As we’ve discussed on several previous occasions, being able to use numbers properly in a foreign language is an integral part of gaining fluency. Whether it is merely a phone number, an address, a price, telling time, saying the date, or what have you, it is impossible to function is society without being able to express these concepts linguistically. For those that find numbers to be difficult in any language (the case of the author), this may pose quite a challenge, although an obvious necessity. In this post we will endeavor to shed some light on ordinal numbers in Spanish, which, despite being used much less frequently in Spanish than in English, do appear in daily language.
In contrast to cardinal numbers, ordinal numbers are used to express a place within an order; rather than qualify the noun, they identify it in a series of elements of the same type. Generally used as adjectives, ordinal numbers can be placed before or after a noun, although the former option is more common:
la primera vez / la vez primera
In addition to being adjectives, they can also be pronouns and even adverbs in some cases:
¡Hemos llegado a cuartos! [pronoun]
Primero pela las patatas. [adverb]
Also, remember that ordinal numbers, different from cardinal numbers, do change depending on whether or not the noun is singular or plural and masculine and feminine.
Simple and Compound Forms
When it comes to ordinal numbers, there are both simple and compound forms. The simple forms are those corresponding to numbers 1-12, the tens from 20-90, the hundreds from 100-900, and higher numbers such as a thousand, a million, and so forth:
primero, segundo, tercero… duodécimo
vigésimo, trigésimo, cuadragésimo… nonagésimo
centésimo, ducentésimo, cuadringentésimo… noningentésimo
The rest of the ordinal numbers are compounds, formed by joining two or more simple forms together:
thirteenth — decimotercero
twenty-first — vigesimoprimero or vigésimo primero
thirty-fifth — trigésimo quinto
Here are a few details to keep in mind when dealing with ordinal numbers. First of all, the numbers eleven and twelve have two possible forms, the former of which are preferable:
undécimo and duodécimo
decimoprimero and decimosegundo
Secondly, the ordinal numbers corresponding to the tens and twenties can be written as two words, although the more adequate option is to write them as one:
décimo tercero / decimotercero
vigésimo primero / vigesimoprimero
Next, be sure to remember that the forms primero and tercero drop the ‘o’ when placed before singular, masculine nouns:
el primer paso notel primero paso
el tercer piso notel tercero piso
Lastly, the form for fiftieth is often mistaken as cincuentésimo when it is actually quincuagésimo.
Use of Ordinal Numbers in Spanish
Fortunately, ordinal numbers are not used very frequently in Spanish. In fact, the date is expressed with cardinal numbers, as many other things that would be done so with ordinal numbers in English. Perhaps the most common use of ordinal numbers in Spanish is when referring to the floors of buildings:
first floor/primer piso
second floor/segundo piso
third floor/tercer piso
fourth floor/cuarto piso
Despite being infrequent, ordinal numbers in Spanish are difficult and do require some degree of practice. Take time to learn them, for you never know when they may come up.