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Why "a" is used in the following sentence instead of "the"?

"Wales lost the last game. That put an end to their hopes of qualifying for a first World Cup since 1958."

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World Cup is a proper noun; thus it's spelled with capitalized first letters.

Specifically, World Cup is a name. It's the name of the international football association or the associated football tournament. Either way, it's a name.

Names can, in special circumstances, be used as common nouns. For instance

There's a John Smith on the phone for you.

John Smith is a name; but because there's more than one person in the world named John Smith, we can use the name as a common noun; and in doing so we can use it with articles, as in the example above, and in the plural, as in

How many John Smiths have you met in your life?

This same usage applies to the name World Cup.

How many World Cups have Italy won?

The answer:

Italy have won four World Cups.

Thus, you can also see that we can use quantifiers with the name World Cup. Here we've used the cardinal number four to quantify the number of World Cups won by Italy.

In your example

Wales lost the last game. That put an end to their hopes of qualifying for a first World Cup since 1958

both a quantifier (first) and an article (a) have been used with World Cup, which is, to repeat, being used as a common noun.

Why is a used instead of the?

The World Cup is a definite noun phrase and refers to a World Cup that can be identified. For instance

The World Cup of 1950 was held in Brazil.

Here we can identify which World Cup is being referred to, because the identification is given: the one in 1950.

We wouldn't use an indefinite noun phrase in this case. Thus,

*A World Cup of 1950 was held in Brazil

is considered ungrammatical (or at least "dysfunctional") because there was only one World Cup in 1950 held in Brazil, or anywhere. It would be grammatical if there had been more than one World Cup in 1950.

Likewise we can use a in a first World Cup since 1958 because there are several possible World Cups that Wales could have qualified for since 1958, namely every single World Cup held since then. A World Cup is an indefinite noun phrase. In this case, it refers to a World Cup of an unspecified year; it could refer to any of the World Cups since 1958. As such, we can't identify which World Cup is being referred to; it's referring to any of the ones held since 1958. That's why we use a.

We can use first in a first World Cup since 1958 since first (like the number four in Italy's four World Cups) is a quantifier; in this case it is an ordinal number that gives the rank or position of the entity it is modifying.

In your sentence, Wales are not trying to qualify for a second World Cup since 1958 but a first World Cup since 1958. They have to qualify for a first World Cup before they can qualify for a second World Cup!


As for why the was not used instead of a, that is, if the sentence had been

Wales lost the last game. That put an end to their hopes of qualifying for the first World Cup since 1958.

As I have already said, the first World Cup is definite noun phrase, as is the first World Cup since 1958. Again, we normally use definite noun phrases to refer to referents (the thing being talked about) that the reader/listener can identify. One way I the reader can attempt to identify the first World Cup since 1958 is to interpret the noun phrase to mean that only one World Cup has been held since 1958, but this interpretation is wrong. Given the context of the two sentences in the example, I can't think of another way to identify the first World Cup since 1958, so the use of this definite noun phrase in this context is "dysfunctional" (that is, it doesn't produce its intended function) at least for me. Perhaps other readers can identify which World Cup the writer of this hypothetical sentence might be referring to, but I can't.

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For me it makes sense, because there is no 'the' WorldCup because this event happens regularly, i.e. in soccer every four years. Anyway - for me 'the' sounds correct, too. In that case, you focus on 'the' first one.

Note: I am neither a native speaker nor an expert - I am just trying to help.

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Here, "first" is being used as a noun. This is different from when it is used as an adjective in "the first time".

The phrase "A first" is used to denote something that has not happened before.

That put an end to their hopes of qualifying for a first World Cup since 1958.

i.e. This would have been the first time, Wales qualified since 1958.

Other examples.

She did not talk rudely. That's a first.

That is a first Nobel Prize for him.

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  • First is not being used as a noun in a first World Cup. It's a quantifier, giving the order or rank of the World Cup that is mentioned. – green_ideas Nov 29 '17 at 3:45

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