Third party

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Sean Hoare, a British journalist who blew the whistle on the News International phone hacking scandal, was found dead yesterday. Today, the papers tell us that the police are calling his death "non suspicious". But there's a curious linguistic aspect to the police report:

There is no evidence of third party involvement and the death is non suspicious. Further toxicology results are now awaited and there is an on-going examination of health problems identified at the post mortem.

As reader MM asked me by email, "who's the second party?"

The OED's gloss for third party is "A party or person besides the two primarily concerned, as in a law case or the like".

Apparently this phrase has been bleached of its quantitative content, and now is taken by some to mean "A party or person besides the (one or more) parties or persons primarily concerned".


  1. peter said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 7:26 am

    Surely the second party is the person (or persons) who discovered the body, or otherwise called police to the scene. Or did the first party inform the police himself?

  2. srofa said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 7:38 am

    3rd party is a synonym for "not directly tied", "not involved" etc.

    This definition is clearer:

    "Third party is often used to refer to a person or entity who is not involved in an interaction or relationship." – wikipedia

  3. h. s. gudnason said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 7:55 am

    @srofa That definition seems to be exactly the opposite of what's involved here. If there were third-person involvement, then that person would most definitely be "involved in [the] interaction."

  4. Rachael said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 8:13 am

    I've always thought "third party" has become an opaque idiom, and doesn't imply any second party. Like third party car insurance, which covers damage to the other car you hit in a crash – who's supposed to be the second party there?

    [(myl) IANAL, but I always figured that the first two parties in that case were you and your insurance company.]

  5. Leo said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 9:10 am

    The same thing happened to French "tiers". It's a rather archaic adjective meaning "third" (e.g. "tiers-état", "tiers-monde"). The noun was initially used in legal contexts ("contrats avec des tiers" and all that), but now has shifted to mean "any uninvolved person" – for example a random stranger.

  6. Svafa said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 9:13 am

    As evidence that it has been bleached of its quantitative value, I was already tipped off and actively looking for an oddity when I read the passage and yet skipped merrily on past the phrase in question. I was, however, predisposed to look for a curiosity in syntax, rather than definition.

    I propose, in light of the response to Rachael's comment, that the second party is the investigation unit or police force. There's some ambiguity as to whether or not the "involvement" is specifically the action committed or the case at large. If the latter then this interpretation would make some sense.

  7. Mark said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 9:15 am

    @Rachel, car insurance, which is required just about everywhere in the states, presumes your required insurance is primary, the hit person's is secondary, and your extended coverage is tertiary.

    Multi-car wrecks with injured passengers involved can easily have 13 or 14 parties. Fun.

  8. Patrick Neylan said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 10:12 am

    So, we seem to be saying that no uninvolved person was involved.

  9. Dan T. said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 11:06 am

    Grammatically, pronouns break down into first, second, and third person, and use of a third-person pronoun doesn't always imply the existence of a second person somewhere in between you and the subject or object being discussed.

    People also still sometimes refer to "third world countries", when, since the collapse of the old communist bloc, it's unclear what the "second world" refers to any more.

  10. wm tanksley said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    I think you're making a good point that "third party" has been "bleached" (hmm, I hadn't heard that word used that way before, but nice)… But in this case surely the first party is the police department (since they're doing the speaking, to the press), the second party is the person they're investigating; and they're saying that at this point there is no evidence of anyone else involved.

  11. dw said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 11:17 am

    The Latin word "testis", meaning "witness", is supposed to have been derived from a Proto-Indo-European root something like *trs, meaning "third"

  12. Svafa said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 11:18 am

    @Patrick: Which would seem a tautology, except that the investigation's intent is to determine whether any person currently considered uninvolved was involved. The context of the phrase should inform our understanding to prevent a tautological interpretation.

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 11:27 am

    It works the other way too: lawyers will argue about whether or not a party that did not sign a contract is nonetheless a "third-party beneficiary" even if the contract at issue already has three (or four, or whatever) parties that did sign it.

  14. MattF said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 12:03 pm

    As long as we're not saying that no uninvolved person was not involved.

  15. eyesay said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

    Bizarre hyphenation: "third party involvement … death is non suspicious ….on-going examination … the post mortem." I would have written "third-party involvement … death is non-suspicious … ongoing examination … the post-mortem."

    The prefixes non and post cannot stand as words by themselves, except perhaps as responses to questions, e.g.responding to "Was Teddy Kennedy a pre-Vietnam or post-Vietnam senator?" with "post."

    according to the British website Future Perfect, ongoing should never be hyphenated.

  16. Dan T. said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

    And the Libertarians are a third party.

  17. Marc Ettlinger said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 1:48 pm

    That reminds me of another 3rd X expression, "3rd world country." It has become sort of an anachronistic with the dissolution of the 2nd world (Communist bloc) but I still use it.

