It is the year twenty-twenty, and the world has changed.

This is a phrase that is odd in a way that I didn't realise until recently. Normally, calendar units are meant to be ordinal. 'The twenty-fifth of December', 'the twenty-fifth of the twelfth'. Similarly, 'the second decade of the nineteenth century'. Or even 'second day of the week'. Clearly, a timestamp is a cardinal value.

And yet for some reason 'January two thousand and ten' is a thing instead of 'January two thousand and tenth'. And it seems to be a persistently widespread phenomenon. At first I thought it was a case of vernacular ending-dropping in general, but it seems to be (a) happening with years much more often than with any other context and (b) seems to happen even in formal language and official documents where vernacular forms are avoided. Also, I am aware (but did not immediately consider) that ordinal numbers sometimes use another word instead of an ending ('number 17', '#21', '№007' and the like), but that isn't in use with the year of a date either.

So why are years conveyed as cardinal even though one would normally expect them to be an ordinal value due to being a part of a timestamp?

  • 1
    "Why" questions about idioms or grammar rarely have answers. In this case there is no answer. That's just the way we name years. Ordinal might seem more logical to you. Your native language might always use ordinals for years. English doesn't. There's no reason why a natural language should be logical. "twenty-twenty-second" is not the correct way to refer to the year 2022. You should say "twenty-twenty-two"
    – James K
    Dec 25, 2022 at 12:22
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    Does anybody ever expand them in that way @RayButterworth? Especially BC?
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 25, 2022 at 18:49
  • 1
    Offensive? I don't think anybody's offended by naming the calendar according to one religion's milestones (though the anti-woke brigade love to pretend that that is the case) - it's just not appropriate for everybody.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 25, 2022 at 21:32
  • 3
    Perhaps some people are, @6768. I am not offended by the Christian terms, I just think it's more appropriate to use terms not tied to a religion I have never been part of.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 26, 2022 at 0:17
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    What's going on, @6768? You replied to my comment about offensive with a demand that I explain something and an (unsupported) assertion to the contrary, and when I attempted to clarify my argument, you have come back with an irrelevant comment about my background, which you know nothing whatever about.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 26, 2022 at 10:47

2 Answers 2


Postpositive numbers are very often in cardinal form, even when giving an ordinal sense. So given a line of numbered cashiers in a shop or bank (for example) you might be directed to "Cashier number five" or just "Cashier five". And if the context was given, you could have an exchange "Which cashier? / Five."

When using numbers as names, the cardinal form is nearly always used. My local Chinese Restaurant has a numbered menu. So I can order "47" (chicken with cashew nuts). It is the 47th item on the menu, but one does not order "47th", the name of the dish is "47".

So "the fifth cashier" is named "Cashier five" and the 47th item on the menu is "Item 47". And likewise the 2022nd year of the common era is "twenty twenty-two CE".

Ordinals are used as prepositive modifiers "The third item", "the tenth day of March".

The exception would seem to be the American date convention of naming with "December twenty-fifth" instead of the British "the twenty-fifth of December" (although both are well understood).

Whereas the day is given as an ordinal: "3rd (day of the month)" and the month too might be the "3rd (month of the year)" The Year is not normally referred to as the 2022nd year of something. In the rare occasions when one does use such a construction, an ordinal is used "The 2022nd Year of our Lord"

Given these conventions, it is unsurprising that we name years with the cardinal form of the number.

  • Good point about '[noun] [number]' marking ordinality. But I don't think that the year working like that is 'unsurprising' given that it stands out against the rest of the date. Dec 25, 2022 at 15:19
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    The "surprising" part is the use of an ordinal for the day of the month. But that is idiomatic it is the "third day of the month". The use of a cardinal for the name of a year is consistent with other English use. Your other uses of ordinals are as prepostitive modifers "second century" "twelth month". And in the rare times that the year number is used like that it is also ordinal "2022nd year of our Lord"
    – James K
    Dec 25, 2022 at 16:03
  • Note that while we say "January 1st", we often write "January 1".
    – Barmar
    Dec 26, 2022 at 16:07

Because English speakers don't understand cardinal numbers vs. ordinal numbers.

Just kidding. Languages are not based ultimately on logic but just tradition. For example, some languages allow double negatives and some do not. It would sound incorrect or uneducated to say in English "I don't know nobody here", but in other languages it is completely standard to say exactly that (in Russian it's я никого здесь не знаю, or literally "I nobody here don't know"). Speakers of a language where double negatives aren't part of the accepted grammar may say a double negative is wrong because the two negations should cancel each other, just like two negatives cancel out in multiplication ((-2)(-3) = (2)(3) = 6), but you can find operations in math where negatives reinforce each other, such as addition (-2 + -3 = -5 is still negative).

In the case of years, it is simply a tradition in English to refer to them nearly always as cardinal numbers even if other aspects of a date are ordinal numbers, e.g. "that event happened on December twenty-sixth, twenty-twenty-two". Other languages nearly always pronounce years as ordinal numbers (in Russian, a year nearly always has the word "year" slapped on the end, so 2022 as a year is called the "2022nd year"). Neither method is intrinsically better.

An example in English where the year is given as an ordinal number is at the very end of written proclamations by the US president. A list of such documents, going back to 1994, is at https://www.federalregister.gov/presidential-documents/proclamations. The latest US presidential proclamation, as I write this, ends as follows:

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this sixteenth day of December, in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty-two, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-seventh.

So the calendar year is a cardinal number and the year of the country is given as an ordinal number.

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