Tag Archives: first ever

Firstly, first ever, and first and foremost: a superfluousness of firsts

adam&eveAdam and Eve: the first ever man and woman

First up: first ever. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves. I just can’t help it: when I see the words “first ever” used as an adjective, my skin crawls and my red pens stand on end.

First means first, second means second… (you get the idea). There’s no such thing as “slightly first”; it’s an absolute adjective like unique, complete, empty or dead that can’t be modified, diluted, or used comparatively. If something or someone is or came first, it can’t be made more so by adding ever; he can’t be “more first” than her (in the same way that she can’t be “more dead” than him — although that concept is now sadly up for argument, given recent heartrending stories in the news). So why the constant use of “first ever” — which seems especially to litter the language of PR and marketing? When I see that phrase preceding a premiere, debut, record-breaking achievement or any such definitive claim to fame, I just want to cry foul — although I can never help but wonder why it’s never hyphenated, as it presumably would or should be if it were “proper” … (There’s more below on ever used as an intensifier — although I still argue that you can’t intensify first.)

Secondly: firstly. As Bill Bryson says in his Dictionary of Troublesome Words, “the question of whether one may write firstly or not when beginning a list of points constitutes one of the more inane but most hotly disputed issues in the history of English usage. De Quincey called firstly “a ridiculous and most pedantic neologism'”. Strunk and White advise: “Unless you are prepared to begin with firstly and defend it (which will be difficult), do not prettify numbers with -ly.” Thirdly and lastly, Fowler sums up the argument: “The preference for first over firstly in formal enumerations 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.”

Now here’s another tautologous problem with first, in its role as an adverb. When it’s used with words like announce, conceive, create, or reveal — as in “there was an outcry when the statue was first revealed” — first can be superfluous. Surely something can’t be revealed or created twice, so how can it be first revealed? See below for a similar argument about the possible superfluousness of ever.

Lastly but not leastly: first and foremost. As Bill Bryson says succinctly: “Choose one.”

*   *   *

“When will he ever finish that book?” One could argue that ever is superfluous in that context: take it away, and the meaning of the question — whether it’s rhetorical or not — is still clear. “Why did we ever start this discussion?” Fowler in his Modern English Usage was characteristically dismissive, describing it as “often used in uneducated or ultra-colloquial talk as an emphasizer of who, what, when, & other interrogative words, corresponding to such phrases in educated talk as who in the world, what on earth, where (can he) possibly (be?).” But there are those who argue that ever can be used effectively as an intensifier of interrogative words (although not for absolute adjectives or superlatives like first or largest, as in my first and foremost pet peeve above). Bill Bryson defends this usage eloquently, arguing first that it “has been well established for the better part of a century and can thus be defended on grounds of idiom.” He adds a second and “perhaps more important consideration, … that ever often adds a useful air of embracing generality. If I say, ‘Have you been to Paris?’ there is some ambiguity as to what span of time we are considering. If, however, I say, ‘Have you ever been to Paris?” you cannot doubt that I mean at any time in your life. In short, there may be a case for using ever carefully, even sparingly. To ban it outright is fussy and unidiomatic and can easily lead to unnecessary confusion.”


Pet Peeve Poll: Have your say



There are three types of Glossophilia post that always seem to attract particular interest and attention.

The first is the topic of slang and colloquialisms — the more obscure, quaint, and rude the better. We all want to know where, when and why these strange little words and expressions found their way into the colorful world of our informal banter.

Next is the Great Trans-Atlantic Divide. It’s not the wide ocean that really separates us, nor the fact that we can’t agree on a common system of measurement, DVD-watching or which side of the road to drive on. No, what distinguishes the American from his British counterpart is what comes out of his mouth — and I’m not talking about accents. We speak differently, therefore we think differently. Discuss.

Finally, who doesn’t have a long laundry list of pet peeves when it comes to written and spoken English? No matter how linguistically lofty or proudly proletarian we are when it comes to our choice of words, we all love to prod and pick at those who, like, talk different than us or get on their haughty high horses; the language we all share is an endless and fascinating source of entertainment and amusement, especially when we’re identifying that which bugs and annoys us in other people’s prose.

My father and a couple of his friends (all notably British) have started a list of their favorite pet peeves; here are some of them below, with a few of my own thrown in. (Those marked with an asterisk are heard more in British than American English.)  Which of these, if any, annoys YOU most? Please add your thoughts and your own pet peeves in the comments section below.


“Overkill” expressions, which feel the need to introduce superfluous words unnecessarily for extra effect:

  • “Track record” – when “record” will do
  • “For free” – when “free” will do
  • “Kick start” – when “start” will do
  •  “Head off to” – instead of “go to”
  • “Each and every” – when “every” will do
  •  “At this moment in time” – when “now” will do


The pompous word choice:

  • “Boasts” –  a favorite expression of realtors: “The kitchen boasts a quarry tiled floor”
  • “Commences” – instead of “starts” or “begins”
  • “Concludes” – instead of “ends” or “finishes”
  •  “Deduce” –  instead of “understand” or “gather”
  • “Thus” – in informal speech or e-mails


The wrong word choice:

  • “Literally” used when “figuratively” is meant
  • “Coruscating” used to mean harshly critical (confusing it with excoriating), when it really means glittering
  • “Prevaricate” used as a synonym for “procrastinate”, when it really has the sense of deviating or diverting by deceit, not necessarily by delaying anything
  • “Alternate” instead of “alternative” – as in “Please suggest an alternate route to the airport”
  • “Presume” instead of “assume” – as in “I presume you’re taking an umbrella?”


