Which Word Wednesday: Second vs. Secondly

By July 18, 2012 culture, language No Comments

Remember those public speaking classes we all took in high school and college?

I remember my nervousness more than my speeches. But the preparation tips must have stuck for all of us, because most speeches have the thoughts categorized and presented one by one, starting with something like: “First of all . . .”—telling listeners multiple points are heading their way. And that’s helpful.

But things get sticky at the second point. Speakers often say: “Secondly, . . .”—supposedly communicating that support is coming for point one.

The trouble is, secondly is not the proper word. It’s just plain old second, with no ly ending. Dave Dowling explains it like this in The Wrong Word Dictionary: “First, an adverb, does not need an ly.”1 The ly on secondly is superfluous, unnecessarily taking up precious talk time.

Why is that, you ask? Well, some words morph from adjective to adverb by adding ly: slow to slowly and normal to normally.

But ordinals (first, second, third, etc.) act as both adjectives and adverbs. Grammar Girl gives this example: “First can be an adjective—the first man on the moon—or an adverb—phone first if you’re coming to visit.”

The prevalent usage of firstly, secondly, thirdly, and so on suggests that ly-ordinals are here to stay. I hear them so often that my ears don’t itch at their presence. But the discomfort soars when ly is added to higher ordinals. For example, would you ever say eighthly or tenthly? These oddities prove that ordinals need no extra umpf from an ly-ending.

What’s my WWW verdict? Stand up for tailless ordinals! Ordinals are adverbs too, you know. And I couldn’t close this WWW without providing the classic Schoolhouse Rock “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here!”

What’s your verdict? Do you add ly to your ordinals? Do you say fourteenthly? Do you love Schoolhouse Rock?! Do share in the comments.


Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Dave Dowling, The Wrong Word Dictionary (Oak Park, IL: Marion Street Press, 2005), 109.

Make your mission irresistible to donors. Schedule a 15-minute Change Chat today.