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

22 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. I think you’ve got prescriptive/descriptive backwards: either “first” or “firstly” is standard for beginning an enumeration. This is a description of the evidence.

    However, a prescriptivist, someone who gives advice on what they think we should use, might advise us to not use “firstly”, because they feel it’s unnecessary, ugly, or for any number of reasons.

  2. You know, for the same reason you guys dislike the ly ending I have irrational hatred for that last comma before the and. I am conditioned for minimalist punctuation and to me the and = , in a list so to do both seems so CLUTTERED! You’d think I wouldn’t have a problem with clutter but I do somehow. It’s weird what we latch on to.

  3. Ooops! John, you’re right! That’s what I get for composing a post at 6:30 in the morning! I’ll fix the post when I get home. Kizz, I’ll also explain why I like that last comma (I’m typing with my thumbs right now; I’ll be clearer when I can type more freely).


  4. There – I’ve fixed my transposition; thanks for pointing it out, John!!

    Kizz, I like the final comma before the “and” because it often eliminates some confusion. The example I use is this:

    Beanie used to only eat chicken nuggets, cereal, hot dogs, and macaroni and cheese.

    If I were to leave out the comma before the “and,” it could be assumed that she only ate hot dogs if they were WITH the mac and cheese – that the two items come as a unit.

    Here’s an excerpt from that addresses the serial comma issue:

    My original assertion stands, with minor qualifications: Except for journalists, all American authorities say to use the final serial comma: “He went to the store to buy milk, butter, and eggs.”

    The reason for the final serial comma is to prevent the last 2 items’ being confused as a unit (butter-and-eggs).

  5. On the other hand, there are times when the final comma is not desirable:

    dedicated to my parents, Judy, and Fred.
    dedicated to my parents, Judy and Fred.

  6. I can’t say that I’m happy with your findings, but I’ll have to get used to it. I still tell my students NOT to use these words…. along with a number of my other pet peeves, including font size (nothing bold, PLEASE), the use of “it’s”, and anything but black ink. Yet, there are always a few who tend to ignore my desires and push out on their own.

    I, too, like the comma before “and” in a list. It just looks right to me…. most of the time.

  7. WL

    dedicated to my parents, Judy, and Fred.
    dedicated to my parents, Judy and Fred.

    These mean two different things. The first is a dedication to your parents and to Judy and to Fred. The second is a dedication to your parents, whose names are Judy and Fred.

    This is precisely why the serial comma is so useful: used properly, it makes these distinctions without ambiguity.

  8. Tangent: hot dogs and macaroni and cheese… YUM!

  9. Exactly, WL. That’s part of why I love commas so much – they really do help us say what we mean.

    Dana – eeew!

  10. i ALWAYS use “firstly” and “secondly.” it actually bugs me a lot when others don’t. i think in my experience, “first” and “second” and etc. are almost always nouns or adjectives, so when they’re placed as adverbs they feel wrong (even though they can be adverbs also).

    but the bigger problem is that so many people i know start by saying “first” and go on to say “secondly.” mixing and matching is worst of all, if you ask me.

  11. Many writers begin enumerations with “first” and continue with “secondly” etc. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “So while we do not suggest you be purposely inconsistent, it does appear that consistency in this specific usage has not always had a particularly high priority with good writers.”

  12. Firstly, bah on “firstly” and “secondly”, but then I would go on to say that using enumerations to be undesirable. I prefer “To begin with” and “furthermore”, although I can’t guarantee that when I’m being lax that I don’t slip into those easy adverbs.

    Furthermore (ah, that feels better), the comma before the “and” is essential. Just because usually there’s no confusion without it doesn’t mean it’s not essential. All the examples have been provided already, let us move on.

    Finally, hotdogs macaroni and cheese…called MacWeinies around here…delicious!

  13. Thanks for the grammar lesson! I just wanted to say that I really love your blog.

  14. Thank you, Frumteacher! I appreciate the kind words; it matters to me that people enjoy this forum.


  15. Markus

    > On the other hand, there are
    > times when the final comma
    > is not desirable:

    John is right although his example does not work. In the case of an apposition the final serial comma can make an enumeration ambiguous:

    dedicated to Judy, my mother and Fred. [three people]

    dedicated to Judy, my mother, and Fred. [two people, and “my mother” apposition to “Judy”]

  16. Out Wrong

    First, let me say, “thanks,” for this post. I have been curious about this ordinal punctuation topic for sometime. I ended up ordering the Merriam-Webster Usage dictionary as a result of the above comment.

    I actually came here looking for insight on the punctuation following the ordinal. Must one always include a comma?

    Second, I love Meez!

    Keep up the good work.

  17. spaminator

    hey guys i dont see what is teh big deal i mean a commas a comma sometimes i use a air comma like this’ if i wanna say something that is multiple. like if i wanna say i got 13 of somethin i say i got 13 somthin’s no what i mean?

  18. Kimber

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    blog’s content everyday along with a mug of coffee.

  20. Kam

    To those who inexplicably cling to your right to omit the serial comma, have it your way. However, be aware that you are also voluntarily diminishing the precision of your writing and introducing unnecessary ambiguity.

    Without this innocuous little helper you will at times be stuck with sticky situations like the following hypothetical dedication page:
    “With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.”

    Yes I know journalists and the AP style book omit it. But here’s my favorite example of the potential fallout of this irrational abstinence, taken directly from The Times newspaper, talking about a Peter Ustinov documentary and saying that:
    “highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”.

    For another good (and funny) example, see this post from this very site:

  21. Rachael E. Hall

    It is a shame that we Americans have fallen so far that we will GO this far to try to sound as smart as we once were.

    Alas and “firstly”, (sigh)… We actually feel better, for us, if we make an adverb – wait for it – an ADVERB!!! (Mind blowing crescendo begins… NOW😨). Good Lord! Thank you for the rational thinking. That’s what? A few of us left.

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