First come, first served means that something, usually goods and services, is offered to people who show up before anyone else. This establishes a basis of fairness—or at least punctuality. But hang on, is it first come, first serve or first come, first served? Well, the correct version you should use is first come, first served.
But let’s take a second to look a little deeper into the meaning and usage of this popular phrase. I’ll also give you some examples to teach you how to use this phrase in sentences. Congrats! You’re the first one to be served!
“First Come, First Served” vs. “First Come, First Serve”
The correct use of the phrase is “first come, first served,” where the verb “serve” is in the past tense. It means the first person to arrive is the first person who will be aided. “First come, first serve” is incorrect because it means “the first to arrive is the first to serve.”
First Come, First Served Meaning
First come, first served describes a situation whereby customers are served in the order in which they arrive; those who arrive first are served first.
According to Merriam-Webster, which is the largest dictionary, the phrase means in the order of people’s or requests’ arrivals.
The “first come” part of the expression is short for “the first one to come.” And the “first served” part refers to “the first to get service.”
Putting the two together, “first come, first served” is a phrase that means whoever comes first will be prioritized. And you can use it in different contexts.
If you’re opening a new bread business, first come, first served, the first person in line gets the first bread. If you’re buying tickets to your favorite artist on an FCFS basis, you better go early!
“Served” here does not literally mean that you will get a product like bread or tickets. It could also mean the following:
- “Given a specific service”
- “Spoken to”
- “Handled” or “dealt with”
That’s why you’ll often see the slogan in restaurants, banks, stores, and other places where there’s a long queue.
First Come, First-Served Synonym
The most similar expression to “first come, first served” is “the early bird catches the worm.” It’s an idiom that means being the first boosts your possibility of success.
Another related expression is “first among equals.” It’s a translation of one of the Latin phrases, “primus inter pares.” It refers to an individual or object with the highest status in a group.
“First blood” is another idiom, which means the first benefit gained in a competition.
Take a look at the other related phrases:
- At first blush
- To begin with
- In the first place
First Come, First Served Origin
The term first come, first served was popularized by shopkeepers during the nineteenth century. The system of first come, first served encourages customers to believe they must act quickly or risk losing an opportunity. It also guarantees that a customer will be served without regard to social station or favoritism.
This system is so ubiquitous that the abbreviation FCFS is often seen in advertising to mean first come, first served.
How do You Punctuate First Come, First Served?
You don’t have to add a hyphen if you’re not trying to describe something. For example:
I’m selling tickets to the concerts—first come, first served only!
Note that the phrase first come, first serve is incorrect; the past tense form served should be used. The term should be hyphenated only when used as an adjectival phrase before a noun, as in first-come, first-served. For example:
The villas are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
In this sentence, the noun “basis” is modified by the adjective phrase “first-come, first-served.” Saying “first come, first served basis” makes the phrase wrong.
A simple trick to remember whether to add hyphens or not is by checking if there’s a noun after the expression. If you see a noun, add hyphens.
Examples of How To Use First Come, First Served in a Sentence?
Seating for this free event is first come, first served. (Seminole State College)
Rowe isn’t taking reservations – it’s first come, first served. (The Wichita Eagle)
Some Seattle landlords are suing over the city’s new policy requiring them to choose among qualified renters on a first-come, first-served basis. (The Clay Center Dispatch)
Shooters may enter as an individual or four-person team with golf carts available on a first-come, first-served basis. (The Bossier Press-Tribune)
One of the key changes defines the process for how first-come, first-served campsites can be purchased and includes a requirement that someone physically occupy the site immediately with a camping vehicle or tent. (The Omaha World-Herald)
She did an advanced search about the best first-come, first-served Jazz events in town.
The art workshop will teach you how to tell chartreuse from vermilion. But registration comes on a first-come, first-served basis.
Now you know how to use “first come, first served” and “first-come, first-served” in sentences! Remember to use the version with a hyphen when the phrase comes before a noun. And never write “first come, first serve” because it’s an incorrect expression. Want more grammar tips? Check out our breakdown of the phrase “at the drop of a hat” so you can use it correctly in your writing.