  18. Urso said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

    "(myl) IANAL, but"
    You are not a linguist? Then what have I been doing wasting my time at this site! Talk about false advertising

  19. Caitlin Burke said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

    Maybe the cops bumped him off themselves, so they know no one else was involved and, of course, there's no mystery as to how it happened, thus "non suspicious."

  20. EP said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 5:13 pm

    I know in reference to video games that a third-party game is one not produced by a maker of the console the game is for, e.g. a Sega game for the Nintendo Wii. A first-party game is one made by the console maker, e.g. a Mario game for the Nintendo Wii. A second-party game simply doesn't exist.

  21. John Swindle said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

    The first party is the decedent. The second party is the person or persons addressed. (They politely refrained from using the second-party pronoun.) The third party is the decedent's insurance company. The police don't yet know whether you killed him, but they're confident that the insurance company didn't do it.

  22. AlexK said,

    July 20, 2011 @ 11:52 pm

    I would opt for the bleaching hypothesis, as well as for lack of thoughtfulness.
    If the person died in allegedly non-suspicious circumstances, then they were the only person involved in the death which thereby cannot be an interaction and thus cannot have multiple parties involved to start with.
    If the person's death was on the suspicious side, then it would have been caused by a second party. The third party would then have to be yet someone else, and not the party involved in killing.
    In this light I think the person who wrote was not thinking about this, and was treating "third-X" as just meaning "anyone else who doesn't yet seem directly related to the deed"

  23. pj said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 3:34 am

    I see a lot of material written by British police officers, and I can testify that the nuances of punctuation are not generally a major focus of their time, interest or training. But this is probably as it should be.

  24. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 7:28 am

    @EP: In that case I believe the second party is the player/purchaser.

  25. Neil Tarrant said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 10:46 am


    With video games, would it not be the first party is the manufacturer, the second party yourself, and the third party the external developer? Hence a second-party game would be one you have written yourself?

  26. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

    There can generally be lots of "third parties" in a situation, without anyone needing to number them as third, fourth, fifth, etc. But there's one contrary usage in U.S. legal jargon. If a defendant impleads an additional party that the plaintiff(s) had not sued, that new party is a "third-party defendant" (with the defendant who did the impleading being, in that role, a "third-party plaintiff"). The third-party-defendant in turn may have the right to drag in some further party into the lawsuit, who will often be referred to as a fourth-party defendant, who in turn can try to drag in a fifth-party defendant, and so on. Googling found a tiny number of seventh-party examples and one eighth-party example before the well ran dry. Of course, there can have been more than two parties in the original lawsuit, and more than one third-party defendant, and so on. The numbering goes with the stage at which a given party was brought into the litigation, regardless of the number of occupants of that slot (and the total number of occupants of the earlier slots in the sequence).

  27. A said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 6:39 pm

    Today (after reading this post) I heard someone talking on the phone say "no, no, it's some kind of second or third party thing." Having heard the rest of the conversation, I knew that he was talking about a service that he used a work, but that was not officially associated with his employer. I guess second or third was close enough to convey that.

  28. Anthony said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 10:19 pm

    In this particular usage, the second party is the "usual suspects".

  29. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    July 21, 2011 @ 11:18 pm

    In the console industry, first party companies are your Big Three, Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft. Second party companies are companies that have special agreements to produce games only for one of the Big Three's systems. For example, Rare back in the SNES and N64 days with Nintendo. Third parties are companies like EA that produce without agreements and hence for as many as all three of the companies.

    In a legal sense, I would imagine, though IANAL, you are the first party, the other person (defendant or plaintiff) would be the second party, and a third party is unrelated.

    In Spanish literature, "la tercera" is the generally old woman who arranges meetings between a prostitute and a client.

  30. Rubrick said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 4:16 am

    I can attest firsthand that in the software industry "third party" has indeed been bleached of its quantitative content. At Apple, there is Apple software and third-party software. I wouldn't have the foggiest idea what "second-person software" would mean. (Possibly something like FileMaker Pro, which is by a wholly-owned subsidiary of Apple?)

    Whether the video game industry originated this usage or merely provides an example of it I don't know.

  31. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 22, 2011 @ 10:21 am

    Well established in insurance in "third party, fire and theft" which is, for example, the minimum auto insurance required by law where I grew up. Who's the third party?: Just some other person to whom you, the insured, might cause damage.

    "Dritter" in German works exactly the same way and if, as an academic employee, you succeed in getting a project financed by some body other than your own university, then this money is called "Drittmittel".

    But then, I guess the first party is the insured, the second is the insurer and the third is the party whose damages are covered. The first is the faculty member, the second is the university and the third is the grant giver.

    And in the criminal case, I suppose the first party is the deceased, the second is the police / the state authorities and the third is any person who had a culpable hand in the man's shuffling off.

  32. Fenwar said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 7:46 am

    Surely in the context of the statement, the deceased is the first party, and the second party is the Grim Reaper himself… anyone involved in facilitating a meeting between the two would therefore be a third party.

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