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I was reading the definition of the verb "content" came across with this example:

"he had to be content with third place"

Shouldn't it be:

"he had to be content with the third place"

I thought that ordinal numbers take definite articles in such sentences. Especially, in this case the ranking is known to readers. Also, I found this related question on EL&U regarding the ordinals used in dates.

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    For some reason we don't use articles with "first/second/third place". See a related question. See an answer by StoneyB to another question. Sep 4, 2016 at 8:25
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    No, since there can only be one 'third place', there is no need to mark it as definite with "the".
    – BillJ
    Sep 4, 2016 at 8:37
  • @BillJ - then we should use no article with "presidential post" and "presidential seat", since there can be only one. Sep 4, 2016 at 8:42
  • Guardian of the Emerald City Gates: Oh, so she is! Well, bust my buttons! Why didn't you say that in the first place? That's a horse of a different color! Come on in!
    – TimR
    Sep 4, 2016 at 10:12
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    presidential is not an ordinal; one could be a presidential assistant and be one of many in that slot. There's nothing grammatical which indicates the slot is held by only one.
    – TimR
    Sep 4, 2016 at 10:51

1 Answer 1

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This is analogous to elementary school "grades", where the article can be used.

What grade are you in?
--I'm in (the) first grade.

We can present the item in the ordered series using the definite article, in which case we're identifying its ordinal position within the series and ignoring any individuating characteristics of the item; or we can present the item without the article, in which case we're presenting the item as an entity unto itself, having its own identity outside its ordinal position -- it is not merely one of a series of identical items.

In the case of competition, where there are three positions on the podium, or in horse racing, where there are three moneyed positions, win, place, and show, we are looking at instances of the second scenario described above, where the item-at-position is not merely an item in a series of identical items but a thing unto itself: the winner gets gold, second place gets silver, third place gets bronze, and the glory associated specifically with that position.

P.S. So, if you ask a six-year-old child "What grade are you in?" the child might reply:

I'm in first grade!

or

I'm in the first grade.

Of the two, the first answer, without the article, is more likely to be given with a tone of pride and accomplishment and the second as merely a statement of fact.

P.P.S. Put abstractly, with "in the third place", the article specifies "third" and thereby foregrounds the idea of ordinal position, its position in the series; whereas with "in third place", the idea of "place" is foregrounded with its ordinal position in the series backgrounded to the status of an attribute.

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    I've not fully digested the ignoring any individuating characteristics of the item quite yet, but I like to opine before I think very much: I can't understand why I'm in first grade! would be any more likely to express exuberence, except for its punctuation. Intuitively, I can hear such equally in either phrasing. Can you elaborate? Sep 4, 2016 at 14:10
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    In the context of this question about ordinals, meditate on what it means for something to be ordinary :) The definite article with an ordinal conveys the idea of the ordinary. Would we say "He ran the 100 meter dash and finished in the second place". Wouldn't that make the accomplishment seem so ordinary? Its focus would be on the ordinal positions qua ordinal positions, rather than on the extraordinary nature of finishing second.
    – TimR
    Sep 4, 2016 at 14:35
  • @TRomano Hmm, it's possible: "In the first place, he ran. In the second, he finished." But that says something very different.
    – Lawrence
    Sep 5, 2016 at 0:04
  • @Lawrence. I don't understand your sentences. What does "place" mean there? Venue?
    – TimR
    Sep 5, 2016 at 9:19
  • @TRomano It's listing points in an argument, just as firstly or first might be used. The sentence meant "1. he ran; 2. he finished". As mentioned, this is a very different usage.
    – Lawrence
    Sep 5, 2016 at 11:31

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