You’re pretty sure the phrase is utmost importance, not upmost importance. But what’s an “ut” — and doesn’t upmost mean “highest,” anyway? There’s a good (albeit subtle) reason why you would choose upmost or utmost, and once you know it, you’ll elevate your writing to the utmost quality.
Utmost doesn’t sound like a real word, but it is. The adjective comes from the Old English ūtmost, meaning “outermost,” and today it refers to the highest amount or degree. It’s more commonly used than upmost, also saying “upmost importance” is still a common usage error. When you use utmost, you’re saying “the most” (as in “the most important” or “the most concerning.”)
You’ll most likely see utmost as an adjective modifying abstract nouns, which describe ideas or non-physical concepts, when discussing the highest degree. For example:
- These plans are of utmost security.
- We are working to our utmost ability to get the job done.
- The rumor is of utmost concern to me.
However, utmost also functions as a noun meaning “highest degree,” much as the word best also functions as a noun (as in “try your best”). For example:
- Olympians push themselves to the utmost in the finals.
- I’ll try my utmost to make it to your goodbye party.
- The fashion show unveiled the utmost in spring trends.
Utmost’s near-homophone, upmost, has a similar meaning: “the highest position.” But upmost is synonymous with uppermost, and refers for something that’s physically higher than everything else. When you use upmost, you’re saying “the highest up” (as in “Your hat is the upmost item on your body” or “The cat is sleeping on the upmost shelf in the living room”).
Typically, the adjective upmost modifies concrete nouns — items that you can access with the five senses. For example:
- Our office is located on the upmost floor of the building.
- The upmost headline is too big for the rest of the page.
- Can you reach that box on the upmost shelf?
Occasionally, you may see upmost describing abstract nouns when referring to the highest ranked position. For example:
- My parakeet’s health is upmost to me.
- When it comes to school authority, the principal is upmost.
- Polls indicate that the senator is still upmost to the constituents.
Do utmost and upmost still seem too similar? Try using them in the same sentence to clarify their differences:
- Treat the upmost books on your bookshelf with utmost care.
- On the Titanic, the upmost classes received the utmost service.
- The items on the upmost display shelves are of utmost concern to us.
- Try your utmost to be the upmost student in the grade rankings.
- Our upmost hotel guests stay in the penthouse, where they are treated with the utmost regard.
When all else fails and you’re stuck between utmost and upmost, try replacing the word with uppermost. Does it work, or does it sound awkward? If uppermost works, then the word you want is upmost. If it hits your ear (or eye) wrong, then you’re probably looking for utmost.