Firstly, Secondly, Thirdly

One of my readers sent the following email in response to last month’s Help or Assist?:

“Your use of the words ‘secondly’ and ‘thirdly’ makes me cringe. Your writing was the last place I expected to see this.”

I did indeed write First of all, Secondly, Thirdly and Finally. But is my reader upset because I used secondly and thirdly (formal, old fashioned?) or because I abandoned parallel structure and didn’t use firstly?

Funny thing is I never use firstly, yet I’m comfortable using secondly and so on. Mainly I do that because I would speak that way. Secondly (ha) because it’s a perverse little nod to something odd and funny I read years ago in Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Fowler has this to say:

“First(ly), secondly, lastly. The preference for first over firstly is one of the harmless pedantries in which those who like oddities because they are odd are free to indulge, provided that they abstain from censuring those who do not share the liking. It is true that the Prayer Book, in enumerating the causes for which matrimony was ordained, introduces them with Firstly, Secondly, Thirdly; it is true that De Quincey labels it ‘your ridiculous and most pedantic neologism of firstly“; but the boot is on the other leg now. It is the pedant that begins his list with first; no one does so by the light of nature; it an artificialism. Idioms grow old like other things, and the idiom-book of a century hence will probably not even mention first, secondly.

This extract from Webster’s Dictionary of Usage explains that in Fowler’s time, firstly was new and controversial. Thanks to him, it became acceptable usage. But while modern commentators admit that firstly is acceptable, they still prefer first because it is shorter and the more common word. Firstly is rarely used except to begin a list and is more British than American.

Today,  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.

But Webster’s Usage cites many instances of inconsistency, and concludes with this advice: “…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 regard with good writers.”

I use first because firstly seems antique. I know I’d never say it. But I would say secondly and thirdly, and that’s why I use them in my writing. From now on, though I resolve to use First, Second, Third. Better still, I’ll try to use a numbered list.