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March 8th, 2006

One choice or two? / first vs. firstly

by Barbara Wallraff

Tim Negro, of Iowa City, Iowa, writes: “Which is correct? ‘You have a choice: A or B’ or ‘You have two choices: A and B.’”

Dear Tim: “Choice” can mean either “freedom to choose” or “a possibility” -- so both versions you give are correct English. Still, there’s a difference between them. Let’s look at a real-world example -- a sentence from a recent article in the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial, about a motivational speaker: “He said his father, a career military man, told him he had two choices: He could join the Army or join the Navy.” Obviously, the speaker’s father intended to limit his son’s options to two, not remind him of his freedom to choose. “Told him he had two choices” gets that across more forcefully than “told him he had a choice.”

Thank goodness, most native speakers manage to make this distinction even if they’ve never given it a thought. It tends to come naturally. Anytime it doesn’t -- whenever you can’t decide between “a choice” and “two choices” -- then you probably do have a choice. Or two.

Bob Dotson, of West Bloomfield, Mich., writes: “It seems to me that lots of people overuse certain words that end in ‘-ly,’ but I’m not sure I know all the rules. I know better than to say ‘I feel badly,’ and when trying to emphasize a point, I think it’s correct to say ‘more important,’ rather than importantly’ -- but I’m not sure why that’s the case. I also believe that when listing related thoughts, standard English calls for ‘first,’ ‘second’ and ‘third,’ rather than ‘first,’ ‘secondly’ and ‘thirdly.’”

Dear Bob: The rules (or, really, advice) about “-ly” words can be really confusing, but let’s give it a try. The reason “I feel bad” is considered good English, and “I feel badly” less good, is that in this sentence “feel” is serving as a linking verb. “Be” is our most common linking verb, and unlike “feel,” it’s hardly ever anything else -- so if we consider how forms of “to be” work in sentences, we can see what’s going on with “feel.” We wouldn’t say “My health is badly today.” “Is” links the subject “health” to the adjective “bad,” and “bad” modifies “health.” Similarly, in “I feel bad,” “feel” links “I” to the adjective “bad.” It’s not that I’m doing my feeling in a bad manner, or “badly,” but that how I feel -- the feeling I’m experiencing -- is “bad.”

As for “more important” in sentences like “More important, others may feel bad too,” the traditional view is that it’s a shortened version of “what is more important.” Hence the lack of “-ly.” Some authorities are in favor of “more importantly,” I have to admit. They argue that there’s not much logic behind the “more important” tradition, and that “more importantly” is like other “-ly” words that often begin sentences, such as “consequently,” “oddly” and “obviously.” But traditions don’t have to make sense. I stick with “more important.”

“First,” “second” and “third” at the beginnings of sentences are traditional too. People have been using these words in this way for about 600 years. “Firstly” has almost as long a history, but “first” has two advantages: It’s a syllable shorter, and it sounds less pompous than “firstly.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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