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Ordinal Number

Ordinal numbers are used in linguistics to represent the position or ranking of something, such as first and 1st.

The objects, people, events, or ideas might be ranked in order to importance, size, color, distance, or any other feature. Ordinal numbers are usually written as numerals with suffixes like “1st,” “2nd,” and “3rd.” They might also appear as “first,” “second,” and “third” or “primary,” “secondary,” and “tertiary.” 

Ordinal Number pronunciation: or-deh-nuhl num-ber

Ordinal Number definition and examples


Definition of Ordinal Number 

Ordinal numbers are used to rank things. This could be anything from the size of a house or car, one’s place in line at the store, how colorful something is, or how well someone did in a race. They are different from cardinal numbers, which are used more often, (see below for more information on how these two types of numbers differ) but are still used quite often in everyday speech. They can appear in novels, short stories, poems, plays, and every other type of writing (fiction and non-fiction included). 

There are many different ways these numbers might be used in writing. They can appear in academic writing and be used to create lists and organize information. Consider their presence in a table of contents or a list of sources. They might also be used in a novel or play before the narrative starts to list out the characters. These formal uses are only a few possibilities. Readers will see below that ordinal numbers are easily used in short stories and even poems. A writer might choose to list out experiences, saying they “first” did one thing and “second” did another.


Examples of Sentences with Ordinal Numbers 

  • She went third at the talent show. 
  • We arrived fifth at the amusement park. 
  • I’m eighth in line at the grocery store. 
  • We were second in line when the store closed. 
  • My birthday is on March 13th. 
  • The first three books in the series are the best. 
  • It’s best to wait until the 1st to make any payments. 
  • You’re going to be the first person there. 
  • If we don’t hurry up, we’re never going to get the 1st ticket inside. 


Examples of Ordinal Numbers 

Ode on Indolence by John Keats 

Keats’s Ode on Indolence’ is a perfect example of a poem that uses ordinal numbers. These are not the most common of all examples, but this is quite an effective one. The poem is one of the “Great Odes of 1819.” It centers on the concept of a speaker’s indolent thoughts and talks about three figures he’s seen engraved on an urn. Consider these lines from the poem and try to find examples of ordinal numbers: 

A third time pass’d they by, and, passing, turn’d

Each one the face a moment whiles to me;

Then faded, and to follow them I burn’d

And ached for wings, because I knew the three;

The first was a fair Maid, and Love her name;

The second was Ambition, pale of cheek,

And ever watchful with fatigued eye…

I knew to be my demon Poesy.

In these lines, the poet uses the ordinal numbers “third,” “first,” and “second” in that order. He’s using them as a way of representing the three figures. The figures passed him a “third time,” and they each turned and looked at him. He was excited by their presence and wanted to accompany them. In the next lines, he describes how the first was a “fair Maid” and the “second was Ambition.” Finally, the last one was “my demon Poesy.” He does not use an ordinal number to describe the third figure. 

Read more of John Keats’s poetry. 


Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift 

In this well-known novel, the writer uses a passage in which readers can find a few examples of ordinal numbers. They appear when Swift is describing the list of rules Gulliver agrees to follow with the Lilliputians. They are a six-inch-tall group of people who are arrogant and vicious. The Lilliputians seem to be without a true moral compass, despite imposing these rules of Gulliver. They include: 

3d, The said man-mountain shall confine his walks to our principal high roads, and not offer to walk, or lie down, in a meadow or field of corn.

4th, As he walks the said roads, he shall take the utmost care not to trample upon the bodies of any of our loving subjects, their horses, or carriages, nor take any of our subjects into his hands without their own consent. 

6th, He shall be our ally against our enemies in the island of Blefuscu, and do his utmost to destroy their fleet, which is now preparing to invade us.

8th, That the said man-mountain shall, in two moons’ time, deliver in an exact survey of the circumference of our dominions, by a computation of his own paces round the coast.

There are a total of eight of these rules, and Swift easily lists them with the help of ordinal numbers. 

Read Jonathan Swift’s poetry.


Ordinal Number or Cardinal Number?

It’s important to draw a distinction between ordinal numbers and cardinal numbers. Both are used to count but in different ways. Cardinal numbers are concerned with quantity and are what is used when counting. For example, if someone was counting how many cups of flour they needed in a recipe, they would say “one, two, three” and so on. In comparison, (with the same example in mind), one would use an ordinal number if they said “I put in the third cup of flour” or, to put both kinds of numbers together, one might say “after the second cup of flour I added two more.” 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Amplification: a rhetorical device that’s used to improve a sentence or statement with additional information. 
  • Diatribe: angry, long pieces of writing that appear in literature and rhetoric.
  • Enumeration: a rhetorical device that occurs when a writer chooses to list out items, events, ideas, or other parts of a story/setting.
  • Accumulation: a literary device that relates to a list of words or phrases that have similar, if not the same, meanings.
  • Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.


Other Resources 

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