Saturday, February 15, 2014

First(ly) and more important(ly)

According to some people, each of the following three quotations, the first from a leading ninteenth-century intellectual, the second from a twentieth century scientist and the third from a noted 'author, playwright, journalist, composer, and public speaker' (Wikipedia), all three British, break not one but two 'rules', or at least conventions.

John Henry Newman (Cardinal Newman) - Certitudes in Religious Assent, published in The Dublin Review, Vol XVI, London and Dublin, 1871

The net results are, firstly that it would be best to drop the term race from our vocabulary, both scientific and popular, as applied to man ; and secondly, and more importantly for our present purpose, that until we ...

Julian Huxley - Eugenics and Society, Galton Lectures 1936

For two reasons. Firstly because it showed an abysmal ignorance of economics. ... Secondly, and much more importantly . . . . . . the 'What- does-it-matter-who-has-them?' school ignored the one thing that it is fatal to ignore in any virile nation.

Beverley Nichols - Men do not Weep 1941

In this post I take a look, from a largely British point of view, at the use of firstly, secondly (etc) and more importantly, to introduce clauses, and at the objections to them.

Part 1 - first(ly) etc

The following question appeared in a grammar quiz at The Telegraph:
Which of these lists is more traditionally correct and technically perfect?
  • a. Firstly…, secondly…, thirdly…
  • b. First ..., secondly, ... thirdly
While I know that many people, especially in North America, think that the first option is somehow incorrect, it's the one that I naturally go for. I was interested to find out why they consider my choice wrong, and why the second option is apparently 'technically perfect'?
Neville Gwynne, author of a best-selling grammar book and the person who had set the questions, had this to say:
Contrary to what many leading authorities on English, (including Fowler) say, “First …, secondly …, thirdly…,” in a list is traditionally correct and technically more perfect than “Firstly …, secondly …, thirdly…”. This is because “first” is one of the relatively few adjectives which do not change their form when they become adverbs, unlike "second" and "third". Another such adjective is “fast”.

First ..., secondly ... the traditional form

Until the nineteenth century, First ..., secondly ... etc, had certainly been the standard form, and firstly doesn't appear in Johnson's Dictionary of 1755, or even in Noah Webster's (1828). So we can perhaps allow Mr Gwynne the first part of his statement. But what about the technically perfect bit?

Yes, first is certainly the standard adverb.

Mr Gwynne says “first” is one of the relatively few adjectives which do not change their form when they become adverbs. Nowadays we'd tend to call first a determiner rather than an adjective, but its corresponding adverb is certainly also first:
'You go first.', 'When did you first meet him?', 'I'll just finish this first.'

But is Mr Gwynne really saying second and third can't be adverbs?

Gwynne then follows this with 'unlike "second" and "third" ', suggesting that second and third can't also be adverbs, thus justifying the use of 'secondly' and 'thirdly' after plain 'first'. But look at this sentence:
'Tom came first in the race, Dick came second and Harry came last'
If first and last here are adverbs, which they definitely are [1] [2], what on earth is 'second' in this sentence if not an adverb too? Which of course it is [3]. Here are examples of second as an adverb from various dictionaries:
  • I agreed to speak second. (Oxford Advanced Learner's)
  • Second, he failed to make clear his true purpose. (Macmillan)
  • Tea is the most popular drink, while coffee ranks (=comes) second. (Longman)
  • The second highest peak. (American Heritage - at The Free Dictionary)
  • The catcher is batting second. (Dictionary.com)
  • There are two good reasons why we can't do it. First, we can't afford it, and second, we don't have time. (Cambridge)
So even if we accept that we must start with first (which, as we'll see, is debatable), the idea that we need to follow with secondly, thirdly etc rather than with second, third etc is grammatical nonsense. 'First ..., secondly ..., thirdly' is no more technically perfect than, for example, 'First ..., second ..., third', an option we weren't given in the quiz.
The standard justification for following First with secondly has nothing to do with grammar, but with clarity. It is felt that, especially if secondly follows quite a long way after First, we need a conscious reminder that we are looking at a list.

So what about firstly?

