In English, the expression, "in the first place", is used (not exclusively but) when things have gone wrong and it's clear that something should have been done differently, at the incipient stage of the process--"in the first place".

In CHAT cmw set the following translation-teaser:

"What would have been wise is that Putin should never have invaded at all!"

After the initial wave of panic subsided, I realised that it was a conditional sentence:

"prudens fuisset, si Putin non invasisset primum."

"It would have been wise if Putin had not invaded in the first place."

Cerberus indicated that, in Latin, adverb, "primum" & adjective-as-substantive, "in primo", do not mean "in the first place" as explained above. This, exemplifying the care that must be exercised with dictionary definitions (Oxford). Studies of Lewis & Short ("primus") and Allen & Greenough section 322(d), p.198 give these as being parts (first) of an ordering. A & G:

"Primum means 'first' and implies a series of events or acts. Primo means 'at first', as opposed to 'afterwards', giving prominence merely to the difference of time."

Note: "In enumerations, 'primum' (or 'primo') is often followed by 'deinde', 'secondly', 'in the next place', or by 'tum', 'then', or by both in succession.

A & G provide examples but the best is from L & S:

"...primum averti pecuniam domum non placere, deinde..." =

"...first of all (in the first place) that he must not take to his own house the money given for those purposes; secondly..." (Cic. Ver. 2.2.143).

(L & S also offer "primum"-plus-"denique".)

Returning to the original teaser: Putin would have to have done/ be about to do more-than-one thing in order to justify, "primum" (-plus-"deinde").

Cerberus suggested the use of, "denique" = "in a word", "indeed"; or, "omnino" = "at all". The last giving: "....had not invaded at all.", which is a good fit.

Concluding: is there a way to say, "in the first place", in this sentence or is Cerberus's alternative the best (only) way to go?

  • 3
    Note that "in the first place" to the extent I know English, is not by itself restricted to be after "a mistake" or with negative. We can say for example. "Cool. But how did she figure it out in the first place?" . Not sure all the suggestions fit those kind of cases, like omnino.
    – d_e
    Oct 7, 2022 at 21:28
  • 2
    @d_e: I wanted to keep to one context.
    – tony
    Oct 8, 2022 at 7:51

1 Answer 1


In general, you just write the adverb primum. E.g.

At id fieri potuit primum occultius in potione, in cibo... (But in the first place it was possible for it [the poison] to be done into his drink or food) Cicero

You can also, more formally and dramatically, use principio in the same way:

te per amicitiam et per amorem obsecro, principio ut ne ducas. (I implore you for the sake of friendship and love, in the first place do not marry her.)

A more obscure way to express the idea is to use the word satius (rather), so we have:

satius multo fuisse non moveri bellum adversus eum quam omitti motum (...it would have been better not to have started a war against him in the first place, rather than to quit the war once it had begun) Livy

A variation on primum is to use primo which is an adverb having more or less the same meaning. For example:

quod primo optimum factu fuisset, in id necessitate ipsa compulsi (...thus, they were forced by necessity to do the thing that it would have been best to do in the first place) Livy

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.