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I used to think that ordinal numbers automatically go with 'the'. However, real examples I've come across indicate that it's not always the case. Please help me figure it out.

"We’re in the first wave. Let’s get out of the first wave before you have a second wave."

[...]

But Besser said semantics matter, because saying a first wave has passed may give people a false sense that the worst is over.

(from here)

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The fact that the modifier used here is an ordinal number has no particular bearing on whether to use "the" or "a[n]". We could talk about "the champions" and "a challenger", or "the best spaghetti" and "a not-so-great alternative" or whatever.

We use "the" when we're talking about a specific example of something, and "a[n]" when we're talking about an uncertain example, or a hypothetical, or one of many possibilities.

In your example, "the first wave" is something that's already happening, so a definite example of a "wave", and "a second wave" is a hypothetical future event, so exactly how or when it would happen is unknown.

In your second example, the speaker is discussing "a first wave" as an uncertain event. In this case, either "the" or "an" might be acceptable, with only subtle difference in meaning.

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  • How is it uncertain if it's already happened? Jun 22, 2020 at 1:58
  • The second example isn't talking about the "first wave" that already happened. It's talking about the first person talking about the first wave. What Besser says applies not only to this particular example, but to other situations where someone talks about a "first wave" and implies it is finished.
    – The Photon
    Jun 22, 2020 at 2:15
  • Alternative explanation (which might be more clear with more context): Besser is arguing that it isn't appropriate to describe the situation as a "first wave" so from his or her point of view, the "first wave" hasn't already happened.
    – The Photon
    Jun 22, 2020 at 2:35

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