Some Grammar Enthusiasts Really Hate ‘Firstly’

When you’re enumerating items in a list, particularly when arguing a point, should you precede the first one with first or firstly?

The word firstly isn’t generally at the top of most people’s grammatical pet peeves; those top positions are often reserved for often mixed-up words like to and too or your and you’re.

But when you mention the word, there are some grammar enthusiasts out there who immediately go into a tirade.

It has always struck me funny that there are people who get so bent out of shape over that little adverb.

Jim Baumann, in a Grammar Moses column in the Daily Herald, published a letter from a reader who enumerated the reasons the word gets on her nerves:

“First, it sounds unintelligent. Second, it sounds weak. And third, I just don’t get it. Why add the ‘ly’?”

I respectfully disagree that it sounds “unintelligent.” It sounds a bit stuffy or overly formal, perhaps, but not unintelligent. In fact, in British English, firstly tends to be preferred.

But in American English, we tend to prefer first.

Although, oddly enough, I’ve actually seen people begin with first and then follow it with secondly. That sounds closer to something that’s “unintelligent” to me. At least you should follow the same pattern throughout: either end with -ly or don’t…but don’t mix it up.

As Baumann points out in his response, the biggest argument against those -ly forms is the awkwardness that can potentially happen if you have a lot of items on your list: how many times have you ever heard someone use words like seventhly, eighthly, ninthly, etc.?

Grammar Girl, meanwhile, points out an even simpler reason for ditching firstly from your writing: first is shorter, and often, shorter is considered more consise and, often, better when it comes to writing.

So unless you’re reading the words out loud and can perform a convincing British accent, which makes almost anything sound better, you’re better off going for short and sweet: first for the win!

Do you prefer ‘firstly’ or ‘first’?

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 27 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.