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.”
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“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.”