Given that first is the standard adverb, does that mean that there is no such adverb as firstly? Not according to Oxford Dictionaries:
firstly ADVERB - used to introduce a first point or reason:
firstly it is wrong and secondly it is extremely difficult to implement
Or to Lindley Murray, writer of perhaps the most influential (amd probably most prescriptive) grammar book of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries:
Not to mention the writer of the Eton Latin Grammar of 1826, TWC Edwards
Or William Pinnock, author of A Comprehensive grammar of the English language, London 1830
The adverb firstly has existed since the 1530s but, as the Online Etymology Dictionary points out, has never been in common use. It is only ever used to start a list and is usually (but not always) followed by secondly, thirdly etc (which are themselves only used in lists).

Fowler

According to Gwynne, H.W.Fowler is one of those 'leading authorities on English' who got it wrong, so it's perhaps worth looking at what he had to say (in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 1928):
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.
A provision readily ignored by people like Mr Gwynne. Fowler continues:
It is true that firstly is not in Johnson; it is true that De Quincey labels it 'your ridiculous & most pedantic neologism of firstly'; the boot is on the other leg now; it is the pedant that begins his list with first; no-one does it by the light of nature; it is an artificialism.
However in his following prediction, it has to be said, Fowler was way off the mark:
Idioms grow old like other things, & the idiom-book of a century hence will probably not even mention first, secondly.

Examples of firstly from nineteenth century literature

Charles Dickens - letter to W.H.Wills

Modern examples - Telegraph

This is what I found on the first page of a Google site search of the Telegraph, the paper which published Mr Gwynne's grammar test.
  • Firstly, not all expats are allowed to bring their families with them to Qatar.
  • Firstly the coaches corrected his habit of falling over to the ground after bowling the ball, but that was replaced by a habit of knocking over the stumps at the non-striker's end in his delivery stride. (At first)
  • You've seen selfie time-lapses before, but two things make this one particularly special. Firstly, the man's eye's are in the same place in each frame, which shows a true dedication to his art. And secondly, the final 30 seconds... well, just watch them.
  • Firstly, the thing about parenting is that it’s a lifelong adventure
  • “Talk of buffer zones firstly is not on the table and secondly it is an unrealistic idea by hostile countries and the enemies of Syria,” he added.
For a more up-to-the-minute picture, click here. There are also plenty examples of 'firstly' at The Spectator and at the Daily Mail, two more publications full of praise for Mr Gwynne's grammar teaching.

Attitudes today

There is quite a good summary of contemporary attitudes at Wiktionary. They start off by saying:
Usage: Whether it is proper to use "firstly", rather than "first", has often been disputed. Beginning in the early 19th century with de Quincey, who erroneously believed that "firstly" was a neologism, some have argued against the use of "firstly", advocating the sequence: "First", "secondly", "thirdly", ....

Wiktionary

The traditional view is typified by Eric Partridge, who wrote, in Usage and Abusage 1957 [Google Books]: 'firstly is inferior to first, even when secondly, thirdly follow it' (quoted in International English Usage) [Google Books]
But attitudes have softened somewhat and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says:
Usage Note: 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.

(at TheFreeDictionary)

An idea that is repeated at their sister publication, The American Heritage Book of English Usage - Whichever you choose ... be consistent and use parallel forms ... [Google Books]
This idea of consistency has caught on. The Chicago Manual of Style, while specifying First rather than Firstly recommends avoiding all -ly forms, as does the large grammar website at CCC.commnet.edu:
Also, in such a list, don't use adverbs (with an -ly ending); use instead the uninflected ordinal number (first, second, third, fourth, fifth, etc.). First (not firstly), it's unclear what the adverb is modifying. Second (not secondly), it's unnecessary. Third (not thirdly), after you get beyond "secondly," it starts to sound silly.

