A matter of life and death: Talking about importance (1)

Listen to the author reading this blog post:

Hospital emergency, medical staff pushing patient on gurney.
Science Photo Library/GettyImages

by Liz Walter

The word ‘important’ is extremely common and is sometimes overused by learners of English. There are many possible alternatives – so many in fact, that this is the first of two posts on the topic. This one looks at general words, words meaning ‘extremely important’ and words that carry the sense of something being necessary.

To start with a basic verb, if something is important to us, it matters:

Music is the thing that matters most to me.

Something that is important or noticeable can be described as significant (the related noun is significance). More informally, we can say that something is a big deal:

His evidence was significant because it led the police to the murder weapon.

She immediately realised the significance of her discovery.

Getting into college was a big deal for me.

Using the adjective all-important is a way of emphasizing the importance of something. For even more emphasis, we can say that something is a matter of life and death or that it is a life-and-death issue. These phrases often refer quite literally to the possibility of death:

She is taking the all-important entrance exam next week.

He described the contest as a matter of life and death.

Mountaineers may be faced with life-and-death decisions at any time.

Something that is the be-all and end-all is the most important thing. However, this phrase is most commonly used in negative sentences to say that something isn’t really very important at all:

Acting isn’t the be-all and end-all for me, so I plan to continue my medical studies.

Words such as essential, vital, and crucial describe very important things and also give the sense of them being absolutely necessary. If something or someone is indispensable, it is impossible to manage without them:

It is essential to hire an architect for this sort of work.

Tourism is a vital part of our economy.

It is crucial that we listen to the views of working people.

I found her guidebook indispensable.

Similarly, if something is key or critical, other things cannot happen or exist without it. If something is imperative, it must happen. This adjective is often followed by a that clause or by to:

With heart attacks, fast treatment is key to saving lives.

Vegetables are a critical part of a healthy diet.

It is imperative that we teach our students to use the internet with care.

If you found this post useful, look out for the next one, which will cover several more common aspects of importance, such as having an effect on something or someone else, needing to be done very quickly, or pretending that something is more important than it really is.

18 thoughts on “A matter of life and death: Talking about importance (1)

    1. And to come back to another recent Cambridge Dictionary theme:

      “Give me money or give me death!”

      Or the proper expression in there is more like –

      “Give me liberty or give me death!”

  1. Miguel Alonso

    These are extremely well made and the voice is key (If I may say so myself) to my enjoyment of the post.

  2. Полина

    Please, could someone tell me how I can find the very first post without having to scroll down for hours on end?

  3. Thank you, Liz Walter, for your hearty suggestions…
    I always like to learn English poetic words to use in my poems,
    which the English language lacks.
    Matters are a more poetic word for me than “A big deal” which sounds unpolite* 
    *Unpolite: I have created >100 New poetic words published in my latest poetry
                     books were advised by my editors
    Unpolite is not a poetic word… but it happened, so I like to use it here.

  4. Would one of the words about having an effect on someone else be


    And it is good that fewer English language learners will be confusing CRITICAL and CRUCIAL.

    [So your interpretation of CRUCIAL puts it with VITAL and ESSENTIAL].

  5. Kuol Monyjei Ajak

    It very significantly to me to know the useful of the word important, significant and a matter of life- and death and be- all and – all those words are very must crucial to me.
    Thank you very much for your dedication to me, God bless you.

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