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First or firstly? Don’t get ‘hyper’ over this

February 16, 2011

The ‘first’ shot

What is correct? ‘First’ or ‘firstly’? This is the kind of question that excites some of us irrationally. But consider the following.

There was so much to do. First, I had to catch the fish; secondly, land it without damaging the rod; thirdly, gut and prepare it; and fourthly, cook it.

Should this be: ‘Firstly, I had to catch the fish; secondly, land it…?’  Many writers would say so.  I have followed this debate for some time. The usual ‘is it American or British’ difference of opinion emerges. Some claim ‘firstly’ does not exist at all. My Collins and Shorter Oxford dictionaries disagree. Both combinations have respectable origins in early, middle and later English, and on both sides of the Atlantic.  There is an insightful and enjoyable article on this listed below.
If we look at the words grammatically there is a simple distinction. ‘First’ acts as an adjective and an adverb. That means it can be used to describe the ‘first man’ (adj) and ‘first, select option one’ (adv). So ‘first’ can replace ‘firstly’. It is the ‘ly’ we struggle with. Fiction writers are encouraged to be merciless with adverbs and strike them out wherever possible (which is most of the time). Since ‘first’ is the same as ‘firstly’, why not drop the latter? ‘Secondly’ is different. It is the adverb for ‘second’, and so will be in common use. In the interests of keeping things simple, drop the ‘ly’ where possible. It is possible to say ‘First,…; second,…; third,…’ and so on. Whatever your choice, ‘first’ works in all circumstances.


Is this nothing more than a hypercorrection? A big word to describe the confusing situation where someone ‘corrects’ a real or imagined misuse of grammar, or a phonetic rule, with a ‘correct’ version. We see this a lot in reviews – when a reviewer ‘corrects’ usage to suit a personal interpretation of a rule. ‘First’ or ‘firstly’. Take your pick. But as a final thought, do not try ‘tenthly’, or ‘eleventhly’. Or you might join the dentist instructing you to ‘open widely.’


‘The Maven’s Word of The Day’

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