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“First come, first served” — Meaning, Context & Examples

“First come, first served” — Meaning, Context & Examples

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Some idioms have a meaning that is very different from the actual words they use.

For example, the phrase “the cat’s in the cradle” doesn’t really give you any kind of clue as to what the idiom actually means.

Others are little bit more straightforward. Once you understand their meaning, you can see how it is derived from the words.

However, the idiom can still be hard to decipher without some help since it is generally a shortcut for saying something.

This is the case for the idiom “first come, first served.”

It’s not a complete sentence so its meaning may not be clear, but we’ll break it down for you below and you’ll see how the words do make some kind of sense.

What is the meaning of the phrase “first come, first served”?

“First come, first served” means that you will be served in the order that you arrive. If you are not physically arriving someplace, it still means that products or services will be distributed based on the order in which they were requested.

When would you encounter the phrase “first come, first served”?

You are most likely to encounter “first come, first served” in a store or a restaurant.

There might be a sign up that has these exact words.

Another situation where you might see or hear this phrase is when tickets are for sale.

“First come, first served” is commonly used in situation where something is in high demand and there are likely to be a lot of people who want it.

If it is referring to a product, it implies that the product will be distributed in the order that people asked for it until it runs out. After that point, they people who wanted it are simply out of luck.

If it is referring to a service, it indicates that you might have to wait a while until the people ahead of you are taken care of.

“First come, first served” is also a way of saying that there is no special way to get on a list that will put you ahead of anyone else.

You can’t pay more money or do anything else that will give you an advantage in receiving the product or service.

Note that the correct phrase uses the past tense of “served.” “First come, first serve” is incorrect although you may occasionally see it written this way.

Sometimes, you might see this idiom paired with the phrase “For your convenience,” as in “For your convenience, tables are first come, first served.”

On occasion, you might even simply see the initials “FCFS” to indicate “first come, first served.”

Examples of “first come, first served” in a sentence

You are most likely to encounter “first come, first served” in situations where you are a customer, client or consumer.

The phrase may be written as “first come, first served” or “first-come, first-served” depending on how it is used in a sentence.

It is written without a hyphen when it stands on its own.

Sometimes, it is written with a hyphen when it acts as an adjectival phrase modifying a noun.

Most often, the noun it is used with is “basis,” as in “a first-come, first-served basis,” but you will occasionally see it as an adjectival phrase with other nouns.

Note that this hyphen is not always consistently applied, so you will sometimes encounter “a first come, first served basis” without the hyphen.

In your own writing, you should use a hyphen if the idiom is being used as an adjectival phrase to modify a noun, and the examples below show the difference in sentences that don’t use the hyphen and sentences that do.

However, don’t be confused if you do encounter the phrase used without a hyphen when you think it needs one since style guides and dictionaries are not entirely consistent on this.

Examples of “first come, first served” without a hyphen

You should get in line early for a new phone because they will be selling them first come, first served.


We called first thing in the morning to get tickets because we heard they were first come, first served.


The tickets are free, but they’re first come, first served.


Examples of “first-come, first-served” with a hyphen

The landlord will be choosing tenants on a first-come, first-served basis.


We will be staying at a first-come, first-served campground, so we need to get there early.


Acceptance to the program will happen on a first-come, first-served basis.


Synonmys for “first come, first served”

The phrase that is probably the most similar to “first come, first served” is “the early bird catches the worm.”

In other words, a bird who turns up to a place first will get the worm before all the other worms arrive.

There are a few differences in how this phrase is used compared to “first come, first served.”

One difference is that businesses and organizations would use the phrase “first come, first served” instead of “the early bird gets the worm” to let you know that you need to arrive or get your order in early to make sure you get the service or product you want.

“The early bird gets the worm” is more like something that a parent, a boss or a teacher might say to you in lieu of coming right out and telling you that perhaps you don’t appear to be as industrious as you should be.

Another difference is that “the early bird gets the worm” is usually used to refer to getting up early in the morning as opposed to just arriving at a place in a timely fashion.

The implication of the phrase “the early bird gets the word” is that people who get up early are hardworking and successful.

In contrast, “first come, first served” is more of a statement of fact and less of a value judgment. It is simply a neutral way to inform people about how a product or service will be distributed.