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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.

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  • 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
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    '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

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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.

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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.

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    ... 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
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    @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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