English English language Expression Usage Writing

December nine: A cardinal sin?

Q: I’m noticing that TV and radio hosts are getting away from using ordinal numbers for dates. For example, “It’s Thursday, October twenty” instead of “It’s Thursday, October twentieth.” Would you have any thoughts as to why?

A: In speech, people normally use an ordinal number for a date, “October twentieth” or “October the twentieth,” rather than the cardinal version, “October twenty.”

(As we’ve written before on the blog, the ordinal numbers say in what order, like “third,” “sixth,” and 20th. The cardinal numbers say how many, like “three,” “six,” and “20.”)

Although “October twenty” isn’t the form generally heard in speech, it’s not incorrect. This usage got your attention not because it’s wrong but because it’s not the norm.

So why do broadcasters sometimes use it? We can only guess. Perhaps they’re aiming for a more clipped delivery. Or perhaps they’re reading exactly what they see on a script or teleprompter. In writing, dates are usually given in cardinals.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has these comments about the use of dates in writing and in speech:

“In writing, the day and year are normally given in figures.” The examples given illustrate American usage (“June 2, 1980, June 2nd, 1980”) as well as British (“2 June 1980, 2nd June 1980”). The authors add, “In recent times the versions  … with cardinal numbers have become increasingly favored over those with ordinals.”

“The most usual way of giving dates in speech,” the Cambridge Grammar continues, is illustrated by examples like “the second of June, nineteen eighty” and “June the second, nineteen eighty.” (Note the ordinal “second.”)

But, the authors continue, “shorter versions matching the written forms … are also found.” The example given here is “two June nineteen eighty.” (Note the cardinal “two.”)

So while the cardinal form isn’t generally used in speech, it does crop up.

In case you’re interested, we wrote a post in 2013 about the use of ordinal numbers in street names.

As we explain, “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.’ ”

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