In the following passage:

Recent works have tackled the explainability shortcomings with different approaches. A first approach investigates to which extent an input feature is responsible for a decision.

I am wondering if I should use "a first" or "the first"?

Update: To clarify my text. First, I want to say that there are different approaches, then I want to describe these approaches in detail. In total, there are 3 approaches, and the 2nd sentence above is referring to the 1st.

  • As with many things, changing a word like an article (or a preposition) can alter the meaning of the sentence. What do you want your sentence to mean? What are you actually describing? [Please edit your question to add clarifying details.]
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 14, 2021 at 9:51
  • @AndrewLeach I updated the question. Is it clear enough?
    – lenhhoxung
    Jul 14, 2021 at 9:59
  • 1
    'A first approach' is fine if the ordered list you mention hasn't been mentioned, or implied, in the passage so far. It's like 'a first try / stab / attempt'. But once you've mentioned an ordered list that was sensibly drawn up, this demands A, B, and C, with A the first. Jul 14, 2021 at 15:23

2 Answers 2


If you say the first approach, you are entailing that the approaches are ordered, and this one is Number One, in some unspecified way -- you may think it's the best, or the worst, or the most popular, or the most obvious. You don't say.

If you say a first approach, on the other hand, you're merely saying that that's the first one you're going to consider, for your own reasons; again, you don't say.

So this is not a grammatical problem; it's a rhetorical problem. Why are you choosing this approach to start with, and what do you want the reader to know about that? Your choice.


There is only one first approach, so the definite article the should be used.

If you said a first approach, I would understand a first (possible) approach, that is, that more than one approach could be considered as claiming the first place in the explanation.

In your edit, you yourself use the:

In total, there are 3 approaches, and the 2nd sentence above is referring to the 1st.

  • 1
    ... and that can't apply here, as OP stipulates that 3 approaches are arbitrarily (from an etic point of view) ordered, this being the first in the chosen ordering. But this is a question with other problems; 'explainability shortcomings' sounds unnatural, and 'I have following sentences' at best misplaced headlinese. Jul 14, 2021 at 10:23
  • Indeed, but as @EdwinAshworth commented, there are no orders, so I still feel unsure if using "the first".
    – lenhhoxung
    Jul 14, 2021 at 11:49
  • 1
    @lenhhoxung What Edwin stated is that you can't say "a first" since the order existing is that of your own choice.
    – fev
    Jul 14, 2021 at 11:56

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