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"At first" and "first"

Beginning of a situation[edit | edit source]

We use "at first" to talk about the beginning of a situation, to make a contrast with something different that happens/happened later. "At first". . . is often followed by but. 


  • At first they were very happy, but then things started going wrong.
  • The work was hard at first, but I got used to it.

In other cases[edit | edit source]

In other cases, we usually prefer first. 


  • That's mine - I saw it first! (not . . .I saw it at first.)
  • We lived there when we were first married. (= . . . in the early days of our marriage.) (not . . . when we were at first married.)
  • First, I want to talk about the history of the problem. Second, I'll outline the situation today. Third, we'll discuss possible solutions. (not... At first, I want to talk . . .)

"First" in the last example is usage in American English. In British English, this example would be expressed as:

  • Firstly, I want to talk about the history of the problem. Secondly, I'll outline the situation today. Thirdly, we'll discuss possible solutions.

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