Capital Community College

This idea of consistency is not new. In Write it Right, Ambrose Pierce, while dismissing firstly, was one of the first to recommend dropping all the -ly versions, saying 'the ordinal numbers should have no adverbial form'. Something Jan Freeman, editor of a new annotated version says is 'high-handed nonsense'. [Google Books]
In Mortal Syntax, June Casagrande, who has a grammar blog and podcast at Grammar Underground and a sindicated grammar column, notes that: the choice between first and firstly is so clearly up to you that Oxford writes them as first(ly), second(ly) ... [Google Books]
Many newspapers, including the Guardian and the Financial Times have a style policy in favour of 'first, second, third', although at the latter, at least, firstly seems to creep in. The Guardian writers seem to stick pretty well to their style guide but at a companion site for teachers Learn.co.uk from the Guardian (link below)they have a lesson on connectives where they say that pupils will learn to 'Use connectives, such as "firstly" and "furthermore", to complete a written argument'.
Let's be clear, whichever you use has nothing to do with grammar and had no place in a 'grammar quiz'; it's purely a style issue. I'll leave the last word to R.W.Burchfield
Rightly or wrongly, my own instinct is to write First, ... secondy, ... thirdly, etc. But I am probably following precept put before me by one of my schooldays teachers. Logic did not and does not come into it.

Changing attitudes at Webster's dictionaries

As we've seen, firstly didn't appear at all in Noah Webster's original 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language [Archive.org]. It's in its successor, Webster's International Dictionary, but with a warning:
First'ly, adv. In the first place; before anything else; - sometime improperly used for first

Webster's International (revised) 1898 and 1913 [Archive.org (1898)]

At the present-day online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, they give the definition of firstly without comment, with the example sentence - firstly, gather all the ingredients together. But the comments from (I assume mainly American) visitors is mostly negative or they hadn't known that such a word existed.

A British perspective

Although my impression is that 'Firstly, secondly' is more common and accepted in British English, the number of instances at the British National Corpus would suggest that 'First, second' is the most poular, with 'First, secondly' in second place and 'Firstly, secondly' coming in third.
  • first, - 7376
  • firstly, - 1160
  • second, - 3351
  • secondly, - 2315

What are sentence adverbs?

Fowler suggests that 'Firstly' is more natural, and I think (for some people at least) this is even truer today, when most of us are used to starting a sentence with a sentence adverb, such as luckily, unfortunately, ideally, apparently and the much maligned hopefully.
Adverbs usually modify:
  • verbs - She walked slowly down the road.
  • adjectives - She's an incredibly slow walker.
  • adverbs - She was walking incredibly slowly.
  • and prepositional phrases - He's hoplessly in love with her.
But they can also be used to modify whole sentences or clauses:
  • Surprisingly, she didn't know about it.
  • Apparently, they're not coming till tomorrow.
  • They turned up unexpectedly, but fortunately we had plenty of food in the house.
There's a good usage note about sentence adverbs at Oxford Dictionaries (link below). About.com has this list of adverbs which an be used as sentence adverbs:
actually, apparently, basically, briefly, certainly, clearly, conceivably, confidentially, curiously, evidently, fortunately, hopefully, however, ideally, incidentally, indeed, interestingly, ironically, naturally, predictably, presumably, regrettably, seriously, strangely, surprisingly, thankfully, theoretically, therefore, truthfully, ultimately, and wisely.
Although some adverbs have been used like this since the fourteenth century, there has been an increase in their use since the 1960s.

Brief interlude - hopefully

When the use of sentence adverbs took off in the 1960s, most of the ire was directed at hopefully on the grounds that:
  • it is an adverb of manner, meaning in a hopeful manner
    She looked at him hopefully.
  • at the beginning of a sentence we should use an infinitive structure
    It is to be hoped that it won't rain today.
Much of this criticism came before sentence adverbs had become popular and I don't want to say much about hopefully here, but what about Clark Gable's famous line to Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind:
  • Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!
Couldn't we level the same critism at this use of frankly. After all:
  • It can be used as an adverb of manner, meaning in a frank manner
    He told her frankly what he though of her idea
  • We could equally well use it with an infinitive structure
    To be frank, I couldn't care less!

Part 2 - more important(ly)

There are also people (especially, I believe in North America) who think that it is incorrect or bad style to start a clause with 'more importantly', favouring 'more important', as in this sentence:
  • We need to finish this tonight, and perhaps more important(ly), we need to make sure it is perfect.
Now I have to admit, more important here sounds strange to my ears, I think for two reasons:
  • The standard explanation of 'more important' is that it is an ellipsis (shortened form) of 'what is more important. In other words, you need to be 'in the know' for it to make sense.
  • Nowadays, we are much more used to starting clauses with sentence adverbs than people were in the past, so more importantly seems more natural to me.

