Numerals: What Are Numerals? Definition and Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on February 9, 2023

Numerals are a part of speech that comes in handy when you want to talk about numbers. But are you aware you are using them? And are you using them according to official grammar rules? That's what you'll find out in this article.

Numerals relate to and/or express numbers. You can use them to discuss quantity, position, location, time period, and many more. 

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Numerals?

Numerals are a grammatical form that is used to indicate a number and talk about amounts, among other things. They mostly fall under the category of determiners. But they can sometimes be nouns or even adverbs (although much less frequently). For example:

I have three dogs. (adjective)

It's the second time I've called you. (noun)

I've seen that movie twice. (adverb)

Some grammarians place numerals into the determiner subclass named "quantifiers."

When is a Numeral a Determiner?

A numeral is a determiner when it's placed before a noun, and when that's the case, it can express quantity or sequence. For example:

She won first place.

The company has three branches.

Can I have a double whiskey?

When is a Numeral a Noun?

When a numeral doesn't come before a noun, that usually means it's a noun itself. For example:

I'm the first to arrive.

She got married in her forties.

I have a ton of things to do.

Remember that nouns can take determiners, so when a numeral is a noun, it can also have its very own determiner. For example (see the determiner in bold):

She got married in her late forties.

This can seem a little confusing since numerals are sometimes determiners, but remember that numerals can only have their own determiner when they are nouns.

When is a Numeral an Adjective?

It's quite rare for numerals to function as adjectives, but it can happen.

You heard it here first.

I've only met her once.

Once he left I turned the music up.

Types of Numerals

Numerals as a grammatical concept fall under different categories. The two most common are cardinal and ordinal numbers, but there are others too. Let's explore those now.

Cardinal Numbers

Cardinal numbers are your classic 'one,' 'two,' 'three,' etc., numbers that are used in simple counting and to indicate amounts. You might also see them referred to as 'counting numbers' or simply 'cardinals.'

The word 'cardinal' comes from the Latin cardinalis meaning "principal, chief, essential," It makes sense then that cardinal numbers should have such a name since they are the main category of numbers, and the other types depend on them.

Cardinal numbers answer the question, "How many?". You can write them in numbers or words. In a later section, we'll discuss conventions around whether to spell a number or just use its numeral form.

Let's take a look at some examples of cardinal numbers used in context:

There were nine of us in the office this morning.

She's only 25 and already managing the entire team.

A table for one, please.

Ordinal Numbers

Ordinal numbers tell us something or someone's number, rank, or position, like first, second, or third. As the word 'ordinal' suggests, ordinal numbers allow you to put things in order.

Just like cardinals, ordinals can be either spelled or written in number format, followed by the suffix -st, -rd, -nd, or -th.

Here are some examples:

She came third in the spelling bee competition.

It's the second time you've stood him up; you should apologize.

First I'll go over the procedure, and then you can all get started.

There's also a subclass of ordinals called "general ordinals," which aren't actually numbers but relate to numbers. These include the words 'last,' 'latter,' 'next,' 'previous,' and 'subsequent.' Let's look at some examples:

This is the last time I'm helping you.

Of the two options I'd definitely prefer the latter.

Next time I'd like you to check with me first.

Nominal Numbers

The word 'nominal' comes from the Latin nomen meaning "name." That's why nominal numbers allow you to name objects, concepts, people, or animals in a series. They are given a number so that they may be identified more easily. For example:

He lives in 90210, a highly-desirable postcode.

She was allocated the number 8 when she joined the soccer team.

I just got the I-Phone Pro 14.

Other Numeral Types

I've covered the three main types of numerals, but there are definitely others. You'll find more or fewer categories depending on which grammar books you read. Instead of going over each category here, I'm going to use numerals from the different categories in some examples below, so you can see more types of words that fit into the numerals category.

We've already discussed this twice, I'd like to put this issue to bed now, if possible. (iterative numeral)

Their endorsement has allowed us to triple the company's revenue for the year. (multiplicative numeral)

Bills account for a quarter of our expenses every month. (paritive numeral)

I would have spent many more years traveling if I could have. (indefinite numeral)

How to Use Numerals

There are certain conventions and rules around using numerals. This is where it gets tricky, though. Depending on which school of grammar thought you belong to, the rules will differ. Plus, there are many exceptions to each rule. If you want to become a numerals pro, the best thing to do is to decide on which style you most agree with and buy the style guidebook that matches.

If you want to keep it general, though, and you're just here to learn how to use numerals correctly, a good rule of thumb is to stay consistent.

Meanwhile, I'll cover below some of the nifty little tricks around numerals that are commonly agreed upon to give you something to work with.

Compound Numerals

The word 'compound' in grammar refers to two or more words put together to form a new word. You can make the compound adjective 'mouth-watering,' for example, with the noun 'mouth' and the gerund 'watering.' You can also make the compound noun 'town hall' using the two nouns 'town' and 'hall.'

By the same token, you can make compound numerals. They look like this:

I'm celebrating my twenty-fourth year on this planet.

This project cost six hundred and fifty thousand dollars. 

You completed the marathon in three hours thirty two minutes.

The first thing to note with compound numerals is that it is only the last number that takes the ordinal termination, i.e. the -th suffix. You can see that in the first example, we said 'twenty-fourth' and not 'twentieth-forth' or 'twentieth-four.'

Then there's the question of the hyphen. The general consensus seems to be that you use a hyphen with numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine. Anything lower or higher doesn't require one.

When Should You Spell Out Numerals?

The trickiest part about using numerals in your writing is knowing when to use the number form and when to spell it out. This one trips up a lot of people because there are differing opinions and rules about it.

For example, the Associated Press Stylebook says you should spell out the numbers zero through nine and use figures from 10 onwards. But the Chicago Manual of Style dictates that you spell out the numbers zero through one hundred and use numbers from 101 onwards.

You can see that these differences in style create inconsistencies. In the paragraph above, if I'd been following the Chicago Manual Style, I should have spelled out the number ten.

These rules will also vary if you're writing scientific text; since there tend to be a lot of numbers in that kind of writing, then you'll want to use figures as much as possible so it's easy on the reader.

Not to mention all the exceptions to the rules (the English language is famous for its exceptions!).

The best thing to do is find out if the company you write for follows a particular style guide and follow. If they don't, or you write for yourself, then the key is to be consistent. Pick guidelines that make sense to you and stick with them throughout your writing.

To get you started, I've picked out some good rules of thumb that you can follow in your writing if you choose.

  • Write years in figures (8 B.C., 2015)
  • Write decimals in figures (2.5 million)
  • Write percentages in figures (45%)
  • Write units of measurement in figures (5cm)
  • Write money in figures ($57)

Note that numbers that begin sentences should always be spelled out. So even though the rule of thumb is to write years in figures, if your sentence begins with the year, you should spell it out. For example:

Nineteen ninety-three was the year I became a man.

If you prefer to write years in numerals, there's always the option of rephrasing the sentence so that the year isn't at the beginning. For example:

I became a man in 1993.

Once again, the most important thing is to remain consistent.

Concluding Thoughts for Numerals

So there we are. You now know what numerals are, the different types that exist, and how to use them. These little guys pop up in our writing all the time, so it's good to have a good command over them.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn about more parts of speech and other grammar concepts, check out our Grammar Book. We've covered all sorts on there already and continue to cover more each week.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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