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Which is more correct?

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. First, thy eyes gaze deep into my soul. Second,...


There are four reasons why all should hail the Hypno-Toad. Firstly, his eyes gaze deep into your soul. Secondly,...

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This is not a duplicate of that; you can't really deduct from a discussion on "fast" as an adverb whether to prefer "first" or "firstly". – Jonik Aug 24 '10 at 13:38
In fact this is a great question! I remember having wondered about this too. – Jonik Aug 24 '10 at 13:41
up vote 12 down vote accepted

I think either one is OK. Some (American) people object to firstly, secondly etc.

Eric Partridge ("Usage and Abusage") says:

firstly is traditionally said to be inferior to first, even when secondly, thirdly ... follow it.

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Firstly has been arround since 1500s~, I think the concern is people worried about it being a slang word. – Incognito Aug 26 '10 at 15:43

The New Oxford American Dictionary reports the following note:

First, second, third, etc., are adverbs as well as adjectives: "First, dice three potatoes; second, add the bouillon." Firstly, secondly, etc., are also correct, but make sure not to mix the two groups: first, second, third; not first, secondly, thirdly.

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Both are correct, however, there is "overcorrectness" in using firstly because it seems more like an adverb than first.

Go on the length principle: both have the same meaning, but firstly is two characters longer than first. The language will eventually evolve to do without the longer equivalent; I'd use first.

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"The language will eventually evolve to do without the longer equivalent; I'd use firstly." Isn't there a contraction here? If the language will evolve to use the shorter word, why would you the longer word? – b.roth Aug 24 '10 at 12:43
Yeah, did you mean to conclude with "I'd use first"? That'd make more sense. – Jonik Aug 25 '10 at 8:23
...Well pointed out. – Humphrey Bogart Aug 25 '10 at 19:03

I don't think one is more correct than the other. Though I prefer "First" because "Firstly" sounds a little old English.
The important part is you remain consistent. If you use firstly, you must use secondly, thirdly, etc.

EDIT: I found an exception (with regards to the consistency part)

The older standard is first, secondly, thirdly, etc.The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following quote from Johnson's Dictionary, which didn't include word firstly: ‘Some late authors use Firstly for the sake of its more accordant sound with secondly, thirdly, etc.’

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"Firstly" doesn't sound Old English to my ears. Is it because I was butchering Shakespeare in the example sentence? I've switched them around. ;-) – ptomato Aug 24 '10 at 9:55
It probably just sounds old English to be because modern authors prefer "first" to "firstly". :D – Dian Aug 25 '10 at 1:19

Three answers come to mind

  1. Strictly it should be "Firstly", because that is an adverb, and in these quotations it is modifying a clause (i.e. a verb). some English users will feel uncomfortable with this.

  2. Practically / pragmatically, it could be "First", because most English users will understand perfectly well what this means, and will not feel uncomfortable with it.

  3. Poetically (as in the Shakesperean quotation) it can be anything the author likes, because rules of syntax and grammar are frequently bent or broken for poetic effect.

Personally, I would use "Firstly", for the first reason.

For the record: I'm English, so my English may well differ from American English.

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Regarding (1), usage does not suggest that we ought to use "firstly" in all cases where it would be an adverb. In that case, it would be better to say "I'll go firstly", which it clearly is not. The word first is both an adjective and an adverb to begin with, so argument one is moot. This is mostly a pragmatics/style issue. – Kosmonaut Aug 24 '10 at 14:12
@Kosmonaut, good point, but I suspect that in "I'll go first", "first" is not describing how you will go, but that the sentence is a contraction of something along the lines of "I will go in first position", and that "first" is a noun in that case. I realise that many will disagree! Still, my gut tells me that it is a stylistic thing at the end of the day. – AJ01 Aug 26 '10 at 14:32
I think you are mistakenly being too narrow in your definition of adverb. Adverbs don't only modify verbs; they can modify entire sentences. Yesterday is an adverb, for example, in the sentence, "I went there yesterday." If you still don't believe me, then look at the adverb definitions (and particularly the example sentences) of first from dictionary.com: dictionary.reference.com/browse/first – Kosmonaut Aug 26 '10 at 16:08

To me firstly is chiefly British, while first chiefly American. Now, this doesn't mean firstly is never used in AmE, but only less common than that of first.

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