Is Using ‘Firstly’ Grounds for Summary Execution?

Lori Nixon asked a question on my Facebook  page, and I told her that I’d reply over here. Her question:

Knowing that you have studied linguisitics I thought you might be the person to ask this question of. If I am totally off base by posting this question to your FB page, I apologize.

My question; every time I hear the word firstly the hair on the back of my neck stands up.I’ve been known to yell out loud, to no one in particular “that is NOT a word.” I now realize, hearing it more and more often, that I very well may be mistaken. Is use of the word “firstly” correct?


Firstly (cough) I’m happy to get questions about linguistics here, there, anywhere.

There are two approaches to this firstly business. The one you were taught in school (and the reason Lori gets all itchy when she hears it) goes something like there is a right and a wrong way to say xxxx or bad grammar is evidence of a lazy mind and/or low intelligence. We are all taught that in school, because in school they are teaching you to read and write.  The written language is different from the spoken language in a dozen ways, but the most important (for this conversation) is this: the written language conveys complex information over time and space. It needs to be consistent, goes the reasoning. And quite logically.

Did you know that Shakespeare used a lot of alternate spellings when he signed his name?  Spelling was a fluid thing back then. The printing press made uniformity in spelling (and other aspects of language) a priority. Printers could hardly make a profit if they had to print the Bible in twenty different dialects of English — and English spoken in Cornwall and in Yorkshire were very different. The solution was to pick one variety of English, call it ‘correct’ and everything else ‘wrong’ and to convince the general public to go along with this. And they pulled it off. Amazing, really, to think about.

All of this (abbreviated) background is just to make a point: there’s a prescriptivist approach to language that began to develop with the invention of printing. Somewhere along the line somebody (many somebodies, but not in an organized fashion) decided that if there were rules for the written language to make it more useful and perfect, there ought to be rules for the spoken language. Spoken English should be consistent and homogeneous. For that to happen, there had to be one spoken variety of English that would be seen as good or right or grammatical. And again: the general populace was drawn into accepting this as truth.

So that’s the prescriptive approach you learned in school. In that world view, ‘firstly’ is not a word. As evidence people will say: it’s not in the dictionary.

The Language Instinct, PinkerNow here comes the other approach.

Academically trained linguists study human language. The acquisition of language is hard-wired into the human brain, whereas writing is a skill that has to be laboriously taught and practiced.  Most linguists study the spoken language. 

The spoken language is inherently flexible, always changing, never static. Hard-line prescriptivists insist  that it is possible to have a homogenous, non-varying spoken language, if only we were  disciplined enough to speak correctly. But any linguist will tell you that an idealized, homogenous variety of any language is a myth.  You could propose that the world would be an easier place to live in if we were all the same height and weight, but variation is a biological imperative in all aspects of being human. Including language.

So the prescriptivist says: You hurt my ears when you speak such slovenly English. ‘Firstly’ is not a word. Off with your head. Off with all the heads of all the people who say ‘firstly’ because that’s the only way to preserve the beauty of our language.

The linguist says: Okay, we’ve got a morphological neologism that is spreading its wings. Let’s see where it’s showing up (in space) and who’s using it (sex, age, and other factors). 

The Grammar of PolarityExcept the origin and spread of ‘firstly’ — which drives the prescriptivist to the point of murder — is only vaguely interesting to the linguist. It’s one small phenomenon in a universe of shifting language. Academic linguists study things like huge shifts in the vowel systems of people who live in a wide arc from Chicago to Buffalo, something that’s been going on for a long time. They study the syntax of multiple negation in specific varieties of English, or compare that point of syntax across varieties of English.  To name just two of a dozen directions a linguist might go. The Wikipedia page on linguistics has a long list of linguistic subfields.

embiggenThe bottom line is this: as a linguist I have to say to you that ‘firstly’ is a perfectly cromulent word. Click the link, read the bit in Wikipedia. It will make a lot of this come to life in a far more entertaining way. I’ll wait here while you do that.

To summarize:  You won’t find cromulent (or firstly) in a dictionary, but new words pop up constantly and a lot of them end up embiggening the language.   Despite the howls of protest from third grade teachers everywhere, you simply can’t nail the spoken language down.  This is true for new words and for the way we string words together into sentences and every other aspect of language.

The variable nature of language actually serves an important function. Variation is emblematic. And I’ll stop there because by now I’m boring everybody to death.  And if you are just waking up now, the short answer: Firstly is in fact a word.