English English language Usage

Street cred

Q: I’ve read your “Street smarts” posting, but I’m still confused about whether I MUST use the “-rd” when writing an address such as “659 West 123rd Street” on an envelope. My personal belief is that the “rd” is redundant, but everyone I know includes it. Are there any rules indicating its omission?

A: Cardinal numbers (like “one,” “two,” “three”) tell you how many. But ordinal numbers (“first,” “second,” “third”) tell you which one.

That’s why the names of numbered streets normally appear in ordinal form. A street address tells you which street.

But for purposes of brevity or to save space, the ending of an ordinal number (the “-rd” or “-th” or “-st” or “-nd”) is sometimes omitted on address labels and such. 

Certainly, an envelope addressed to “123 Street” will get there. But in reading that address aloud, you would use the ordinal form, “123rd Street,” pronouncing the omitted “-rd.”

So in our opinion, an envelope addressed to “123 Street” is merely abbreviating an ordinal number.

Is it OK to drop the “-rd”? We don’t recommend it, and neither does our go-to style guide. But this is a matter of style, and you’re free to drop the “-rd” if you’re not writing for publication.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), the arbiter of style for publishing companies, uses ordinals in its entry for numbered streets, avenues, and so forth. The examples it gives are “First Avenue … Ninety-Fifth Street … 122nd Street.”

 As we said, ordinal numbers are normally used in writing street names, and they’re always used in speech.

We never say, for example, “I live on Seventy-Two Street,” or “The store used to be on Nine Avenue.” In speech, we use “Seventy-Second Street” and “Ninth Avenue.”

Both forms of a number—say, the cardinal “five” as well as the ordinal “fifth”—can be adjectives. In the phrases “five houses” and “fifth house,” the numbers are adjectives.

But notice that when the noun phrase refers to only one, an ordinal number is used: “fifth house.” It tells you which house, not how many.

Similarly, “my five employees” is inclusive—it implies that you’re going on to say what all five had in common. But “my fifth employee” is specific; it refers to only one.

Even when the cardinal number is “one” instead of a multiple, it plays a different role than the ordinal “first.”

For example, “my one trip to Europe” implies that you went just once. But “my first trip to Europe” implies that there were other trips.

In summary, when you shorten “123rd Street to “123 Street,” that’s merely a stylistic abbreviation. The omission of “-rd” goes against the grain of common usage, but it’s not unheard of—or ungrammatical. 

No matter how you abbreviate it, the street’s name is still ordinal in notion (which street?) and not cardinal (how many?).

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