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I'm a younger speaker from Chicago. All throughout my education, I've noticed two different ways in which people can refer to grade levels. One includes the definite article and one does not. For example:

1: I learned about fractions in second grade.

2: I learned about fractions in the second grade.

I have always used the option without the definite article. I've heard the other version from people whose backgrounds seem very similar to mine, including teachers and classmates in high school, but it has always struck me as slightly strange. I just looked on YouGlish.dotcom for "second grade" by US speakers. Two out of the first ten used the definite article, but I don't know how accurately that represents the language as a whole.

What is the social and regional distribution of each version? Which is more common, and for which populations of speakers are each favored?

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    You could add Google ngrams showing that overall, the anarthrous variant has always been the less common choice but is recently catching up. In the UK, 'in the third form' (dated now) and 'in Year 3' were/are standard (Care; the numbering systems don't match). Oct 22, 2023 at 14:06
  • 1
    Damn, @EdwinAshworth, anarthrous! I’ve learned a new word. :-) Oct 22, 2023 at 17:52
  • @PaulTanenbaum Mnemonic: arthropods have articulated feet.
    – tchrist
    Oct 22, 2023 at 19:05
  • Oh, I get the etymology, @tchrist. It’s like arthritis. Oct 22, 2023 at 19:54

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The version with the article has been losing ground to the version without the article for the past forty years. Corpus data has the version with the article coming in at 37% as common as the version without the article since 1990. So both are still quite common, but the balance has changed.

Let’s start by looking at this ngram chart, in which we compare three versions without the article plotted in cool colors with the corresponding versions with the article plotted in warm colors:

ngram of "in the first grade" vs "in third grade"

You can see that initially, warm-color versions with the article dwarfed the cool-color versions without the article. In fact, a hundred years ago written sources show the with-article to without-article ratio was 7:1. The article was very gradually dropped over the twentieth century, and in the twenty-first century the cool-color versions without the article are now around twice as common as the one with the article.

Looking at 2012 data, these work out this way:

ratio phrasing
.0000154326 in first grade
.0000114904 in third grade
.0000102921 in sixth grade
.0000100654 in second grade
.0000097082 in fourth grade
.0000095413 in fifth grade
.0000085870 in the third grade
.0000082868 in the first grade
.0000080372 in the sixth grade
.0000074918 in the fifth grade
.0000073578 in the fourth grade
.0000059168 in the second grade

If you look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which has a lot more spoken sources than Google Books does, you see the same broad trends since 1990. This varies a bit depending on which grade you’re looking at. Here is the ratio and percentage of each of the first six grades with versus without in COCA:

grade with:without percentage
first 2:5 29%
second 3:5 38%
third 2:3 40%
fourth 3:5 38%
fifth 4:7 36%
sixth 5:8 38%

If you look at the COCA results in context, if feels like academic writing might be more apt to use the article and dialogue less likely to do so, but that's not a rigorous conclusion, just a feeling I got through looking at these data. The longer version might be a little wordier or more formal looking back at it, but neither seems wrong. I would rarely use the article myself, but now and then I might.

You do have to be careful of attributive uses of things like first grade or second grade, because now what drives the use of the definite article is completely different. For example:

  • in fifth grade students overall
  • in the fifth grade students we interviewed
  • in the fifth grade classroom

However, attributive uses like these occur much less frequently than non-attributive uses, so they do not throw the calculations off very much at all.

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