Third Wheel (Idiom Meaning and Use)

Ever hang out with two friends and you feel a little awkward because you aren’t engaged with them in the same ways as they are with each other? A typical way to say this is by using the phrase, “third wheel.”

The idea of a “third wheel” references transportation and movement in regards to cars or carts; you need four wheels to make it move. If you only had three wheels, it wouldn’t go very far. Therefore, when you say this little phrase in English, you’re making a metaphor.

The etymology of a “Third Wheel”

No one knows exactly how “third wheel” got its start. However, it is an American phrase created during the days of carts, carriages, and similar modes of transportation. It’s a polite and succinct way to say that an extra person amid two other people isn’t making the moment function properly.

Context; Connotation of “Third Wheel”

The person labeled as the “third wheel” doesn’t often carry a positive connotation. Not that it’s negative, although it very much can be. In general, though, it’s a way of pointing out the situation at hand without embarrassment or rudeness.

Sometimes it can be a cute way to excuse yourself from a romantic couple. In other situations, it could denote a person who insists on tagging along even though you clearly wish to be alone with another person. Therefore, in most contexts, the phrase will be in reference to a romantic couple with an extra person.

Examples of Using “Third Wheel” in a Sentence

Study the examples below to better understand the meaning and context of how to use “third wheel.”

[Negative] Why does Tommy always insist on being a third wheel when I want to be alone with Amber?

[Positive] Sorry Sally; Mike, I love hanging out with you but I’m a third wheel tonight.

[Cute or Sarcastic] Here comes our third wheel for the reservation.

When NOT to Use “Third Wheel”

When referring to relatives, especially children, you wouldn’t use “third wheel;” unless you mean to be cute or funny about it.

Third Wheeling Examples

The phrase has started to become more popular in a continuous form.

I’ll be third-wheeling again tonight. 


A “third wheel” is an erroneous person who is alone with two other people. Usually, this references a romantic couple but it can also indicate two people who involve themselves with each other more than the third. It can be positive, negative, or neutral depending on the context.