Or fifth, fourth, whatever. Omitting the article would make sense if it were "gear five". But with gear being a countable noun, I'm totally stumped.

For example,

Whenever I start my car I switch from neutral to first gear

  • 1
    ... There are many applications where we don't use articles before ordinal numbers. This happens to be one of them. It's why we say "I got fourth place in the spelling bee".
    – Catija
    Feb 23, 2017 at 20:59
  • @Catija Yeah, you right! But that makes me totally confused now, as one does use them with ordinal numbers and sometimes doesn't. Could you please give the rule?
    – Rusty
    Feb 23, 2017 at 21:04
  • If there are specific rules, I don't know what they are. As a native speaker, I just know when to use them and when not to. Hopefully someone else will be able to give you more of a guideline but I'm guessing it's just something you have to memorize. :(
    – Catija
    Feb 23, 2017 at 21:05
  • 2
    I think it's because "third gear" functions more like a name or title in this case, and we don't use articles with names or titles. For example, "He is captain of the ship", despite the fact that captain is a countable noun.
    – stangdon
    Feb 23, 2017 at 21:05
  • 6
    third gear is a generic idea coming from: to switch gears. It's not like this: She lives in the third house on the left. or: He stole the fourth car from the right in that row. It's all about figuring out if a thing is generic, a general idea or if it is very specific. He wrecked the third gear in my car. In some cases, it can be either: He is captain of the ship and He is the captain of the ship [more emphatic perhaps]. For me, the gear thing is governed by the full expression: to switch gears. to switch into first gear, from first to second gear.
    – Lambie
    Feb 23, 2017 at 21:20

2 Answers 2


"First gear", "second gear", "third gear" are really conditions or settings of the transmission, not sequence numbers.
Early in automotive use, "first gear" was "low gear", "second gear" was middle gear" and "third gear" was "top gear". Those were not countable things, but transmission settings. When numbers were applied to the gears, they continued being used grammatically as before.
Likewise, golf clubs stopped having names. "Drivers" didn't change, but "brassie" became "two wood", "spoon" became "three wood", etc. Those clubs had always been "a brassie", or, "the spoon" and continued as "a two wood", etc.
One reason for all this is that "gears" have been defined with ordinal numbers: "First", "second", etc. Clarity requires that one not refer to the first gear, as, the first gear one may want to use might not be "first gear".. So, the article cannot be used with clarity.
As to golf clubs, a player might have three woods, but only one "three wood", Golf clubs are identified with cardinal numbers. The article is needed to identify a club in question. Generally a player will only have one club identified by a number and (historically) material. "Give me the four iron", or, "give me the three wood" are clear as to what is wanted.


According to this English Club article, one of the things that we don't use an article for is routine places- home, work.

We could usefully extend this to cover standard positions, for example in various sports and in music: half back in soccer and football, fly half in Rugby, silly mid-on in cricket, small forward in basketball.

As positions, these never take an article:

He plays at centre half

but when we use exactly the same term to define the role of a person, we are in the same position as we are with captain: the article is optional

He is centre half
He is the centre half
He is a centre half

When we look for positions that contain numbers, we get examples such as:

Third base - baseball
Third position - ballet
Second oboe - orchestra

None of these take an article when used as a position. Note that neutral in a gearbox also does not take an article.

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