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The Word 'First' Is Redundant More Often Than You Think

In this excerpt from Word Workout, Charles Harrington Elster explains why you should never use first with certain verbs.

By
Mignon Fogarty,

 

A headline in the New York Times Book Review refers to “the novelist who first conceived of cyberspace.” A story in the Boston Globe says that “when Southwest first announced it would fly from Boston to Baltimore for $49 each way, JetBlue added another route there too.” And a reporter on NPR's All Things Considered says, "When Holder was first appointed over a year ago…”

Did you catch the recurring error in these three citations?

The problem is a misuse of the word first. When it's understood from the context that something is being done for the first time, or when the verb in the context means doing something for the first time, first is redundant.

To conceive means to imagine for the first time, to form an idea before anyone else has done so. Thus, the Book Review’s headline should read, "the novelist who conceived of cyberspace." Likewise, to announce means to make known or make public, which happens only once, so the Boston Globe’s copy editor should have changed "when Southwest first announced it would fly" to "when Southwest announced it would fly." And unless you're appointed to a position, then resign and are reappointed to it, you are appointed only once. So the NPR reporter should have said "when Holder was appointed over a year ago," not first appointed.

First is always superfluous when it's paired with a verb – such as start, begin, create, invent, introduce, learn, discover, and arrive – that means doing something for the first time, as in this sentence from The San Diego Union-Tribune: "It's been 100 years since Edgar Rice Burroughs first introduced his accidental space traveler, John Carter, to readers." Most of the time deleting first will fix the problem, but sometimes the sentence has to be revised. For example, in The Know-It-All A.J. Jacobs writes, "Machine guns, when they were first invented, got so hot they had to be cooled by water." Make that “When machine guns were invented they got so hot they had to be cooled by water," or "The first machine guns got so hot they had to be cooled by water.”

OnomatopoeiaThis excerpt from Word Workout by Charles Harrington Elster was reprinted here with permission from St. Martin’s Griffin. (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound

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