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.

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9 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?

    • GrammarBook.com says:

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

  2. Joan Galt says:

    The usage has always seemed improper to me, and I’m stunned to learn it actually isn’t!

    Despite their similarity as adverbs, “first” and “firstly” are hardly interchangeable in all situations. In the first place, one would not say, “I firstly noticed it yesterday.” One might ask, “First off, what are you doing in my home?” or “Firstly, I hope you have insurance.” In the end, “first” is the better choice if you want to avoid criticism from peers and stern looks from professors.

    Moral of story- Don’t judge alternate adverb usage as a negative.

  3. Mary Hughes says:

    I thought we were asking if firstly is ok to use as the first word in a sentence.

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      As the post states, “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.”

  4. Steve says:

    I’m a native speaker and plenty of people around me use “firstly.” I’ve also read it a lot.To me it makes sense to add “ly,” which is the adverb marker in English. The prejudice against “firstly” seems to be a US phenomenon. I’m a university professor (US meaning) and if I were marking, my natural instinct would be to consider “firstly” more correct. But I would not deduct any marks for a usage where the two are interchangeable (i.e. I would not mark down the US form).
    There is a meaning difference between “I first noticed the new equipment yesterday” and “Firstly, I noticed the new equipment yesterday.” In the first case, you are stating the first time something happened. In the second, you are beginning an ordered list (series).
    I think you could dig a bit deeper on this one. Since hundreds of millions of native and non-native speakers use Commonwealth Englishes, I don’t think everything should be judged from the point of view of US preferences.

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      We’re delighted to have readers in many countries. We often remind our readers that this website and The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation represent American English rules and guidelines. You may find our multi-part review of American and British English of interest. We may also explore other differences among English dialects in future newsletters.

  5. Akshaya Kumar Jena says:

    While enumerating points, first or firstly should have equal standing. Rather we should prefer firstly since this is the only usage it has got whilst first is more versatile. Only thing to be careful about is if we prefer firstly, it should be followed by secondly, thirdly etc to keep the rhyme and logic intact.

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      As the post indicates, firstly is a word most native English speakers don’t use, and many might assume it implies a lesser understanding of the language.

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