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I was taught that the word "first" always comes with a definite article - the first. I never really questioned it and most of the time, it really seems natural to use it. However, sometimes I feel like indefinite article would be better. For example:

This is a first blog post on this site after quite a long time...

Maybe this example is not the best one so let me ask generally: is it ever correct to use "a first" under some circumstance or is it always wrong?

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    Sure. "That's a first!" – Kevin Workman Jan 12 '15 at 17:40
  • @KevinWorkman But that's using "first" as a noun, not an adjective. – Nicole Jan 12 '15 at 17:41
  • @Nicole The OP's question does not say anything about only using "first" as an adjective. – Kevin Workman Jan 12 '15 at 17:43
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    What are you trying to say with "this is a first blog post…" What is that intended to mean? – Jon Hanna Jan 12 '15 at 17:48
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    @Nicole But there is no reason one could not say 'This hospital has never treated schistosomiasis before, but were we to receive a first case we would know exactly what to do'. That has first as an adjective, with indefinite article. – WS2 Jan 12 '15 at 17:59
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This is a first blog post on this site after quite a long time…

Okay, but what does that mean? What makes "a first blog post" different to "a blog post".

That there haven't been another blog post "on this site after quite a long time…".

Well, we already have a well-recognised way of saying that; "This is the first blog post…".

That it's one of a few after this period? We already have the well-recognised; "This is one of the first…"

First has, in this adjectival position, a few well-understood meanings and here it is hard to see how it could be anything other than definitive and hence involve a definitive article.

Most writers will not get a large advance for a first novel.

Here the context is one where we are talking about a plurality of cases (writers' novels) and talking about what for each of those cases is the first (a given writer's first novel) applied to that plurality. So while for any given writer only one is "the first", across all of them we have many firsts, and so "a first novel" can make sense.

There are also noun senses where the indefinite article can easily apply:

Well, that's a first!

  • What I meant to express that there are already existing blog posts on the website but the one that contains that example sentence is the first one after a long time. If it was absolutely the first blog post on the website, I would use "the first" without a question. However, this is just one of many blog posts, both past and future, and the word "first" here rather expresses that it's the beginning of new wave of blogging on this website. Articles are tricky for us non-native speakers :) – Borek Bernard Jan 12 '15 at 18:06
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    "The first … since". Ask yourself, "can there be only one in the context?" There can be only one first blog post since an event, so it is the first. – Jon Hanna Jan 12 '15 at 18:14
  • @Borek Actually, if the blog post were the very first one ever on the site, one could still use a first blog post. And yes there can be a first blog post after quite a long time. This answer, frankly, is only so much grasping at the wind. You might wish to peruse a blog post of my own that discusses the indefinite article before an ordinal number. Although it does not concentrate on a first there are some usages of a first illustrated there. – NES Dec 15 '15 at 12:49
  • Direct link to a first blog post that I've written on the topic of using articles before ordinals. – NES Dec 15 '15 at 12:58
  • @NES yes, I did indeed. – Jon Hanna Dec 15 '15 at 14:00
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The answer to your question is yes, there are cases when you wouldn't use "the first".

Many first marriages end in divorce.

This is my first baseball game.

If this is your first time, you must introduce yourself.

This is a first for me.

Have you ever had a first day of school?

A first day of school I remember is my first day of sixth grade.

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This is about context. There can be many firsts.

For example, every schoolchild has a first school day, a first haircut, a first classroom assignment, etc. It's only when you narrow the scope that you require the definite article: e.g., "The first school day I had was when . . . ."

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