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I've gotten into a debate over which usage of an apostrophe in the phrase "first thing(')s first" is correct.

My thinking is that one would take the first thing and give it priority, hence the first thing is first, and that thing's is a contraction of thing and is.

Her thinking is that there may be multiple things that need doing first, so the phrase should be "first things first".

What is the correct idiom?

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I think this is general reference. Googling "first things first" gets 8m hits, and **"first thing's first" gets only 1M. –  FumbleFingers Mar 8 '12 at 3:35

3 Answers 3

up vote 19 down vote accepted

The correct form of the idiom is:

first things first

Things is plural here. You could imagine having a put before the idiom:

  • put first things first
  • let's put first things first
  • you should put first things first

This clarifies the plurality of things. So, her thinking is actually fact!

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I would write first thing's first because the full expression could be first thing is first, i.e. you will do the first thing first. Then again, one might say first things are first.

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Why Do You Start Every Word With A CAPITAL LETTER? –  Pitarou Mar 8 '12 at 2:29
Nah, this isn't right. You can say "I put you first", "I put them first" and "I put first things first". –  Matt E. Эллен Mar 8 '12 at 10:13

The latter is generally considered correct. From the OED:

First things first: (to give) first place to the most important things.

[under first, adj., 4a, Foremost, preceding all others, in dignity, rank, importance, or excellence.]

Comparing google hits as a very rough measure of usage gives

  • "first things first": 1,660,000
  • "first thing's first": 199,000

So, the apostrophised version is an order of magnitude less common, but not negligible. Interestingly (perhaps surprisingly) it appears not just in amateur but also in professional sources, e.g. Forbes.com.

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A quick survey of Google for words with apostrophes that do not have common non-apostrophe counterparts (such as "don't" and "shouldn't") shows that there are many incorrect omissions of the apostrophe in those words. You should perform a survey of such words and adjust your findings based on the results :) –  Sparr Dec 24 '10 at 7:53

protected by RegDwigнt Mar 8 '12 at 10:12

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