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I was watching a video “ No one visits this republic of Russia… find out why you should! on youtube by Eli from Russia. Excellent content but her English is bad. twice she started her sentences with “ At first…” 1:03 she said “At first we”ll go to cheese market explore …” 1:16 “But at first food, I am hungry”. Someone has corrected her saying that she should have said “We will go to the cheese market first, then to…” Another viewer responded to the correction with “ it is perfectly fine”. I don’t know if the context is important when starting a sentence with “At first”. I did check the general rules on how to use first, firstly, at first, still both sentences sound weird to me.

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    Not at first. The correction should be: First, we'll go to the food market.
    – Lambie
    Dec 3, 2023 at 15:22

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You can start a sentence with "At first"… but not that one.

At first we were hesitant, but soon we plucked up the courage to advance.

'At first' used like this can be thought of as 'at/in the beginning'.

Which is distinct from

First, we'll go to the cheese shop, then the bread shop second.

'First' used in this manner can be though of as just a 'count' even if second and subsequent events are not themselves numbered.

First, we'll go to the cheese shop, then the bread shop.

There's a more formal usage, which remains a 'count'.

Firstly, I'd like to thank Mr Jones for his help on this project.

Which could then go on to add further points, using secondly… Thirdly exists but tends not to be used quite so much*.

Cambridge Dictionary - First, firstly or at first?

*I've heard 'fourthly' used, but I can't recall ever hearing 'fifthly'. Anyone attempting to say 'sixthly' is likely to bite their own tongue in the attempt;)

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From Collins:

Use at first when you are talking about what happens in the early stages of an event or experience, or just after something else has happened, in contrast to what happens later.

So you can say, "At first I was happy at university, but later the stress made me miserable." Or "When I got covid I was very ill at first, but later I just had a dry cough." Both these examples use past tense, which seems more natural.

But she is using "first" to mean "the first in a sequence of actions, and for that you just use "First" or "Firstly": "First we will go to the cheese market." You don't use "At first" to talk about plans in the future.

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  • Intuitively I knew that, just could not explain why. Now I understand Dec 3, 2023 at 16:22
  • It’s appears she is google translating a Russian word «сначала». It translates as “At first”, however below the translation it lists, in Russian, the situations in which it should be used, and they all, just like Michael and James have explained, refer to the past tense - на первых порах, в начале, поначалу. So context is important, for Eli is not talking about past actions, but about the plans in the future. Dec 3, 2023 at 17:00
  • Yes, but it's a pretty insignificant error. Communication is maintained, there is no loss of meaning.
    – James K
    Dec 3, 2023 at 17:05

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