Cardinal Numbers vs. Ordinal Numbers – What’s the Difference?

It seems difficult to comprehend, but numbers can be used for other purposes than signifying quantity.

Sometimes, for instance, you might want to outline a sequence of events in the correct order. Other times, you might want to describe your favorite sports team’s position in the standings or relay the finishing order of contestants in a race.

To simplify these pursuits, English has both cardinal and ordinal numbers. Cardinal numbers are what most people think about when they think about numbers, but ordinal numbers have many important uses, especially in sports journalism, technical writing, and other fields.

Continue reading for a thorough explanation of these terms.

What is the Difference Between Cardinal and Ordinal Numbers?

In this post, I will compare cardinal vs. ordinal numbers. I will include several example sentences for each term, to give you an idea of their use in context. I will also describe a useful memory tool you can use to determine whether you should use cardinal or ordinal numbers in your own writing.

When to Use Cardinal Numbers

cardinal versus ordinal numbersWhat is a cardinal number? Cardinal numbers are numbers that describe quantity, like one pot, two kettles, or three pans.

Here are some examples,

  • Cardinal numbers can be used to describe the quantity of shirts sold by an apparel retailer.
  • Mathematicians manipulate cardinal numbers in many of their equations.
  • There is presumably a cardinal number that describes how many mosquitoes are in the river flats, but the number is too absurdly high to count.

Here is an example of a newspaper using cardinal numbers,

  • The most conservative calculations estimate Americans will need to have about eight to 10 times their annual salary saved for retirement, she said. –The Washington Post

When to Use Ordinal Numbers

Definition of ordinal numbers definition and definition of cardinal numbers definitionWhat is an ordinal number? Ordinal numbers are numbers that signify relative position, like first in line at the café, second person to comment on Brenda’s new glasses this morning, or third time Kendall has had to tell her friends that she works Friday nights and can only go dancing on Saturdays.

Here are some more examples,

  • You can use ordinal numbers to describe the National League Central Division standings, and in 2016, there was only one day on which you could say that the Chicago Cubs were not in first place.
  • Ordinal numbers can describe the order in which a sequence of events takes place.
  • Avenues in some cities are named for ordinal numbers.

Here is an example of a newspaper using ordinal numbers,

  • This year, there are no limits on the Yankees’ ace, who has been very crisp in bullpen sessions and anointed the Opening Day starter for the third straight season. –New York Post

Trick to Remember the Difference

Define ordinal numbers and define cardinal numbersNumbers can be confusing, and remembering ordinal numbers vs. cardinal numbers is no easy task for many writers.

Luckily, there is a simple mnemonic that can help. As long as you remember to associate ordinal numbers with order, you should have no trouble knowing what these words mean.


Is it ordinal or cardinal numbers? Ordinal and cardinal numbers are different but related.

  • Cardinal numbers signify quantity.
  • Ordinal numbers signify order or position.

Math and writing are difficult to mix well, but if you remember that ordinal numbers represent order, you will be well on your way to writing coherently about different kinds of numbers.

In summary, ordinal means order, while cardinal means quantity.

Don’t undermine your credibility over a poor choice of words. Be sure to use this site as a reference for all your writing needs.