Thanks for all the responses to my previous post on common German-to-English translation bugs. I’ve already updated the post with some of the suggestions. I’m thinking of turning this into a Typepad "page," (a sort of more permanent post), but I haven’t figured out how yet.
Two commenters have taken issue with my fatwa against using "firstly" and "secondly" to structure sentences. My hypothesis is that Germans do this because you add something to the German words for "first" and "second" when you use them to structure sentences (erst usually becomes erstens), and German assume you have to add something to the English words, too. Or perhaps some German-English dictionary is dishing out this bad advice.
But I’m sticking to my guns. The commenters are correct that there’s nothing grammatically wrong with "firstly" and "secondly," and I’m sure you can find them in certain texts. However, you can find plenty of awkward and clumsy English on the Internet, and buckets of it in books. Not everything that’s gramatically OK is stylistically OK. The sentence "Potentialities in terms of market saturation potentiated by the introduction of the product-facilitation agents in relevant target regions were not achieved" is grammatically correct, for instance.
My audience is non-native speakers who want to write ambitious stuff in English as clearly and elegantly as they can. In that context, there’s never a reason to use "firstly" instead of "first." Occam’s razor of prose style: if a simpler phrase says the same thing, use it. Or the categorical imperative of good prose: Omit needless words. And its corollary: Omit needless syllables. "Firstly," although not wrong, and probably common as late as 1930, sounds pretentious, donnish and twee in modern English.
If you’re not willing to accept me as an authority on English usage (fools!), here are some examples found at the blog balkin.blogspot.com:
"First, according to Ellis, there was almost no serious dispute…" (Sandy Levinson, UT Law Professor and author, most recently, of "Our Undemocratic Constitution")
"I’d been following the South Dakota referendum, first, because it’s in the morning papers, second, because I’m working on a book on Roe v. Wade, and third, because Reva Siegel is a colleague and friend of mine who’s been working on similar issues." (Jack Balkin (.pdf) Yale law professor and author or editor of dozens of books).
As I said, you can probably find "firstly" and "secondly" in various texts, but that just shows you how common inflated prose is. Balkin and Levinson, whatever you think of their political leanings, write good, clear legal prose. Write like a Yale professor (who doesn’t ‘do theory’), and you’re writing better than 95% of English speakers, and 98% of all lawyers everywhere. Given that they were born after 1900, I doubt Balkin or Levinson have ever written the word "firstly" (although some smartass will probably prove me wrong).