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How do you use ordinal numerals in Russian?

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Most languages, including English and Russian, distinguish between ordinal and cardinal numerals. Ordinal numerals are a type of numerals used to indicate order (hence their name ordinal) such as “first,” “second,” “third,” etc. Cardinal numerals, on the other hand, are used to indicate quantity, e.g., “one,” “two,” “three,” etc. While in English ordinal numerals are fairly easy to use, they are a bit trickier in Russian. But don’t fret, you are in good hands!

Most languages, including English and Russian, distinguish between ordinal and cardinal numerals. Ordinal numerals are a type of numerals used to indicate order (hence their name ordinal) such as “first,” “second,” “third,” etc. Cardinal numerals, on the other hand, are used to indicate quantity, e.g., “one,” “two,” “three,” etc. While in English ordinal numerals are fairly easy to use, they are a bit trickier in Russian. But don’t fret, you are in good hands!

For review of grammar terms used in the article, make sure to check out the Unpacking the grammar section at the end of the post.

Forms of ordinal numerals

Here’s a list of ordinal and cardinal numbers from one to 10. Although the first two ordinal numbers (первый, второй) are very different from the cardinal numbers (один, два), the other ones, at least, share the same root (три - третий, четыре - четвёртый, etc).

Screen Shot 2021-09-18 at 1.19.05 PM

One of the challenges with ordinal numerals in Russian is that they behave similarly to adjectives, so they need to agree with nouns in gender, case, and number! Yes, you read it right — ordinal numerals agree with nouns in number. If you forgot what agreement with nouns in gender, case, and number means, here’s a quick refresher. The table below has examples of two numbers, первый (pYervYi) [first] and третий (trYEtii) [second]. As you can see, the endings for третий are slightly different. All the other numbers will follow the declension pattern of первый.

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If you are new to the idea of agreement with case, number, and gender, this table with so many forms of just two words might seem overwhelming to you. However, notice that some of these forms have the same endings, like the ones in the cells highlighted in yellow. (There are more forms that overlap — you need to find them!) Also, to help you understand a bit better why you would need so many forms, here are some sentence examples.

  • После Второй мировой войны началась Холодная война между СССР и США (pOslye FtarOi meeravOi vaynY nachalAs khalOdnaya vaynA mYEzhdoo EsEsEsEr ee sEshEA)

After World War II, the Cold War between the USSR and US began. 

Explanation: The preposition после (pOslye) [after] in Russian always triggers the genitive case and the word война (vaynA) [war] that is modified by the ordinal numeral is feminine, hence второй is genitive feminine singular. 

  • Ельцин был первым президентом России (YEltseen byl pYErvym preezeedYEntam rasEEee) 

Yeltsin was the first president of Russia. 

Explanation: The word был (byl) [was] in Russian triggers instrumental case and the word президент (preezeedYEnt) [president] is masculine, hence первым is instrumental masculine singular. 

  • Они смотрят этот фильм по третьему разу (anEE smOtryat Etot feelm pa trYEtyemoo rAzoo)  

They are watching the movie for the third time. 

Explanation: The preposition по (pa) [for] in Russian triggers dative case and the word раз (raz) [time] is masculine, hence третьему is dative masculine singular.

Compound forms

Compound ordinal numerals are numerals after 20 consisting of more than one digit, such as “21st,” “33rd,” or “414th.” The way the compound numerals are formed in Russian is similar to English where only the last component of the number is used in the ordinal form. For example, 119th would be one hundred (cardinal form) nineteenth (ordinal form). 

The most common uses of compound ordinal numbers in English are dates (e.g., July 21st) or rankings (e.g., Emory ranks 21st in the nation). 

1.  Dates

23 июля - двадцать третье июля 
                      ⤷ cardinal   ⤷ ordinal
                          numeral       numeral
(dvAtsat trYEtye eeYUlya) 
July 23rd (twenty third)
Notice that only “three” in 23rd is an ordinal number.

2.  Rankings

Пермский политех занял 48-е место среди отечественных вузов страны (pYErmskiy paleetYEkh zAnyal sOrak vasmOye mYEsta sryedee atYEchyestvyenykh vOOzaf stranY) Perm Politechnical ranked 48th among universities around the country.
Notice that only “eight” in 48th is an ordinal number.

In addition to the uses above, in Russian, compound ordinal numbers are also used with years.

3.  Years

1984 год -  тысяча девятьсот восемьдесят четвёртый год
                                       ⤷ cardinal                             ⤷ ordinal
                                          numerals                                 numeral 
(tYseecha deeveetsOt vOseemdeesyat cheetvYOrtyi got) 
Year 1984 (one thousand nine hundred eighty four). 
Notice that only “four” in 1984 is an ordinal number.

