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As far as I can tell "imperative", "critical" and "utmost importance" are synonyms. Are any stronger than the others in terms of conveying a greater sense of urgency or importance?

I fond the following definitions:

imperative: of vital importance; crucial.
critical: having the potential to become disastrous; at a point of crisis. utmost: most extreme; greatest

(all of these definitions were found from typing into Google.com "define:" followed by the word, I don't know how to link to them)

  • Why do you think they are synonyms? "imperative" # "critical" # "utmost importance" – Kris Mar 24 '14 at 9:40
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The common overuse of these words reduces our sensitivity to their levels of urgency. Context is also important.

My rankings:

critical (being in or verging on a state of crisis or emergency: a critical shortage of food) seems to me to be the most serious, as it implies an impending loss of life. Certainly there are things worse than that, but it's hard to think of many. It also carries the weight of applying to other areas: critical temperature, critical condition, go critical (or a nuclear reactor).

  • A high degree of sterility assurance is of critical importance for the sterilization process. (this is fairly true; non-sterile instruments in medicine cause death and disease. Same is true of clean water, etc.)
  • Selecting an advisor is of critical importance when planning for your future. (This is hyperbole; you won't die if you choose the wrong advisor.)

utmost importance (of the highest or greatest degree, amount, or intensity; most extreme) would be next on my list; I would say something was of the utmost importance to avoid a critical situation.

  • Safety is of the utmost importance when working with electricity or electronics because severe consequences and health hazards can occur if specific safety procedures are not implemented. (True enough. Same with nuclear power plants, military decisions, etc.)
  • (of "pants or jeans") Choosing The correct key phrases is of the utmost importance. (hyperbole)

imperative (absolutely necessary or required; requiring attention or action) connotes to me a command to pay attention; it is important but not vital, that is, it doesn't endanger life.

  • War Crimes Tribunal is Imperative. (fair enough.)
  • Teaching teens life skills is imperative. (fair enough.)
  • (about fish tanks) Careful, day To day observance of your tank is imperative. (Clearly, my son doesn't agree with this and his fish. turtles, etc. are all still alive.)
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    'The common overuse of these words reduces our sensitivity to their levels of urgency.' Worth an upvote already. Awesome. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 10 '15 at 19:56
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There are no such things as "real" synonyms. As to placing these words in an order of "importance", that is difficult, because I would associate them with different circumstances.

Imperative I would use when describing something that plays a vital role in the successful completion of a task or project.

It is imperative that we have the test-scenarios in place before we call in the QA team.

This means that it is basically useless to call in the QA team before we have the test-scenarios ready.

Critical I would use in two situations:

  • something can go wrong (or went wrong), and it really endangers the success of a task or project.
  • something is playing such a role in a task or project that if it were to fail, the task or project would be in danger.

The database encountered a critical error, due to which our production systems were unavailable for hours!
The database server is a critical part of our production environment, so we should ensure we have a fail-safe back-up solution.

Something that is of utmost importance could be any action or product that is simply very, very important, but not necessarily critical at this point in time.

While we keep developing, it is of utmost importance that we keep communicating with the customer to ensure we can manage expectations.

I guess that this is indeed a bit less important that if it were imperative. In this case, we can still go on developing, even if we do not manage to communicate with the customer enough. It's just that we might end up building something else than what the customer expected...

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  1. critical
  2. imperative
  3. utmost

Why?

Critical is like a point of no return. Or as you say having the potential to become disastrous.

So you need to do something RIGHT NOWWW!!!! Or else BOOOMM!!

Imperative is "just" of vital importance but not yet critical. It is however vital enough to start issuing imperatives or orders to get stuff done.

"It is imperative that we keep our troops moving, otherwise the enemy will get there first. So we should give out orders now to keep on moving."

utmost is just very important without any need for any action yet. It's more long term. No orders need to be issued yet. It's not yet imperative. It is just extremely important. It's a comparison to something else. I.e. non or less utmost important things.

"It's just very very very important, it has outmost importance that we keep this in mind for the future. So we should put this at the top of our to do list."

Or per the definitions below. This item is furthest away from being non-important. Or it's of highest importance on our list. Yet that's all it is. Like the outmost pretty woman on the planet. No action is required but it might be desired none the less.

utmost |ˈətˌmōst| adjective [ attrib. ] most extreme; greatest: a matter of the utmost importance. noun (the utmost) the greatest or most extreme extent or amount: a plot that stretches credulity to the utmost. PHRASES do one's utmost do the most that one is able: Dan was doing his utmost to be helpful. ORIGIN Old English ūt(e)mest ‘outermost’ (see out,-most).

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imperative |imˈperətiv| adjective 1 of vital importance; crucial: immediate action was imperative | [ with clause ] : it is imperative that standards be maintained. 2 giving an authoritative command; peremptory: the bell pealed again, a final imperative call. • Grammar denoting the mood of a verb that expresses a command or exhortation, as in come here!

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critical |ˈkritikəl| adjective 1 expressing adverse or disapproving comments or judgments: he was critical of many U.S. welfare programs. 2 expressing or involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a work of literature, music, or art: she never won the critical acclaim she sought. • (of a published literary or musical text) incorporating a detailed and scholarly analysis and commentary: a critical edition of a Bach sonata. • involving the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement: professors often find it difficult to encourage critical thinking in their students. 3 (of a situation or problem) having the potential to become disastrous; at a point of crisis: the flood waters had not receded, and the situation was still critical. • (of a person) extremely ill and at risk of death: he had been in critical condition since undergoing surgery. • having a decisive or crucial importance in the success or failure of something: temperature is a critical factor in successful fruit storage. 4 Mathematics & Physics relating to or denoting a point of transition from one state to another. • (of a nuclear reactor or fuel) maintaining a self-sustaining chain reaction: the reactor is due to go critical in October.

I got the definitions from the 10.9.2 OS X Mavericks built in dictionary.

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    utmost was not a typo in the OP :) Outmost means something completely different, namely "the furthest away". So outmost importance would be as good as the _opposite of utmost importance. – oerkelens Mar 24 '14 at 8:20
  • @oerkelens I don't agree. – DisplayName Mar 24 '14 at 18:07
  • You do not agree with the dictionary definitions of utmost and outmost ? (oald doesn't even have outmost, but ok). That is fine by me, it doesn;t really concern me wheter you agree with the dictionary or not. I can assure you though that your uyse of outmost will sound pretty weird to most speakers of English, especially if you mean utmost. – oerkelens Mar 24 '14 at 18:12
  • No. Once upon a time, the word that is now utmost was written (and no doubt, spoken, as outmost. They are obviously not the same in modern English, as your own quote also acknowledges :) Unless you are trying to communicate in Middle English or even Old English, of course. – oerkelens Mar 24 '14 at 18:15
  • @oerkelens strangely enough I have never "consciously" encountered the word utmost before. Outmost often however. Still googlefight.com/… seems to disagree. – DisplayName Mar 24 '14 at 18:21

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