First, Dump “Firstly”

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).

5 thoughts on “First, Dump “Firstly”

  1. Much cooler than firstly is the lovely term “firstival” (instead of “first of all”) – if you google it there are more than 240 hits.

  2. nat–

    Thanks for the research. You may be right that this is a dialect difference. However, I would still stick by my advice, on style grounds. You can never go wrong by simplifying.

    I grant that the British, in general, have the edge when it comes to crisp, direct language. However, British lawyers and judges still have a strange urge to use antiquated little frills such as “firstly.” I see no need to tolerate this, but I admit to being a fanatic on this point.

    As for adverbs with -ly, I was addressing the common mistake Germans make in not adding -ly enough. This happens because adverbs don’t take any distinctive ending in German. You recognize them by their role in the sentence. This leads to chronic under-marking of adverbs in English prose written by Germans. “The store was absolute full”; “I didn’t answer the question correct”; “The car drove slow through the intersection”; “You did not fill out the form complete”. The error is especially common when the adverb isn’t right next to the word it modifies.

    You’re right that there are confusing exceptions here, but I was just addressing the most common errors. In my experience, missing -ly is about ten times more common than superfluous -ly. What does everyone else think?

  3. “Since the dialect of English that most Germans learn is British English […]”

    That may have been true some twenty years ago, but nowadays the sources from which people learn English is not confined to antiquated school books and Oxford-Engish-trained teachers (fortunately). Rather these sources are multifold, with the internet, American TV series and British journals just being the most common ones.

    Personally, I don’t aim at being able to speak and write one dialect or the other correctly. I just want to be sure that my English is understandable and does not contain major, inexcusable flaws that give me away as incompetent. Thus I deduct from this whole squabble that “firstly” and “first” are both absoluteLY fine, knowing that I will never reach native-speaker perfection anyway.

  4. Andrew, please don’t take this as one of those “nasty comments” that make a blogger’s life so difficult, but this has to be the worst case ever made in disfavour of a grammatical form. “Here are two professors that use my preferred form, therefore the other one must be wrong or bad style.” You might just as well tell Germans not to translate “Hund” as “dog,” because, take Arthur C. Doyle for example, he was without doubt a great writer, and he didn’t title his story “The Dog of the Baskervilles,” did he now?

    I find that when talking to foreigners, it’s all too tempting to simplify questions about one’s native language according to one’s personal habits and preferences. This is especially true in the case of German, which features a far greater diversity than many people – Germans included – reckon (and than the relatively small area in which it is spoken, in contrast to American English for example, would suggest). When someone asks: “What is the genitive of Bär?” who would like to be found doubting and stammering? To whom would it feel right to answer such a straightforward question with a lecture like: “Recently there has been increasing acceptance for a strongly declined singular in cases that used to command strong declension in both numbers …”? If someone asked me how “Tag” is pronounced, would I explain to them that my usual pronunciation “Tach” does not comply with the standard, which actually doesn’t exist, and anyway I would switch to “Taak” in many (formal) contexts … (and I only know, or notice, all of these things because I have an interest in language matters – the average German would probably say: “Declension? I thought that was a thing the Romans did.”) And maybe, for the sake of being helpful, it’s often better to simplify things. But that doesn’t make it right, naturally.

    Now, what about “firstly”? The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000, writes:

    It is well established that either first or firstly can be used to begin an enumeration: Our objectives are, first (or firstly), to recover from last year’s slump. Any succeeding items should be introduced by words parallel to the form that is chosen, as in first . . . second . . . third or firstly . . . secondly . . . thirdly.

    And I really don’t see how we can uphold an absolute rejection of the -ly forms in light of this.

  5. Andrew-

    It’s not an “antiquated little frill”! It’s just the way they talk! You say potayto, I say potahto (except of course that nobody in the English-speaking world actually says potahto, at least to my knowledge). “Personal habits and preferences”, like Sebastian says, or rather regional habits and preferences.

    And I do hope I wasn’t implying that the British “have the edge when it comes to crisp, direct language”. In fact I’ve seen and heard a great deal of evidence to the contrary. I don’t think British people speak better than Americans, or vice versa. They simply speak differently. Which is fine. Isn’t it?

    However, in the end, I am forced to admit that your advice to Germans to avoid “firstly”, “secondly” etc. is sound, for a reason revealed by Norbert: “I just want to be sure that my English is understandable and does not contain major, inexcusable flaws that give me away as incompetent.” While there are probably no British speakers who would regard your use of “first”, “second” etc. as an inexcusable flaw, clearly there are Americans out there who will react that way to the use of “firstly” and “secondly”. So unless you’re sure that your audience contains no Americans, you’re safer without the -ly.

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