Grammar First vs. Firstly: When to Use Each One |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

First vs. Firstly: When to Use Each One

Perhaps you have seen the words first and firstly in sentences and wondered which one is correct—or if firstly is even a real word. If so, today’s post can help.

First Things Firstly

As a starting point, let’s note that both first and firstly are technically correct in a grammatical sense. That means you can use either one without being wrong. Either word falls under the category of “enumeration,” which involves using numbered lists to make a point or explanation. If you were showing a friend how to bake a cake and said something such as “first, you pour in the flour, and second, you add the eggs,” you would be using enumeration.

With that understood, you could use firstly instead of first. As we mentioned, it is grammatically correct.

We do however recommend that you don’t make a habit of it. Here are some good reasons why:

Firstly is a longer word with an extra syllable. Shorter is often better in writing, speaking, and reading.

Firstly is an uncommon word. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, using it could make it seem as if you are trying to hide a point or “dress up” an otherwise lacking idea. In other words, it’s distracting.

Because firstly isn’t common in usage, some teachers, professors, and employers may consider it to be incorrect even when it isn’t. So, it could hurt your grades or your ability to communicate.

Firstly is more awkward to say out loud than first is. Whether it’s verbal or written, good communication calls on us to be as clear and simple as possible.

To be consistent, we would need to follow firstly with secondly, thirdly, fourthly, and so on. That can get cumbersome. Such writing or speaking might not be grammatically wrong, but it isn’t always going to help us win a reader’s or listener’s attention.

The First and Last Line on Firstly

If you wish to continue writing and saying firstly, you won’t be defying grammatical principles. But don’t be surprised if other people act as if you are. It’s a word most native English speakers don’t use, and many might assume it implies a lesser understanding of the language.

Unless you have a specific reason to use firstly, secondly, thirdly, and so on, it’s better to stick with the shorter, simpler, and more commonly accepted alternatives first, second, and third.

Looking to Sharpen Your Grammar?

Our mission is to improve daily communication—as well as grades and careers—with one good grammar tip at a time. If you would like to learn more, visit our blog again soon. Also feel free to leave us a comment or question below!

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

2 responses to “First vs. Firstly: When to Use Each One”

  1. Jean Korybski says:

    I have used the term first off. Is this grammatically correct?

    • says:

      The term “first off” is grammatically correct; however, we would not recommend using it in formal writing.

Leave a Comment or Question:

Please ensure that your question or comment relates to the topic of the blog post. Unrelated comments may be deleted. If necessary, use the "Search" box on the right side of the page to find a post closely related to your question or comment.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *