The Grammarphobia Blog

Primary education

Q: In editing technical writing, I replace the word “primary” when it’s used as a synonym for “important.” Example: “There are three primary reasons for this occurrence.” Am I being unnecessarily fussy? The root of “primary” does seem to be singular, but maybe the word has taken on a broader meaning.

A: There’s nothing wrong with using “primary” to mean important. What’s “primary” isn’t necessarily the one that’s first in line, so a phrase like “three primary reasons” isn’t incorrect.

Many people use “primary” in the same way they use “principal” or “chief,” and there’s nothing unusual in this. Let’s take a look at the word’s etymology.

The word “primary,” which entered English in the 15th century, is from the classical Latin primarius, which means “of the first rank or importance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

At the root of the Latin adjective, the OED says, is primus, which to the Romans meant “first in order of time, earliest, young, most notable or distinguished, chief, principal, of the best quality, first class, primary, fundamental, from which all else is derived.”

When first used in English in the first half of the 1400s, the dictionary says, “primary” meant “occurring or existing first in a sequence of events; belonging to the beginning or earliest stage of something; first in time.”

One early citation for the use of “primary” in this sense pairs it with a plural noun. George Ripley in his Compend of Alchemy (1549) uses the phrase “primary quallytes” (qualities).

In the later 1500s, “primary” was used in two new ways, the OED says: (1) to mean “of the highest rank or importance; principal, chief”; and (2) to mean fundamental, original, or “not subordinate to or derived from anything else.”

In these and similar senses of the word, “primary” is often used with plural nouns. After all, several things of equal importance can be described as “not subordinate” to any of the others, and “primary” is often used this way in scientific and academic language.

For example, philosophers from the 17th century to the present have written about the “primary qualities” of matter. Doctors speak of “primary symptoms,” “primary nerves,” and “primary branches” of the carotid artery.

Astronomers say the “primary planets” are the ones that orbit the sun. In academic research, “primary sources” are original documents.

In biology, birds have “primary feathers,” and people have “primary sexual characteristics” as well as secondary ones. Economists speak of “primary commodities,” “primary products,” and “primary industries.”

So it’s not unusual that in ordinary usage we can call more than one thing at a time “primary.” Every state has its “primary roads,” and everybody who’s ever owned a box of crayons knows about the “primary colors.”

Standard dictionaries endorse the plural usage.

Within its entry for “primary,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) uses the examples “primary stages” and “primary materials.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) uses “primary sources” and “primary nerves” as examples.

In case you’re wondering where (or whether) the noun “primer” fits in, take a look at a posting we wrote earlier this year.

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