Daily Archives: September 5, 2007

Grammar Wednesday

Seriously – I love you guys.

Last week, I received this email from Seth of Teacher in Disguise (I LOVE that blog title!):

Mrs Chili,

As I’ve been trudging through my pile of essays, I can’t help but wonder about the use of some transitions. Is it grammatically correct to use Firstly, Secondly, and Thirdly as transitions? Obviously, there are better words and phrases that could be used, but these are the words I most often see. For example:

Firstly, the author states that it’s wrong to text while driving.

Personally, I think it just sounds bad, but I haven’t been able to find any conclusive evidence as to whether it’s correct to do it or not. I know that it’s generally accepted, but is it right? This one has been bugging me for a while, but I need a specific “grammar” lesson before I tell my students not to use these words.

Please shed some light on this for me!

— Seth

Seth, I’m almost sorry to say that it IS right; I, too, find those “ly” adverb forms to sound clunky and wrong. A little bit of investigation tells me that they’re not wrong (though they are clunky).

My favorite online reference, The American Heritage Dictionary, tells us that firstly is an adverb that means in the first place or to begin with. It goes on to give us a usage note that says that “it is well established that either first or firstly can be used to begin an enumeration… Any succeeding items should be introduced by words parallel to the form that is chosen as in first… second … third or firstly… secondly… thirdly.

I found a couple of English language forums, though, most notably here, which seem to share our dim opinion of putting “ly” on the end of enumerative expressions. This one says it nicely: First and second are perfectly good adverbs and for enumerating (e.g. points in a thesis), I find firstly and secondly unnecessary and stylistically unattractive.

So, there you have it – descriptively, firstly is perfectly acceptable. Prescriptively, maybe not so much.

You’re the teacher; you get to tell them which you prefer they use in your classroom. Putting a moratorium on those structures will encourage the students to experiment with new and more interesting transitions, and I personally think that alone is worth being a little prescriptivist.

I usually handle my personal grammatical preferences as just that – I’ll fully disclose all the rules (like the comma (or not) before the final “and” in a series or list) and then tell them that I prefer that they follow this or that guideline (in my “final and” example, I prefer they use the comma, by the way). This is usually accompanied by a discussion of social contracts and the idea that different environments often call for different behaviors. I don’t mark them wrong when they choose not to conform to my wishes, though I will still inwardly cringe. I can’t help it; I’m like that.

Keep those Grammar Wednesday questions coming! Happy Wednesday, Everyone!


Filed under colleagues, Grammar, Teaching