Ugly misuse/abuse:

  • “You and I” used when you and I are the objects of the sentence: “He gave it to you and I”
  •  “Both” applied to two people about each other – as in “they both hated the other”  instead of “each hated the other” or “they hated each other”
  •  “Like” instead of “as if” or “as though” – as in “He felt like he was drowning”
  • “However” instead of “but” used halfway through a sentence – as in “She didn’t like him, however she went out with him anyway”
  • The difference between “which” and “that”, which isn’t that hard to understand!
  • “Whomever” used as a subject instead of “whoever” – as in “Whomever likes this apple can have it”
  • “In regards to” instead of “with regard to”, “in regard to”, or “as regards”. And why not use “about”, “concerning”, or “regarding”?
  • “Could of”/”should of” instead of “could have”/”should have” – as in “I could of easily beaten him in that match”
  • “I could care less” instead of “I couldN’T care less”
  • “Only” before the wrong word – as in “I can only talk to you for a minute” (ie. I can’t sing or dance to you)
  • “Sung” instead of “sang” in simple past – as in “I sung the hymn this morning”
  • “All of” when “all” will do – as in “I ate all of the cookies in the jar”
  • “To transition” (ie. “transition” used as a verb) – as in “We will transition over to a new platform”


Marketing/corporate BS:

  • As well as some of the pompous words above, prolific use of any of the following, often in combination: “synergy”, “leverage”, “first ever”, “going forward”, “transition” (used as a verb), “out-of-the-box thinking”, “content streamlining”, “strategize”, “bandwidth”, “result-driven”, “paradigm”, “multi-platform”, “functionality”, “empower[ment]”, “top-down”, “e-tailers”, “online assets”, etc.


Meaningless sentence- and gap-fillers (most of these are British-isms):

  • “Like” used for no apparent reason mid-sentence (or at the end of a sentence by Brits) – as in “She, like, went ballistic”, or * “Have you been to the shops, like?”
  • * “Basically” – as in “Basically I told him to go”
  • *  “I mean” / “You know” used for no apparent reason mid-sentence.  Peter Snow of Channel Four says it in every sentence.
  • *  “To be honest” or “to be honest with you” starting every sentence
  • * “If you like” ending every sentence
  • * “Do you know what I mean?”  used to fill gaps between sentences

Just …. ugh:

  • “First ever” (so awful it gets two entries in this post)
  • “Was like” meaning “I said” –  as in “I was like ‘You do!'”
  • “Thusly”
  •  “With respect, …” or “With all due respect, …”  before launching an attack on someone you think is an idiot

Update, during Superbowl lights-out:

  • “Change it up”
  • “Space” meaning an abstract area of thought, discussion or virtual territory – as in “You’re invading my personal space”


Marketing hype at each and every turn


Strunk and White call it “pitchman’s jargon”. Bryan A. Garner describes the phrase in his Modern American Usage as “trite” and recommends avoiding it.

“Each and every” is one of my pet peeves, and it jostles for position at the top of my list of most annoying ’emphasizers’ that are now ubiquitous in marketing and media hype. (“First ever” is at Number 1, and will probably stay there for the foreseeable future.)

“Each and every” is tautologous, even though the words have slightly different meanings – or perhaps more accurately, different emphases. Each means every one separately, with the emphasis being on the separate identity of each person or thing in the collection. Every means each and all – without exception. Here the emphasis is on the fact that everyone or everything in the group has something in common. Take these two sentences: “Each camper carried his own lunch.” “Every camper carried his lunch.” The first sentence is pointing out that the campers had a separate meal each, probably lovingly prepared by a doting parent, and each had responsibility for carrying his own brown bag. In the second sentence, the thrust of the message is that all the campers were carrying their midday meals; no-one was going hungry on that particular day. Even though the same campers were carrying the same lunches in the two sentences, their meanings are subtly different.

“Each day brought a different challenge to her project, but every day started with a cup of coffee.” In this case the challenge gave each day its own unique and particular character; the coffee united the days and described a homogenous blur of caffeinated waking hours.

“Each and every” has slowly but surely crept into marketing- and media-speak as a way of emphasizing the no-exception, all-inclusive nature of an offer, deal, or  campaign, or even just emphasizing a fact. Here the emphasis is clearly on every thing, every one, every time. Each is like a toddler being dragged along behind with a thumb in her mouth: there’s no place for individuality or separation here. Using the phrase “each and every” is really a form of literary impotence or laziness, where more creative wording could be used to give every the weight it probably deserves. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that usage experts generally denounce the phrase as a cliché, a pomposity, and a bit of bureaucratic bombast.

The same criticisms can be aimed at the similarly tautologous phrase “first ever”, another marketing-hype term, which tries clumsily to accentuate the first. There are no different gradations of first: something is either first or it isn’t (when it’s second, or third, etc. …). Adding ever doesn’t make it more first; it serves only to annoy – and possibly even to raise the suspicions of – the attentive reader or listener. A more elegant way to underline the fact that the person or thing in question has beaten everyone or everything else to the start-line is to introduce a qualifying verbal phrase using ever as an adverb: “The first person ever to set foot on Mars”; “the first time the piece has ever been performed”.