Abbreviating ordinal numbers in Russian

1st - 1-ый, в 1-ом, etc. depending on the ending
2nd - 2-ой, 2-ого, etc. depending on the ending

Ordinal number nth in Russian is энный (Ennyi) and is not typically abbreviated.

Usage of ordinal numerals

Ordinal numerals are typically used to indicate some kind of order of things or events. Below are some common uses of ordinal numbers in Russian with examples.

Ordinal numerals similar to English
  • Use with school grades and college years

В одиннадцатом классе (v adEEnatsatom klAssye)  in the eleventh grade
На третьем курсе (na trYEtyem kOOrsye)                  third year

  • Use with dates

23 июля - двадцать третье июля (dvAtsat trYEtye eeYUlya) July 23rd
C 8-м марта - с восьмым марта (s vasmYm mArta)                 Happy 8th of March*

*March 8th is International Women’s Day that is widely celebrated in Russia.
  • Use with fractions

The first part of the fraction (the numerator) is a cardinal number and the second part (the denominator) is an ordinal number. 
1/2 - одна вторая (adnA ftaraYA)    one half
2/5 - две пятых (dvye pYAtykh)      two fifths*

      *If the numerator is one, then the denominator is in the nominative case.                   Otherwise, the denominator is in the genitive case.

  • Use with nouns in expressions and idioms

В первую очередь (f pYErvooyu Ocheeryet)     first of all
Третий лишний (trYEtiy lEEshniy)                        odd man out or third wheel (literally the third
                                                                                one is excessive)
На седьмом небе (na seedmOm nYEbye)          in seventh heaven

Ordinal numerals different from English
  • Use with bus numbers 

Первый (pervYi)                                            first (bus number 1)
Тридцать второй (treetsat ftarOy)               32nd (bus number 32)
Сорок третий (sOrak trYEtiy)                       43rd (bus number 43)

  • Use with years

В две тысячи двадцать первом году (v dvye tYsyachee dvAtsat pYErvam gadoo)
in twenty twenty one (2021)
Шестидесятые (sheesteedeesYAtyye)       the sixties 

  • Use with time

В первой половине дня (f pYErvay palavEEnye dnya) 
in the morning (literally, in the first half of the day)

Во второй половине дня (va ftarOy palavEEnye dnya) 
in the afternoon (literally, in the second half of the day)

Двадцать минут второго (dvAtsat meenOOt ftarOva)
twenty minutes after one

  • When listing bulleted points or arguments 

Во-первых (va pYErvykh) First / Firstly
Во-вторых (va ftarYkh) Second / Secondly
В-третьих (f trYEteekh) Third / Thirdly

Ordinal or cardinal numerals

Sometimes cardinal and ordinal numbers can be used interchangeably. Whenever you can use the word номер (nOmyer) [number] or пункт (poonkt) [point] with a cardinal number, you can use an ordinal number instead:

  • Apartment or house number: 

    • Cardinal:
      В квартире номер 23 (f kvartEErye nOmyer dvAtsat tree)
      in apartment number 23

    • Ordinal:
      в двадцать третьей квартире (v dvAtsat trYEtyey kvartEErye)
      in apartment number 23

  • Bus number:

    • Cardinal:
      Автобус № 41 (aftOboos  nOmyer sOrak odEEn)
      bus number 41

    • Ordinal:
      сорок первый автобус (sOrak pYErvyi aftOboos )
      bus number 41

  • Indicating a bullet point or an article point:

    • Cardinal:
      Пункт номер 2 (poonkt nOmyer dva)
      point number 2

    • Ordinal:
      второй пункт (ftarOy poonkt)
      second point

Unpacking the grammar

  • Gender represents categories in which nouns are split. In Russian, there are three: masculine, feminine, and neuter.

март (m.)       March
книга (f.)       book
кафе (n.)       café

  • Number represents the quantity the noun refers to, meaning if it is singular or plural.

the boy (s.)    the boys (pl.)

  • Case is the form of a noun (and the adjective etc. that modifies it) or of a pronoun that shows the role it plays in the sentence.
    For example, the accusative case indicates that the noun or the pronoun are the object (= receiver of the action) of the verb:

I saw him. 
("him" is in the accusative case; it is the object of the sentence)

Nominative case indicates that the noun/pronoun is the subject (=what/who does the action):

He saw me. 
(“he” is in the nominative case; it is the subject of the sentence)

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Aleksey Novikov

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