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Use of Firstly, Secondly, Thirdly, etc.

I have been wondering about the use of these terms, especially when they came up repeatedly in the Presidential Debates. I am taking a Linguistics Class and my Professor asked me to do some research. I don’t even know where to start, what are these terms referred to as, and what are the constraints on their use? They always sound awkward to me when I hear them, but I am starting to realize that that doesn’t mean anything.

Thanks in advance,


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Hello, Ms. Mourer!

Sometimes, in grammar, things really are what they seem, and these words that look so much like adverbs (with their -ly suffix) really are adverbs! You may, in this case, even drop the suffix and say "first," "second," "third," and so on.

They are used for listing things. The word commonly used for this is "enumeration," and though I am NOT a linguist, I suspect this may be the technical term as well.

Here is a place to begin. I have a link to a brief definition of "firstly," which includes some notes on usage:

You may also wish to look into "parallel construction" to see some ways to make enumeration sound elegant. Parallel construction is my favorite vice. One of them, anyway. :D

speedwell2 October 15, 2004, 9:42am

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Thank you, thank you! It seems like such a dumb question now, but your information was great.


Elizabeth Mourer October 15, 2004, 1:24pm

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Like many things in the english language, use of firstly, secondly, thirdly, or first, second, third
are a matter of style. As an English teacher, I teach my students to stick with first, second, and third, as they do not sound so akward.

Remember, language is an art, not a science. It's all about style in the end. Some of the greatest writers in history broke with the traditional English of their time. English changes with time. Don't think so? Just read something from only a hundred years ago and compare it to today. Language existed for many hundreds of years before people started to try to pigeon hole it into grammar rules.

Dr. Ray November 17, 2004, 9:49pm

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"Language existed for many hundreds of years before people started to try to pigeon hole it into grammar rules."

Well, clothing has existed since before recorded history, but fashion still insists on adherence to its ever-changing, never-the-same-twice rules. Grammar is the same. Both what you wear and what you say are ways you use to communicate to other people. Both must be done properly to be properly understood.

speedwell2 November 18, 2004, 3:04am

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The term you're after is 'sentential adverb'. Their entire purpose is to signpost for the speech or text they appear in.

Persephone Imytholin January 22, 2005, 7:15am

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When contributing to conversations regarding grammar, it is best not to use nouns as verbs or end sentences with prepositions.

smarta55 August 31, 2005, 9:57am

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The problem with using firstly, secondly, thirdly, etc is you have to say fourthly, fifthly, sixthly and so on. Ridiculous, isn't it?

POMPEYO PEDROCHE June 7, 2012, 11:41am

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Hey, what's wrong with verbing nouns?

Sid Plait November 17, 2013, 12:21pm

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Yes     No