First vs Firstly vs At First – Which Should You Use?

First and firstly are both ordinal adverbs, or ordering adverbs, that English writers or speakers use to itemize related points (e.g., first…second…third… or firstly…secondly…thirdly…). Because first, second, and third work quite well as both adjectives and adverbs, some people find that adding -ly is redundant and even a little pompous. To put it bluntly, it’s grammatical overkill.

Is “Firstly” an Actual Word?

Dictionary moguls Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster did not acknowledge firstly as a word. Shocked? English-born speakers naturally warm to the word firstly as an ordering adverb because most adverbs end with -ly. Not all adverbs do, of course. Consider fast, well, and often, for example.

Johnson and Webster believed that first should be included in this irregular adverb group and that firstly shouldn’t ever be used at all.

Yet it would be foolish to say that firstly isn’t a part of the English language. I’m sure that you hear it all the time. The question is this: does using firstly when you list points make your writing seem less correct?

Which Should I Use? “First” or “Firstly?”

It’s not improper to use firstly, secondly, etc to list your points. Nor is it inappropriate to use the easier first, second, and so on.

CORRECT: I have three reasons that I want to visit Paris. Firstly, I would love to see the Eiffel Tower. Secondly, I look great in a beret. Thirdly, they have excellent escargot.

CORRECT: I have three reasons that I want to visit Paris. First, I would love to see the Eiffel Tower. Second, I look great in a beret. Third, I need better escargot.

These statements are identical in meaning. Nonetheless, there are good reasons for selecting the “first” sequence over the “firstly” sequence.

First, using first is a definite win. If your writing is being printed or assessed, or even if you want to seem professional to your coworkers, use the structure that is never criticized versus the one that is frequently criticized.

Second, the unnecessary -ly may not seem pompous to you when applied to the more subordinate numbers, but once you follow them in order up the numerical scale, they sure will. Outside of fourthly and fifthly, they become pretty ridiculous. (Ninthly? Tenthly?)

Third, have you noticed that firstly doesn’t have a cognate in the expressions we use every day? You would never say firstly come, firstly served or at firstly glance.

Whichever approach you choose, avoid blending your techniques. For instance, using firstly then using second and third, will open you up to criticism, even if there is no stringent rule to stop you.

When to Use “At First”

At first is not used to itemize points as first and firstly are.

INCORRECT: There are two steps to checking your email. At first, type your email address. Next, type in your password.

CORRECT: There are two steps to checking your email. First, type your email address. Next, type in your password.

The words at first mean “in or at the beginning.”

EXAMPLES:

  • At first, I thought a thief had come in, but then I realized it was my cat.
  • She denied eating the cookie at first, but she soon comprehended that the crumbs on her clothing had given her away.
  • I wouldn’t say I liked bungee jumping at first, but now I can’t get enough of it.

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By Connie Fisher

Connie Fisher is a freelance writer and editor specializing in business writing and marketing. She holds a bachelor's degree in media and journalism and has contributed to a slew of printed and online media, including Contra Costa Times, Daily American, the The Tri-Town News, NYC.com, and many more.

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