a / the third world war

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Akasaka

Senior Member
Japanese
Hello members,
Here is a sentence I have trouble understanding. It is from my drill book.

We must try to prevent (a/the) third world war.

The correct answer is "a." I am wondering how to choose betweent the two articles here. What is the principle here at work? Could anyone please explain?

Thanks in advance.
 
  • Beryl from Northallerton

    Senior Member
    British English
    I suppose that we use the indefinite article here because, so long as such a war has yet to happen, it's only a theoretical possibility. It's avoidable, thus 'a'.
    Were such a war to begin, we would switch to using the definite article, and those who survived it would refer back to it with a 'the'.
    Contrast this with 'the twenty-third' century. There will be one of those, one day, come what may. It's inevitable, thus 'the'.
     

    wind-sky-wind

    Senior Member
    Japanese
    This "a third" sounds like "another."

    The number 3 doesn't matter.
    If the next World War broke out, it would be "the third,"
    but "we" must try to prevent the World War, whether third or fourth.
     
    Last edited:

    wind-sky-wind

    Senior Member
    Japanese
    You often call a foreign language a socond language.
    Whether second or third doesn't matter.
    It's "not the first," or mother tongue, that matters.

    In this case, it's "not the first or second" that matters.
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    This "a third" sounds like "another."

    The number 3 doesn't matter.
    If the next World War broke out, it would be "the third,"
    but "we" must try to prevent the World War, whether third or fourth.
    The number 3 does matter. The point of the sentence is that there have been two previous world wars.

    "We must try to prevent a world war." is a general statement with no historical context.
    "We must try to prevent a third world war." has a specific historical context. That could be written as "We must try to prevent another world war." but that is, in my view, a less specific and weaker sentence.

    Beryl has given a clear explanation of the choice of article. Your ["we" must try to prevent the World War] wrongly uses "the".
     

    perpend

    Banned
    American English
    We must try to prevent a third world war.
    We must try to prevent the third world war. (This emphasizes our embarrassing first two.)

    I fail to see any significant difference in meaning.
     

    Akasaka

    Senior Member
    Japanese
    Hello again. Just to make sure, "We must try to prevent the Third World War." can be used in a special context, like you live in a devastated world after the World War III. You time-travels back in time before the war to prevent the World War III. In this case, I can use "the World War III."?
     

    Edinburgher

    Senior Member
    German/English bilingual
    Good point. You can really only use "the" if the third world war already exists. But if it already exists, it can't be prevented.
    Barring your fantasy time travel scenario, "prevent the third world war" is therefore always incorrect.
     
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