautifully written. More important, they convey an excellent history of the time period she’s writing about.”
- “Barbara Tuchman is a serious writer; her history books convey the material more importantly than, say, the Asterix series.”
- “The Statue of Liberty is a famous New York monument. More important, it serves as a symbol of the Land of the Free.”
- “The Statue of Liberty serves more importantly than Sing Sing as a symbol of the Land of the Free.”
The truth is, these are not very good sentences. In fact, I dislike the use of both “more important” and “more importantly.” I believe there are better ways to get your point across.
Check these out:
- “Barbara Tuchman’s books are beautifully written. Moreover, they convey an excellent history of the time period she’s writing about.”
- “Barbara Tuchman is a serious writer; her history books convey the material more professionally than, say, the Asterix series.”
- “The Statue of Liberty is a famous New York monument, but what’s more important is that it serves as a symbol of the Land of the Free.”
- “We think of the Statue of Liberty more than we do Sing Sing as a symbol of the Land of the Free.”
The grammar police have their say
Here is what the grammar pundits say about “more important” vs. “more importantly”:
- “Avoid [importantly] by rephrasing.” The Elements of Style
- “The criticism of more importantly and most importantly has always been rather muted and obscure, and today it has dwindled to something less than muted and obscure. So writers needn’t fear any criticism for using the -ly forms; if they encounter any, it’s easily dismissed as picayunish pedantry.” Garner’s English Usage
- “Some critics have objected to the use of the phrase more importantly in place of more important as a means of introducing an assertion, as in More importantly, there is no party ready to step into the vacuum left by the Communists. But both forms are widely used by reputable writers, and there is no obvious reason for preferring one or the other.” American Heritage Dictionary
A wonderful exception
I just read the following in Joe Bunting’s wonderful post, “Story Crisis: Why a Crisis Will Make Your GOOD Story GREAT,” on his blog, The Write Practice. Read this:
The story crisis is the moment where your protagonist is placed into such a tight spot that he or she has to choose, and importantly, that decision carries so much weight that there is no turning back from it.
Very educational sentence for us authors, and splendid use of the word “importantly.” Way to go, Joe.
Use of adverbs in general
According to the Lingua Franca blog, “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.”
So in other words, you can say:
- Importantly, I passed my calculus course.
- Happily, the refrigerator was still running when we came home.
I beg to differ, not because I know more about language than the folks at Lingua Franca, but because
a. they are an academic website, and academe has its own rules and expectations, and
b. it sounds awful.
And yes, “it sounds awful” is a legitimate reason to avoid using a particular phrase or sentence.
More importantly, do you really need to open with a sentence adverb such as Importantly, Interestingly, Strikingly, Happily, or even Boringly? Why spoon-feed your audience? Show them instead!
You’re going to need to do the heavy lifting by Showing and not Telling – adverbs are notorious Telling words, and in general are not our friends.
We authors need to give ourselves a bit more credit and use our intuition sometimes. Just because the rules allow it doesn’t mean you have to do it. And conversely, just because it’s forbidden by the grammar police doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally bend or break the rules. Heck, you might even find a pundit or two who actually agrees with you!
So tell me: do you agree or disagree with me about the use of perhaps and maybe interrogatively? Why or why not? And how about “more importantly” or “most importantly”?
Let me know in the comments below.