On a site, I happened to use the phrase "In the first instance" ...

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(Not that this is relevant, but notice the many upvotes suggesting that presumably, it reaches baseline understandability in a typical mixed-language, mixed-age, mixed-continent SE audience.)

I was utterly astounded that someone did not know the phrase,

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Astonishingly, more people had not heard the phrase; my total astonishment/disgust with the Youth Of Today, etc. continued when an otherwise highly literate user figured it may be "regional" or such ...!

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In particular: there was a (to me, completely bizarre) thought that it is more "descriptive than proscriptive" (or, something?)

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My questions (here on the "Excellent English SE site") are

  1. Could it be this ordinary phrase is falling out of popularity/meaning? If so since when? (Kids of the 60s? 90s? 10s?) Is there any real way to know this? Does it appear in Harry Potter?

  2. Is there anything to the "unfamiliar in action sentences" concept? (i.e., as I understand the commenter's comment, "ITFI X happened" versus "ITFI do X".)

  • The negative comments have nothing to do how common the expression is, but in how you used it. If you were addressing separate situations in your sentence, each is an instance. Based on the opposing comments, you are using "instance" instead to mean an obligation, opening move, or starting point (meaning "step one."). If you meant starting position, you could almost use As your first stance. Dec 3, 2020 at 14:24
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    "In the first instance" is ordinary, idiomatic English. Unless the posts already used "instance" to refer to specific occasions, the phrasing is unremarkable, remarks to the contrary notwithstanding.
    – Lawrence
    May 2, 2021 at 16:13
  • hi @YosefBaskin , no, as you can see many folks simply said they had never heard / did not understand the phrase. Secondly your description of the meaning is wrong (as can be instantly seen from eg. the example in the OED which is identical to mine).
    – Fattie
    May 2, 2021 at 16:35
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    I hear it and say it. OED: 10. in the first instance: as the first step in proceeding; in the first place. -- a1676 The statutes..were not in the first instance drawn up in the form of acts of parliament ..."; -- 1900 N.E.D. at Instance: I applied to the local post office in the first instance, and then to the Secretary: I had to write thrice and wait five weeks for an explanation. -- There is the other meaning = 6. a. A fact or example brought forward in support of a general assertion or an argument: I wonder if your ill-educated readers are mistaking the meaning.
    – Greybeard
    Sep 30, 2021 at 16:12
  • thanks @Greybeard . it's distressing that these days one needs a "sanity check" on such a basic :/
    – Fattie
    Sep 30, 2021 at 18:03

1 Answer 1


Google books actually shows a constant decreasing usage of the expression in the first instance from which probably the fact that some users find it “unusual”.

Moreover, M-W suggests it is a formal expression:

in the first instance - idiom (formal):

before other events happen : as the first thing in a series of actions You will be seen in the first instance by your own doctor who may then send you to a specialist.

For what it is worth, I am quite familiar with this expression and I don’t find it unusual.

  • I was a kid in the 90s, and am also familiar with the expression.
    – Conrado
    Dec 3, 2020 at 13:16
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    Perfectly normal to me, but I think of it as meaning 'on the first occasion' rather than 'as a first step'. Dec 3, 2020 at 13:37
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    I use it like former and latter when there are more than two items listed - in the first instance, in the second instance, etc. I'd use cases if that applies, but not all instances are cases.
    – Phil Sweet
    May 2, 2021 at 13:29

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