"firstly ... secondly ..." or "first ... second ... "?

68

20

Suppose I am enumerating reasons not to fly. Is it then correct to write/say:

Firstly, I prefer the train because I can see the landscape. Secondly, I have control over my luggage, and thirdly, it is better for the environment.

Or is it rather:

First, I prefer the train because I can see the landscape. Second, I have control over my luggage, and third, it is better for the environment.

I thought the first should be correct, but I find the second one in written texts. Which one is correct?

gerrit

Posted 2013-02-01T10:06:19.210

Reputation: 4 467

4Firstly, secondly, thirdly, all right. But please, not fourthly or fifthly or seventeenthly. It's not incorrect, it's just ugly. – SF. – 2013-02-01T11:03:30.903

I prefer "First of all," which I feel helps resolve the seeming discrepancy of non-parallel language in continuing to "secondly." – Nathan – 2020-02-12T23:24:58.453

Answers

53

Both styles are used. In most genres, no-one will object to either. However, traditionally, first, secondly, thirdly etc. is used. Only pedants will insist on this usage, but it is something to be aware of, as there are many pedants. See Fowler's Modern English Usage (3rd edition).

The Oxford English Dictionary on firstly:

Used only in enumerating heads, topics, etc. in discourse; and many writers prefer first, even though closely followed by secondly, thirdly, etc.

Burchfield in Fowler's Modern English Usage on first:

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Cerberus

Posted 2013-02-01T10:06:19.210

Reputation: 4 889

7My native-speaking ears prefer first, second, third. – Kit Z. Fox – 2013-02-01T12:41:08.743

16

First, and firstly are both correct, since first is also an adverb. So you can say:

I prefer the train because I can see the landscape. Secondly, I have control over my luggage, and thirdly, it is better for the environment.

First, I prefer the train because I can see the landscape. Second, I have control over my luggage, and third, it is better for the environment.

The important is not mixing them, as in the following sentence:

First, I prefer the train because I can see the landscape. Secondly, I have control over my luggage.

kiamlaluno

Posted 2013-02-01T10:06:19.210

Reputation: 20 456

8I'm sorry, but your last statement is not right. The traditional sequence is first, secondly, thirdly etc. – Cerberus – 2013-02-01T10:56:24.943

@Cerberus Then the NOAD is wrong too. – kiamlaluno – 2013-02-01T10:57:11.090

1NOAD is wrong, really? I have never used it. In any case, leaf through a few books and you will find first, secondly all over the place. It is perfectly correct and even the preferred choice for many. – Cerberus – 2013-02-01T11:02:35.447

1Are you sure NOAD didn't say "don't use firstly, second, thirdly, nor first, secondly, third"? The order of the -ly's is important. – Cerberus – 2013-02-01T11:10:39.407

"Make sure not to mix the two groups: first, second, third; not first, secondly, thirdly." – kiamlaluno – 2013-02-01T11:15:00.927

Okay, that is simply wrong. Consult any style guide, like Fowler's. – Cerberus – 2013-02-01T11:26:54.040

Is it wrong basing on what? What said from a style guide is not more correct than what reported from a dictionary. The purpose of style guides is not saying what it is correct, but providing a guide. – kiamlaluno – 2013-02-01T11:33:06.477

You and NOAD are saying first, secondly is wrong. That is a very broad claim. If significant evidence can be found that respectable authors use first, secondly, your claim is invalidated. I have added a quotation from the Oxford English Dictionary in my answer. – Cerberus – 2013-02-01T11:39:07.090

I didn't say "it is wrong"; I said "the important is not mixing them." Style guides are not evidences, nor does traditional order have any relevance. – kiamlaluno – 2013-02-01T11:42:34.960

7I think that Burchfield, in Fowler's, has hit it: "Logic did not and does not come into it." Gowers, in the second edition of Fowler's (1965), says "The preference for first over firstly in formal enumerations is one of those harmless pedantries in which those who like oddities because they are odd are free to indulge, provided that they abstain from censuring those who do not share their liking." – barbara beeton – 2013-02-01T13:21:16.870

2

This answer at ELU suggests:

Both are correct, however, there is "overcorrectness" in using firstly because it seems more like an adverb than first.

Go on the length principle: both have the same meaning, but firstly is two characters longer than first. The language will eventually evolve to do without the longer equivalent; I'd use first.

bytebuster

Posted 2013-02-01T10:06:19.210

Reputation: 7 759

That should be principle, not principal – James Waldby - jwpat7 – 2013-02-01T17:02:39.457

@jwpat7 It's a quoted text from another article. Since you have modified it there, I will update it here. Is it fine? – bytebuster – 2013-02-02T12:00:25.077

Yes, thanks. (Aside: It appears that for some inscrutable reason somebody downvoted your answer; I myself upvoted your answer because it provides a link to other useful ELU answers, although I don't find this particular quoted rationale compelling.) – James Waldby - jwpat7 – 2013-02-02T15:55:53.633

@jwpat7 If the answer is bad, I don't mind it being downvoted. There's a discussion on Meta, please join. If the community decides to discourage such answers, so be it.

– bytebuster – 2013-02-02T16:17:44.653

1

From Cambridge website, mentioned:

We often use first, especially in writing, to show the order of the points we want to make. When we are making lists, we can use first or firstly. Firstly is more formal than first

So, If you are doing academic writing use Firstly, otherwise, use First for general writing use.

Dongrui Yang

Posted 2013-02-01T10:06:19.210

Reputation: 11

-2

If you are writing as a list (which most intend), use first, second and third. After all, if reading as a list of prioritised numbers, say, you wouldn't retort 'onely'; it would be 'one', 'two' and so on. Hence first, second etc. No need for the ly. This 'error' of 'firstly' etc is almost annoying as the improper use of 'which' (without punctuation), when most should actually be using 'that'.....

Nick

Posted 2013-02-01T10:06:19.210

Reputation: 1

-2

I may be a pendantic foreigner with English as my second language, but I do not understand first, second, third as adverbs. I see them strictly as adjectives. Common is an adjective, commonly an adverb. Late is an adjective, lately an adverb. Frequent is an adjective, frequently an adverb. Why first, second, third and not common, late, frequent? Common one can see parrots in Aberdeen. Late I do not see them flying during the day but frequent I hear their calls.

Nick

Posted 2013-02-01T10:06:19.210

Reputation: 1

2I don't see an answer in this post. – gerrit – 2020-06-02T12:08:29.143