In a BBC News report from San José, Costa Rica, dated 7 May 2018 and titled “Why Costa Ricans are being paid to marry Chinese migrants”, they write:

The first the victims of this particular scam know about it is when they find out to their shock that their civil status has changed from “single” to “married” without their knowledge or consent.

Shouldn’t that be written with the word time added?

The first time the victims of this particular scam....

Or can first function as a noun to mean the first time?

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  • I'm afraid it's very easy to find first as a noun. – Andrew Leach May 7 '18 at 13:39
  • Many would indeed take "first" to be an adjective and thus "the first" to be a fused modifier-head construction, i.e. a noun phrase meaning "the first time". – BillJ May 7 '18 at 14:29
  • @BillJ That’s certainly a reasonable analysis. It’s been happening for at least eight centuries that we know of, as the OED dates using the first as a substantive “Chiefly with anaphoric reference: the first-mentioned thing(s) or person(s)” back to the Middle English of Ancrene Riwle from 1225. – tchrist May 7 '18 at 14:57

First is an ancient word, one that we inherited from our Germanic ancestor languages; it occurs in the very earliest of all writings in English. It can be used not only as an adjective or adverb, but also as a noun and even as a verb.

So while it is possible to write the first time/thing (that) in that sentence, it is by no means required. That’s because per the OED, the word first can be used as a noun with the following sense:

C. n(oun).²

  1. With the and the person or thing denoted identified contextually.


    (c) With a relative clause containing hear, know, see, be told, etc. The beginning of a person’s awareness of, knowledge about, or contact with someone or something.

The OED provides many citations for this sense ranging in time from the 17ᵗʰ century up through the present 21ˢᵗ century. Here are the first and the last:

  • 1697    J. Vanbrugh Relapse ɪɪ. i. 34
    Wor... But, pray Madam, how long has this noble Lord been an humble Servant of yours? Aman. This is the first I have heard on't.


  • 2005      J. M. Coetzee Slow Man xxᴠ. 201
    Hadn’t she given notice? No, I said, this was the first I heard of it.

It’s a perfectly unremarkable construct that occurs with some frequency.

  • One thing that might be particularly confusing about the OP's example is that this particular meaning of "first" appears most often with pronouns, and especially first person pronouns, immediately before the verb, as in "Well, that's the first I've heard of it!" or, more rarely "The first they knew about it was when it landed in their laps." The examples in the OED seem to bear this out (every single one uses a pronoun, and all but 2 are first person), and this might explain why "The first the victims of this particular scam know about it" is harder to parse on first glance. – 1006a May 7 '18 at 14:44

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