I would like to know the difference between "For the first time - the first time". It seems to me that sometimes they are interchangeable but at other times they are not.

For example: (not interchangeable)

1) Most animals can swim right away the first time they go into water.

2) Most animals can swim right away for the first time they go into water. (seems like they might not be able to swim the second time)

For example: (interchangeable)

3) They met for the first time in 1980.

4) The first time they met was in 1980.

Plus here is an explanation by a Londoner

*|No, they mean different things and have different grammar. 'For the first time' is a complete description of a time, and it implies other times that came before it.

For the first time, he won a prize. [He had never won a prize before this. This was his first time to win a prize. But he might have tried many times before.]

'The first time' needs to be followed by a relative clause saying what is 'first' about it. Then, including the relative clause, it forms a complete description of a time. It also implies there were not other times before this - this one is the first.

The first time (that) he took part in the competition, he won a prize. [He had never taken part in the competition before this. And when finally he did take part, he won.] |*

Is the explanation correct? I have made up two sentence to test the explanation. Would it be correct to say that in 5 it is necessary to understand that I had been trying to win a prize before yesterday?

5) Yesterday I won a prize for the first time.

6) The first time I won a prize was yesterday.

  • "Yesterday I won a prize for the first time." does not necessarily imply that you had been trying to win a prize before yesterday. If it's important you'd make it explicit, e.g. "Yesterday, after many prior losses, I finally won a prize.", or, "I never won a prize until yesterday." Nov 19, 2014 at 13:15
  • #2 sounds mildly incorrect to me. Nov 19, 2014 at 13:17
  • They're not interchangeable if you have to change the order. You're really talking about completely different constructions. This is like the difference between "I gave Bob a drink" vs "I gave a drink to Bob". You can't say "I gave Bob to a drink" or "I gave a drink Bob". Nov 19, 2014 at 13:27
  • I am not sure that your comparison is useful. The question wants a relevant answer not just a comparison with a foreign construction.
    – user1425
    Nov 20, 2014 at 5:52

1 Answer 1


1: Yesterday I went to Ascot, and I bet on several races. I couldn't believe it when I actually won...

1a: ...for the first time
1b: ...the first time

Clearly there's a difference in that example. #1 means I'd never won (a bet at Ascot) before yesterday (when any or all of my bets might have won). But #2 means I won the first bet I placed yesterday (I may or may not have won bets before yesterday - that's unspecified).

In general, "for the first time" implies "first time ever", whereas plain "the first time" usually implies the first of the contextually relevant instances/times (in my example, yesterday's bets).

  • Any comment on my examples? Namely 1,2, 5,6
    – user1425
    Nov 20, 2014 at 5:49
  • 1
    Ex #2 is not a valid construction. I'm not sure how to specify the "grammatical rule" it violates (though I'm sure there is one). Note that right away is syntactically irrelevant to the issue; simplifying some other elements, we get "Cats can swim the first time they try". It may then help to consider replacing the first time with when - if you include for you end up with gibberish: "Cats can swim for when they try". Apart from your #2 (and the distinction in my answer), there's nothing unusual about any of your other examples. Nov 20, 2014 at 13:45
  • Do you mean that the rest of the examples are OK? Do the alike sentences mean the same? I am trying to find out when For the first time - the first time can be interchangeable.
    – user1425
    Nov 20, 2014 at 13:56
  • Another question. Do you take this sentence "Yesterday I went to Ascot, and I bet on several races. I couldn't believe it when I actually won for the first time" to mean that the person had been trying to win before that time or not necessarily?
    – user1425
    Nov 21, 2014 at 9:50
  • 1
    @user1425: Pragmatically, in your exact context it's likely the speaker had previously tried to win unsuccessfully, but I don't think that's particularly implied by for the first time (note that both couldn't believe it and actually each strongly invite such an interpretation anyway). If someone said "I had sex for the first time on my 18th birthday", that in no way implies they'd spent years before that desperately seeking sex (they might have, but that's a matter of adolescent sexual proclivities, not language use! :) Nov 21, 2014 at 13:13

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