Word Choice – First Versus Firstly

Dominique’s question: “Which sentence is correct: ‘Firstly, I would like to let you know that …’ or ‘First of all, I would like to let you know …’ I wrote to a colleague in the States who claims she has never heard of the word ‘firstly.’ ”

Bizwritingtip response: This is a writing style issue rather than a grammar one. First of all, firstly and first are all acceptable words. However, I don’t like to use words just “to pad” my sentences. Therefore, I would never use first of all. I don’t see the need for “of all.”

For the past 150 years, people have hotly debated the use of “first” versus “firstly.” Which word is the more appropriate?”  First appeared in the English language around 1200, and firstly showed up in the early 16th century.

Modern dictionaries accept both words as interchangeable. Just remember, if you start with “first,” you must continue with “second” and “third.”  If you begin with “firstly,” continue with “secondly,” and “thirdly.” (The same holds true with the words “last” and “lastly.”)

Personally, I prefer the shorter version, first. E.B. White said it well in the chapter he added to Strunk’s book The Elements of Style: “Do not dress words up by adding ‘ly’ to them, as though putting a hat on a horse.”

(The Elements of Style was first written by William Strunk, Jr. in 1918 and updated in 1935. E. B. White, a pupil of Strunk, revised the book in 1959 after Strunk’s death. This book serves as the basis for business writing today, focusing on clearly written English prose.)

2 replies
  1. Pat Buckner
    Pat Buckner says:

    Just a short note to let you know how much I appreciate your weekly newsletter. There is rarely a subject that I have not questioned, or been questioned about, in your newsletter.

    I’ve been sharing this with the other admins in my company and once in a while I get a response that someone needed that information at just that time.

    By the way, I love the new format. It’s clean and easy to read.

    Reply

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