*Comma Question from a Friend

A friend wrote to me recently to ask about the commas in this sentence, which appeared in a textbook she was editing: "Greta had learned about different cultures, and perhaps more importantly about her own.”

My friend, Tracy, thought it would be better if she moved the commas around and wanted to know if I agreed. Here’s how she wanted to write

Greta had learned about different cultures, and, perhaps more importantly, about her own.

“Am I off the wall?” Tracy asked.

Here’s my reply: “I like your commas a lot better. They're more logical. Technically, you don't usually put a comma before an ‘and’ that doesn't precede a whole clause. Though you can if you really want to indicate a strong division or pause.

“Your commas do a more logical job of setting off a parenthetical  -- ‘perhaps more importantly’ -- from a sentence that otherwise wouldn't need a comma: ‘Greta learned about different cultures and about her own.’"

And by the way if you bristled about the use of “importantly” instead of “important,” you’re not alone. Tracy didn’t like it, either, just like the many people who prefer “important” to “importantly” in contexts like these.

The objection is often rooted in the idea that the adverb form is wrong here because adverbs describe the manner in which an action is taking place. From this perspective, “Greta learned about different cultures, most importantly, her own,” suggests that the adverb “importantly” is modifying the verb “learned,” saying that she somehow went about learning in an important way. That would be true if adverbs only modified verbs. But in fact they can modify whole sentences or thoughts, as in “Unfortunately, my flight was canceled.”

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