Word Confusion: First versus Firstly

Posted June 20, 2016 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

When using first as an adverb, you can use either first or firstly. What you CANNOT do is mix them up, e.g., first, secondly, thirdly, fourth, etc.. Choose either first, second, third, etc., OR firstly, secondly, thirdly, etc.

The -ly is a more formal usage — it makes me want to use thus! But the primary reason to not use the -ly version is the length of the word as well as the awkwardness if you get into the fiftiethlys…eek! Then there are the purists who object to the -lys.

Word Confusions…

Without descending into minutiae, you can apply the rules and examples to second/secondly, third/thirdly, fourth/fourthly, etc.

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end. Consider sharing this Word Confusion with friends by tweeting it.

First Firstly
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Dictionary.com: first

Official White House photograph of Nancy Reagan, wife to then-President of the United States Ronald Reagan.

“Nancy Reagan” is by an official White House photographer and in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

First Lady Nancy Reagan in her official White House photograph.

 Dr. Andrew C. Thompson teaching at the Tennessee Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church in Brentwood, TN, on June 10, 2014.

“Dr. Andrew Thompson Teaching at the Tennessee Annual Conference”, 10 June 2014, is SportsandHistoryReader521’s own work under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.


Part of Grammar:
Adjective; Adverb; Noun
Plural for noun: firsts
Being before all others with respect to time, order, rank, importance, etc.

  • Used as the ordinal number of one

[Music] Highest or chief among several voices or instruments of the same class

[Often an initial capital letter when spelled out] Being a member of the household or an intimate acquaintance of the president of the U.S. or of the governor of a state

Before all others or anything else in time, order, rank, etc.

Before some other thing, event, etc.

For the first time

In preference to something else

  • Rather
  • Sooner

In the first place

The person or thing that is first in time, order, rank, etc.

The beginning

The first part

  • First member of a series

[Music] The voice or instrument that takes the highest or chief part in its class, especially in an orchestra or chorus

  • A leader of a part or group of performers

[Automotive] Low gear

  • First gear

The winning position or rank in a race or other competition

[Baseball] First base

[Formal] Used to introduce a first point or reason

  • In the first place
  • First
  • Coming before other points, questions, etc.
He took first place at the Olympics.

He found that first edition of Samuel Pepys’ diaries.

The first vice president was Thomas Jefferson.

I finally achieved first chair in the bass section.

He was Lord John’s firstborn.

The duet was sung by the first alto and first soprano.

No, you have to start in first gear.

The First Lady usually takes on a signature project while the president is in office.

Checkers was the first dog.

If you’re going, phone first.

She first visited Atlanta in 1980.

I’d die first.

In the first place, I’m your mother, and you’ll do what I say.

First, we should start up the chainsaw. Second, we can cut down that grove of trees.

The first chair in the violin section will begin the piece.

Skinwalker is the first book in the Jane Yellowrock series by Faith Hunter.

She shifted into first and drove off.

She was first in the equestrian event.

“Herman Schaefer is the only known person to ever steal first in a Major League game”, forcing what is now Rule 7.08i (Daven Hiskey).

Firstly it is wrong, and secondly, it is extremely difficult to implement.

Firstly, we should start up the chainsaw. Secondly, we can cut down that grove of trees.

History of the Word:
Old English fyr(e)st is of Germanic origin and related to the Old Norse fyrstr and German Fürst meaning prince, from an Indo-European root shared by the Sanskrit prathama, the Latin primus, and the Greek prōtos. First known use: 1525-35

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C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

Pinterest Photo Credits

Chalkboard by 472301 is under the CC0 Creative Commons license, via Pixabay. The Barnstar-Megaphone is courtesy of the US government and is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. I cannot find the source for the professor and his students or the text on the chalkboard.

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