In one documentary devoted to the French Revolution the narrator says (just after Saint Just and Lazare Carnot have been mentioned):

A third member [of the Committee of Public Safety] was the crippled lawyer Couthon*.

Why was not "the" used before "third"?

P. S. In one of my previous posts Article before ordinal numbers I already posed a question regarding the usage of the articles before the ordinal numbers. But I think that the answer which I received does not cover this one. The body of the Committe of Public Safety was composed of the precise amount of members. Or would using the definite article indicate that Couthon was the third most important member or something similar? Or is it so because the narrator did not name all the members of the COPS but just three?

  • Does the context focus on the person or the committee?
    – user3169
    Commented Oct 18, 2015 at 17:26
  • Here is the link. See especially the part between 5.30–6.06 in which the sentence occured. youtube.com/watch?v=knDe_EZSxTw
    – bart-leby
    Commented Oct 18, 2015 at 17:33

6 Answers 6


Until another member is added to the group, there is no third member; thus "the third member" would be premature. Only once the group contains three members can one refer to "the third member".

Compare: I'd like to add a third coat of varnish. One could say "I'd like to add the third coat of varnish" if one had been planned from the get-go. But an ad hoc third coat would be called "a" third coat. Once that ad hoc coat of varnish has been applied, it can be referred to as "the third coat".

On that logic, if it had been stipulated somewhere that the group must be comprised of three members, then one could say "he was asked to become the third member."

Hello, Mr. Jones. I'd like to ask you some questions.
--OK, go right ahead.
Where were you on the night of the 25th at 10PM?
--I was here at home, thinking about "a" and "the".
Are you ready for a second question?

Hello, Mr Jones. I'd like to ask you two questions.
--OK, go right ahead.
Where were you on the night of the 25th at 10PM?
--I was here at home, thinking about "a" and "the".
Are you ready for the second question?

  • I think I get your point, though I'm not sure if it's the same case in the OP sentence. For example, I think I would use a for Honey, are we ready for a third baby?, too, but I'd feel a little awkward to say something like A third baby of the (just mentioned) family is James. Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 19:53
  • @Damkerng T. I don't suggest in my answer that one use the indefinite article for the entity, here a baby, once it has come to be in its ordinal position. We'd say "The name of the third child in the family is James." However, if the family is contemplating having a third child, they could have this conversation: "Are you planning on having more children? -- Perhaps. We have a great name picked out, which would go to waste if we don't. A third child would be named Rumplestiltskin". So I think there has been a misunderstanding. If so, you could clear the misunderstanding up.
    – TimR
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 21:35
  • I think your example is good, but looking back I think I read your answer as the usage hinges on whether the number of questions (or members) is certain or not. Reading it again, I think I missed the "get-go" part. (BTW, not my -1.) If it helps other learners, I think this a is appropriate because this third member is the third in the narrative, so he was "a third" from the narrator's perspective (which I think is the same idea as "get-go" in this answer). Had it been the third in the order of the list of the members of the committee, I'd say the third would've been more appropriate. +1 Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 21:54
  • An ad hoc 3rd coat can be referred to with the definite article. Bob and Bill are painting. They have put on 2 coats. Bill thinks the job is over. Bob says: I would like to add the 3rd coat now. Bill asks what "3rd coat"? We said 2. Bob says: the 3rd coat that is necessary to make it look good. Here is an example of the definite article being used by Bob to refer to a definite 3rd coat which he has "ad hocly" formulated in his mind as being necessary. He makes a definite reference to it because he knows which 3rd coat he is talking about, although Bill does not, until Bob tells him.
    – user20792
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 23:22
  • 1
    @Mori:Enumerating the items in a "bag" (unordered set) of indeterminate number ("some" questions, "a few" questions) always yields a first item enumerated and a last item enumerated and any items in-between. It is the act of enumerating items in a bag that confers upon them their ordinal positions. Once the enumeration has commenced, we can refer to the first item to be enumerated as the first item. Once the enumeration has reached the final item to be enumerated, it can be referred to as the last item.
    – TimR
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 11:12

The Committee of Public Safety had 12 members when it started with Robespierre. The documentary shows footage from a film, and films needs to be made to look and sound good.

The first two members, Saint-Just and Lazare Carnot are introduced first. Saint-Just was the wild rebelious type, Carnot a practical-minded Mathematician. Couthon was a cripple - strange for a member of the Committee, and is introduced with an 'a' because this highlights him as being 'interesting' - which is reasonable as the remaining 8 members of CoPS are not so interesting.

Using 'the' would imply Couthon was somehow the third member, either by rank or by time of joining, neither of which are true.

The clip also mentions a fourth member - Marie-Jean Herault de Sechelles, and this perhaps explains the choice of names, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Couthon and de Sechelles were all guillotined (Napoleon Series), and Carnot became a French hero (Eiffel Tower). Everyone else survived (Wikipedia).


Note: both this question and your other question about a second season refer to the same usage.

Short answer:

A third member means simply: another member (an additional member) and I am referring to him as third because I have already mentioned two other members.

Example 2:

I have two gmail addresses. I want to get ___ third gmail address. Would I say a or the? Hint: I want to get another gmail address.

Long Answer

  • 1
    I'm sorry that I'm afraid I have to retract my upvote. I think you have good information in your answer, but I don't think that writing a long answer elsewhere and linking to it in your answer on Stack Exchange should be encouraged. I'm more than willing to re-upvote your answer if you bring the long answer or at least the essence of the long answer back here. Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 19:13

‘A’ third member simply refers the the third referenced member of a group with more than three members.

‘The’ third member of a group implies that there are only three members in the group and this is the last to be mentioned; or that this particular member has a specific connection with three: perhaps as the third to join the group, the third on some roster, the successor of the (original) third member, or third in rank within the group.


The "third member" in the group [Committee of Public Safety] can be anybody within the group. Here, the third member was a crippled lawyer. But any other person could've also been referred as the "third member" , provided he was a part of the group referred in the context. Instead, if "the" was used, the third member should be the crippled lawyer (in this context), and nobody else.

Taking another example:

"I asked David for a second opinion."

Here, there can be a number of "second opinions", among which "David" provided me with one.

"Kathy was the third person involved in the shooting."

Here, "Kathy" is the "third person involved in the shooting". It is certain that Kathy is the third person.

It all about a virtual array of possible states. In your example, any person can be referred to as the third person. It is one in many possible options.

You should refer this : Why the indefinite article in “Their campaign mounts in fury as a free Europe crumbles”


Today's topic is: The Difference between the Definite and Indefinite article.

A, An, Some and Any are all indefinite articles because they refer to persons, places and things in vague, non-specific ways. Contrast with the definite article the which refers to a person, place or thing in a very particular, specific way.


Bring me a large orange, please.

You do not want any specific orange, just an orange that happens to be large. The person responsible for bringing the orange is entrusted with carrying out your indefinite order.

Bring me the large orange, please.

You want an orange and the one brought to you had better be the large one. There is little room for doubt as to what you want - the orange-bringer merely acts out your definite order.

In the context of your question, the third member makes the crippled lawyer definitely the third member, which would be taken as a form of Rank. "The crippled lawyer, the third ranking member of the committee..."

The reality is that the lawyer is nothing more than the indefinite third person to be used as an example from said committee.

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