the difference between words: first, at first and first of all

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Today’s entry is about the word “first” and the different ways we can use it in English. This is a big source of confusion for many of my students. Specifically, I want to go over the difference between “first”, “at first” and “first of all”.

We often use “first” when we’re giving instructions to someone about how to do something. For example:

First, cut up the vegetables. Then, put them in the pot.

First we have to find a good restaurant and then we can make a reservation.

First, put the document in the tray. Then, input the number. Finally, press the green button.

We can also use “first” when talking about a person who does something before anyone else. For example:

I’m usually the first person to arrive at the office every day.

Henry was first in the running race at his school. We’re so proud of him!

My friend tried bungee jumping first and said it was fun. So now I’d like to try it.

We use “at first” when talking about a situation that was a certain way at the beginning, but then it changed. For example:

At first, Jack and I didn’t like each other, but after that we became good friends.

At first, I was confused about how to use this machine, but after Sally showed me how to use it, I realized it’s quite easy.

It was very difficult for me to get up so early at first, but afterwards I got used to it.

We use “first of all” when explaining something which has at least two reasons. We use “first of all” to introduce the first reason. For example:

A: Why is that company so successful?
B: First of all, their prices are very low. Secondly, they do a lot of advertising.

A: Why can’t you help me?
B: First of all, I don’t know anything about your project, and secondly, I’m really busy right now.

A: Why is the project taking such a long time?

B: First of all, we don’t have enough people working on it. Secondly, the equipment is out of date and very slow, and last of all, the project leader is very indecisive.

As you can see from my examples with “at first”, the expression is often placed at the beginning of the sentence but can also be put in the middle after the first clause. However, “first of all” is always placed at the beginning. Also, when giving instructions, the word “first” is placed at the beginning.

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