How To Use “First” Vs. “At First”

 

Today we’re talking about two words that seem quite similar but are actually quite different –  first and at first. I’ve heard a lot of English learners use at first when they really mean first.

What do they mean? How do we use them? We’ll talk about them, and I’ll give you lots of examples. We’ll have a quiz at the end to test your understanding.

First and At First Basics

“First” is used in a sequence of events. Think about cooking from a recipe. We follow the steps using ordinal numbers like first, second, third, fourth, etc.

First, measure the flour and stir in the milk.
Second, add butter and sugar.
Third, stir well and add nuts.

“At first” describes the setting or maybe your opinion, before a big change.

At first, I thought the store was closed, but now I see it’s open.
At first we didn’t like each other, but now we are good friends.
Getting up early was difficult at first, but now I’m used to it.

We’re describing a situation, then we explain how it changed. We might also be expressing our opinion, and then telling how our opinion has changed. The conjunction “but” is used often when we use “at first.” It helps show that something is different than it was.

More Examples Using First

If I describe my morning routine to you. I might say something like this:

First, I brush my teeth.
Second, I make a cup of coffee.
Third, I start my work for the day.

It is incorrect to say:

In the morning, at first I brush my teeth.

“At first” is not appropriate here, because there is no change. I have never stopped brushing my teeth in the morning. If I say “In the morning, at first I brush my teeth,” it makes me think that now you don’t brush your teeth.

Here’s another incorrect example:

I need to go to the grocery store, but at first I need to buy gas.

“At first” is not correct because we are talking about a sequence of events. The first thing I need to do is to buy gas. The second thing I need to do is to go to the grocery store. “At first” does not work here because nothing is changing. We are only talking about things we need to do in the order we need to do them.

More Examples with At First

“At first” is used when you do something, notice something, or have an opinion, and then it changes.

At first she didn’t notice him, but then she saw him talking to his boss.
At first I didn’t think I would be able to get up in time, but now I know that I can.
We thought we were on time at first, then we realized we were actually late.

Here’s another sentence, but it isn’t right. Can you see what the problem is?

First I thought it would be impossible to speak English like a native, but now I know it’s possible.

First is missing something, isn’t it? It’s missing that little preposition at. We have to say. “At first, I thought it would be impossible to speak English like a native, but now, I know it’s possible.” We’re describing a change in your opinion, so we need to say at first.

Let’s Review

So remember, “first” is used in a sequence. We often use other ordinal numbers after it, like first, second, third, fourth and so on.

First, I turn off the alarm.
Second, I brush my teeth.
Third, I make a cup of coffee.
I’m usually the first person to arrive at work each morning.
Marco finished first in the bike race.

At first is used when we’re talking about a change in your opinion or a change in the situation.

At first, I thought this, but now, I think that.
At first the situation was bad, and now, it is good.
At first we wanted to go to Maya’s house, but then we decided to go home.

Now let’s take a quiz to see if you truly understand how to use first and at first.

 Quiz Time

Tell me which one to use – first or at first.

1.  In this recipe, the ___________ step is to preheat the oven.

If you said “first”,  you are correct. And this is clearly the answer, because it’s the step of many steps in the recipe.

2.   _____________,  let me introduce my friends to you.
We could also say:
Let me introduce my friends to you________________.

Which word is correct, first or at first? If you said “first”, that’s the right answer. We can use this word at the beginning or the end of the sentence. We are talking about a series of events. Before doing anything else, I want to introduce my friends to you. There’s no change happening or no different opinion happening here.

3. When I started rock climbing, ___________ I was afraid of heights.

If you said “at first”, you are correct, because there is a change that I’m talking about. When I started rock climbing, at first I was afraid of heights. Now, I’m not afraid of height

4. If____________ you don’t succeed, try and try again.

What did you say? If you said “at first”, you’re right. We’re talking about having a change in your attitude, not a sequence of events.

This is a great saying that I really believe in. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. Even if we make mistakes, even if we don’t succeed at first, keep trying and don’t give up. Keep trying, keep learning English a little bit each day and you will improve in no time!

How Did You Do on the Quiz?

I hope this quiz was helpful for you to learn even more. Did you enjoy this lesson? Leave a comment and let me know how you did on the quiz! For more about the present perfect tense, check out this post.

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