Two views from America 1. Bryan Garner

Bryan Garner, in Modern American Usage, suggests that insistence on more important is 'picayuish pedantry' and gives three defences of more importantly:
  • If we can start a sentence with Importantly (but not with Important), then why not with More importantly?
    • Importantly, the male bird is larger than the female.
  • Similar words such as notable and interesting need the -ly adverb
    • More notably, the male bird has a much brighter plumage.
    • More interestingly, it is the male bird which guards the young.
  • If more important is moved to a later position in the sentence it needs -ly
    • As we have seen, the male bird is larger and more colourful than the female, and perhaps more importantly, plays a stronger role in protecting the young.

Two views from America 2. Professor Bryans at Common Errors

I usually have a lot of time for Professor Bryan's views in his Common Errors pages at Washington State University, but this time I totally disagree with him. He says:
When speakers are trying to impress audiences with their rhetoric, they often seem to feel that the extra syllable in “importantly” lends weight to their remarks: “and more importantly, I have an abiding love for the American people.” However, these pompous speakers are wrong. It is rarely correct to use this form of the phrase because it is seldom adverbial in intention. Say “more important” instead. The same applies to “most importantly”; it should be “most important.”

It's nonsense to say I use 'that extra syllable' to impress people when I am simply using an adverb where it is natural to for me to do so. If anything it is those who use 'Most interesting' who are being pretentious, as they have to 'be in the know'. And since we are now used to the idea that adverbs can modify whole sentences, of course it is adverbial in intention.

The British perspective

These graphs from Ngram Viewer (which is case-sensitive) show a distinct difference between British and American use:
This British predeliction for More importantly seems to be confirmed by instances at the British National Corpus (the comma makes a difference):
  • more important, - 396
  • more importantly, - 534

Starting a sentence with an adjective

Some people, for example R.W.Burchfield (in the 3rd edition of Fowler's) have suggested that most important is a kind of sentence adjective, but these are I think pretty rare, unlike sentence adverbs. But it's true we can use a similar ellipsis with certain other adjectives, for example - 'Lucky we brought our umbrellas', but again it is limited enough to be considered idiomatic rather than a grammatical principle, I would have thought.

Examples of more importantly as a sentence adverb from the nineteenth century

These were found by doing a nineteenth-century-specific search in Google Books. Most instances of more importantly were as standard adverbs modifying adjectives and particples - 'more importantly employed', for example, but there were also some examples of sentence adverb use. These were mainly, but not exclusively British.
  • The stomach and bowels certainly appeared primarily and more importantly to be affected than any other of the systems of the human body.

    The Medical Repository, New York 1806

  • ... the history of its stage is the history of a nation; not indeed as to the course of public events,but, still more importantly, as to the impression and effect of those events upon the popular mind

    The Old English Drama. London, 1830

  • ... and, still more importantly, by the rights of juries

    The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, London 1834

  • On further acquaintance, I discovered that she had been brought up partly by religious parents, but more importantly as it affected her ideas and manners, in the house of a very worthy gentleman's family, chiefly in the capacity of a sempstress.

    The Scottish Christian Herald, Edinburgh 1841

  • ... it differs also in the greater extent of the interspace between the canine and the third false molar; and, more importantly, in the form of that' tooth, which in the Ursus prism/s presents a second cusp on the inner side, ...

    Report of the twelth meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, London 1843

  • First, secular literature is generally clothed in a far more attractive external dress than religious. Secondly, and much more importantly, worldly objects have by nature immeasurably more influence on the human heart

    The Rambler, London 1860

  • But now, secondly and much more importantly, however desirable it may be that putative certitudes should be pruned down ...

    The Dublin Review, 1871

Conclusion

First(ly): I'm pretty sure that I'm drawn to firstly and more importantly because I'm used to using sentence adverbs, so it seems natural to me to use -ly adverbs here as well.
Second(ly): I'm also pretty sure that some people have an obsession with syllable counting, and although I generally go along with the idea that simple is best, I simply don't accept that that always means using the shorter word.
Finally and most important(ly): this is an area where it's really up to the individual. You can certainly have your favourite, but don't pretend that any of these alternatives is technically more 'perfect' than the others.

Links

Secondly as an adverb

Sentence adverbs

Other

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