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Sorry, I don't have a clear question so much as I'm just looking for info on the use of first pre-verbally in examples like these:

  • When I first wake up, I […]
  • When we first saw them, we […]

I just realised how odd this construction is to think about, even though it feels perfectly idiomatic. It seems to refer simply to the first thing one does on realising the verb in the statement (as though it could essentially be rephrased, ‘when I wake up, the first thing I do is...’). Do we know where/when that construction originated? I was trying to translate a piece of text into German and just suddenly realised the oddity of this! I'm just generally curious about this phrasing, so any thoughts or info on it would be greatly appreciated.

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    Yes; the 'immediately on doing' sense is different from the 'for the first time' sense When I first saw you, you were only a small boy. Dictionaries tend to give that latter usage but not the Immediately upon [waking] / sense you query. It is idiomatic, and I can foresee possible ambiguities ('When we first saw them' could mean 'The first time we saw them' or 'At the moment we saw them'. Apr 29, 2017 at 10:36
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    In the "wake" sentence, the "first" is just a mistake: it has its usual meaning, but has been attached to the wrong verb phrase. Depending on what the second example is when complete, it might be correct and refer to the first of the many moments when we saw them. Another occurrence of this mistake: "When I first cook a meal, I pre-heat the oven."
    – Rosie F
    Aug 28, 2021 at 17:34
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    This syntax is not unique to "first". E.g.: "When I last spoke with her, . . ." "When you next go to Paris, . . ." May 31, 2023 at 4:09
  • @Rosie F I'm happy with the usage you say is wrong, and Collins Dictionary includes it. Nov 3, 2023 at 15:38
  • One doesn't need to be an extreme prescriptivist, but only a moderate one, to think that, in the interest of clarity, this usage is to be avoided. On the other hand, it is so widespread that one doesn't need to be an extreme descriptivist, but only a moderate one, to accept it.
    – jsw29
    Dec 3, 2023 at 16:48

3 Answers 3

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This is interesting!

To start with, a few observations:

  • One of the basic senses of first is "for the first time", as in "I first saw it yesterday" meaning "I saw it yesterday for the first time". (There are some other preverbal senses of first, such as the ones found in "I first do X, then do Y" and in "She's who first did X", but I don't think any of them are terribly relevant here, except to the extent that they're variations on the same fundamental sense.)
  • It's not uncommon in English for modifiers to be "transferred", so that what they modify syntactically isn't what their meaning actually applies to; however, I actually don't think that's terribly relevant here. I mention it mainly because it's a possible interpretation that I considered (interpreting "When I first X, I Y" as meaning "When I X, I first Y"), and even though I ended up deciding that it's not the right one, Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania has suggested as a general principle that "Multiple sources, interpretations and resonances increase the fitness of a word or phrase" [link], and I think that that might well apply in this case. And either way, it shows that modifiers are more flexible than we might expect if we haven't really thought about this before.
    • FWIW, if you're interested in "transferred" modifiers, then Wikipedia's article for "Hypallage" gives examples like "the sleeping countryside" and "restless night", and CGEL ch. 6 §4.1 gives examples like "smoked a discreet cigarette" and "your own stupid fault". Both of those sources are also good starting-points for looking at related phenomena.
  • The use of the word "first" doesn't necessarily imply the existence of a "second". For example, when a headline says that scientists have found the "first known pollinating amphibian", all it means is that scientists have now found an amphibian that pollinates a plants, whereas previously none such were known. This certainly suggests the possibility that there could be more found in the future — the editor probably wouldn't say "first" if (s)he felt confident that there won't be — but the headline's accuracy doesn't depend on it.
  • The word "first" always involves some implicit or explicit scope, which may be "across all time and space" (as in "first ever") but usually is not. For example, we can say "Han shot first" even though Greedo has certainly shot other people, perhaps (so far as we know) mere minutes before the event we're talking about.
  • "When [event]" very often means "After [event]"; that is, "when [event]" can regularly be used with a situation that begins only after the event (as in "When I wake up, I like to stay in bed for a few minutes and listen to the birds"), though of course it can also be used with a situation that is already the case (as in "When I woke up, it was mid-morning").
  • More generally, there is sometimes some ambiguity between a state and the event that triggered it. For example, "the window was broken" can describe either an event ("The window was broken when a baseball smashed into it") or the resulting state ("She shivered. The window was broken, and snow was blowing in from outside").

With those observations in mind, I think we can now see how this sense might have developed.

