The Grammarphobia Blog

Firstly, secondly, and thirdly

Q: I’ve noticed a proliferation of “firstly,” “secondly,” “thirdly,” even “lastly.” These words do appear in my dictionary, but aren’t they rather obsolete? I hear them on news interviews in particular.

A: The “ly” enumerations (“firstly,” “secondly,” “thirdly,” “lastly”) have been around for a very long time. They may  be old, but they’re not exactly obsolete today. Far from it.

Here’s the Google scorecard: “firstly,” 22.4 million hits; “secondly,” 33.1 million; “thirdly,” 8.85 million, and “lastly,” 21.1 million.

Starting at the top, “firstly” was first recorded in writing about 1532, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The now obscure “firstmost” came earlier, with published references dating from 1400. 

The adverb “secondly” dates from around 1374, “thirdly” from 1509, and “lastly” from 1375.

Over the years, some (but not all) style and usage books have recommended “first,” “second,” and so on for making enumerations, instead of the “ly” versions.

Other guides have argued that “secondly” and “thirdly” are the preferred forms for numbers two and three.

Why? Because if the writer’s (or speaker’s) second and third points are very far from number one, the reader (or listener) may need an “ly” ending as a reminder that another point is about to be made.

Advocates of “secondly” and “thirdly” often recommend using “firstly” for the sake of conformity. But consistency may not be everything. As the OED explains, “many writers prefer first, even though closely followed by secondly, thirdly, etc.” 

We think it’s OK to use either the long or short adverbs to make your points. But if you’re going to use the “ly” endings, we’d recommend “finally” instead of the awkward “lastly.”

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