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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
@FumbleFingers That's not really a reliable way to tell in this case, because search engines don't handle punctuation very well at all, to say nothing of the way most people play it fast and loose with grammar and homonyms/homophones in electronic communications. I'm a native English speaker with above average intelligence and education, and I had to Google this up to be certain, which brought me to this very thread in link #5. –  HopelessN00b Feb 19 at 20:23
@HopelessN00b: I'd have thought the mere fact that Google put a lowly ELU question in the top five when searching for the erroneous form thing's suggests there wasn't much competition (i.e. - not many people would make such a mistake). –  FumbleFingers Feb 19 at 20:30
@FumbleFingers Fair point, but 1 million hits for the erroneous usage also means that the erroneous usage has been used, on the internet, in 1 million unique pages that Google has indexed. That strikes me as fitting the definition of "common," even ignoring any other factors/arguments/whatever. –  HopelessN00b Feb 19 at 20:39
@HopelessN00b: Perhaps Google just got better. Presumably I did see 1M results last year, but today it only reports About 361,000 results - the first of which is this very post (and the next three are all querying the "grammaticality" of the apostrophe). Anyway, this is a really basic aspect of usage, barely even suitable for English Language Learners –  FumbleFingers Feb 19 at 20:50

4 Answers 4

up vote 22 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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The latter is generally considered correct. From Oxford Dictionaries Online:

first things first
Used to assert that important matters should be dealt with before other things.

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.

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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

The British National Corpus has 31 instances for "First things first" and none for "First thing's first". I guess the full formula is/was "Let's do first things first" and not: First thing is first, which is as illogical as "Second thing is second"- or you could call it a tautology expressing the same idea twice.

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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

protected by RegDwigнt Mar 8 '12 at 10:12

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