As I observed above, the word "first" does not always imply the existence of a "second", but rather, it often just means that something hadn't happened before or hadn't existed before. So it's natural to extend "first" to cases where the clause denotes a newly-entered state; "when we were first married" means "when we were married, after not having been married before". It's not suggesting that there will be a later remarriage, but rather, it's merely emphasizing that the marriage is a new state (at the time in question).

That same sense extension also works in cases where the clause denotes an ongoing action, because an ongoing action is itself a sort of state; "when we were first discussing the idea" means "when were discussing the idea, after not having discussed it before".

Additionally, as I observed above, the word "first" usually has a limited scope (it doesn't usually mean "first ever"). So it's natural for a writer to say "when I'm first starting a book, I […]", referring generally to all books (s)he's started, rather than specifically the very first one. The important thing is just that starting this book is a new state; previously, the writer was not starting this book, and now (s)he is.

Lastly, the fact that "when I first wake up" means "when I've first woken up" is mostly a consequence of the general property of "when [event]" that I mentioned above. This is still extending the sense somewhat — first is not being applied here to the state, but to the event that triggers it — but as I observed above, English sometimes has ambiguities between events and resulting states, so perhaps this is a natural extension as well. (I should note that this application is not unique to when-clauses; we can also say things like "We first became friends during the war", where first is applied to the change of state from not-friends to yes-friends.)


Incidentally, while searching Google Books for examples of this usage, I happened across a discussion of it in Otto Jespersen's Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles, which calls this "inchoative first" and says:

First is used in an interesting way (not noticed in NED) when it serves to denote, or to emphasize, the beginning of a state, or action, or some change of state: when first I knew him = ‘when I made his acquaintance’, when we were first married = ‘in the beginning of our marriage’, etc. (When we were married without first might be taken to imply that the marriage had been dissolved). [link]

I think that agrees with my explanation, but you can form your own judgment.

And you may be interested to learn that this usage is quite old; I found a bunch of occurrences from the 1500s and 1600s (which is as far back as I looked), including "instructing a wife, when she is first married" in 1581, "since we first became acquainted together" in 1596, and "when I was first a Student herein" in 1659. And Jespersen mentions an occurrence in Sir Orfeo, which is solidly Middle English.

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Merriam-Webster, Longman, OALD. AHD, RHK Webster's, Wiktionary and Britannica miss this sense.

Though Cambridge Dictionary includes the example

  • The company was still very small when I first joined.

it misclassifies it under the 'for the first time' sense.

Collins correctly identifies this usage of 'first':

first 6 adverb[positioned before verb] B2

You use first when you are talking about what happens in the early part of an event or experience, in contrast to what happens later:

  • When he first came home he wouldn't say anything about what he'd been doing.

And notice that 'when he first came home' is punctive (point-in-time); there seems a break in logic. We'd paraphrase as 'In the days after he first came home, he wouldn't say anything ...', speaking more logically of the initial period. Similarly 'In the half hour or so after I wake up, I ....'

.................

I'd say that 'When we first saw them, ...' defaults to 'The first time we saw them, ...' though. This is probably the default reading where context doesn't make it inadmissible ('When I first wake up ...' is very unlikely to mean 'The first time I wake up ...).

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  • While some dictionaries confirm that this usage exists, this doesn't quite answer the OP's question, which is 'where/when that construction originated?' Regardless of how tolerant one may be of it, the usage is, as the OP points out, odd, and in need of an explanation.
    – jsw29
    Dec 3, 2023 at 16:53
  • OP states also (bolding mine) 'it feels perfectly idiomatic. ... I'm just generally curious about this phrasing, so any thoughts or info on it would be greatly appreciated.' I usually get slated for offering incomplete answers as 'comments'. This at least has references. Dec 3, 2023 at 19:45
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For me, it implies the feeling of being asleep and the importantce of what is first ... like immediate and essential and in a state of half sleep - not merely the first thing that you do.

For 'first saw him' it also implies the value of meeting.

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    I can't make sense of this at all.
    – TonyK
    Aug 26, 2018 at 11:41
  • Roberta Flack understood. Hers is the perfect delivery of the importance of a first meeting. "The first time ever I saw your face / I thought the sun rose in your eyes / And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave / To the dark and the endless skies my love / To the dark and the endless skies." May linguistics first acknowledge subtlety, understanding, connection; may language never be reigned wholly by science; may science never throw up its hands and turn away.
    – Kay V
    Oct 29, 2018 at 18:08
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    @KayV: I'm a romantic like you, but Roberta Flack did not say "When I first saw your face..." Aug 24, 2022 at 0:54

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