Numerals: which word class do they belong to?

This post is prompted by the following question on the sample Key Stage 2 English Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling (GPaS) test for 2016:


The intended answers are two, the and one. The word the is unproblematic, but what about two and one? These are traditionally called numerals, of which we recognise two kinds, namely the cardinal numerals, e.g. one, two, three, etc., and the ordinal numerals, e.g. first, second, third, etc.  Do they belong to the class of determiners? This is a very interesting, but thorny, grammatical issue, and linguists disagree with each other about the word class status of the numerals.

Let’s look at the cardinal numerals first. You may remember that in an earlier post they were listed as determiners, in line with the classification in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002) by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum. On page 385 of their grammar they say:

The cardinal numerals are primarily determinatives but they have a secondary use in which they inflect for number and hence belong to the noun category: They set off in threes / enrolled in their hundreds. In practice, only low or round numerals are used in this way.

(Note that these authors use the label ‘determinative’ instead of determiner.)  In his earlier Introduction to the Grammar of English (1984, p. 329), Huddleston leant the other way, as it were, by saying that the numerals are primarily nouns which also have some determiner uses.

Another major grammar of English, namely Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartviks’s Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language also classifies the numerals as determiners, but puts them in a subclass called postdeterminers. These are determiners that are positioned after central determiners such as a(n), the, this, that, these, my, etc., though they can also occur on their own. Here are some examples, with the central determiners in bold, and the postdeterminers underlined:

  • those three years
  • the many books (I read)
  • the first two years
  • much food

Notice from the third example above that for Quirk et al. the ordinal numerals are also postdeterminers, and that we can have two of them in sequence. Quirk et al. also have a class of predeterminers that occur before the central determiners, italicised here:

  • all the solutions
  • both those pages

In the next example all three types of determiner occur together:

  • all the many hours (that we spent together)

It seems that from the point of view of meaning the cardinals are like determiners, because they have a specifying function, just like the more clear-cut instances of determiners. However, not all grammarians agree that numerals are (post)determiners. In an email exchange I had with Dick Hudson he writes:

I think cardinals are nouns – e.g. we get my two not mine two, so two must be a noun. And of course cardinals can all be plural (hundreds, twos), and can follow ordinals (the first two), etc.

Hudson mentions the ordinal numerals, which are also controversial. Huddleston and Pullum seem to regard them as adjectives in their grammar (p.452), and there seems to be some support for this, witness the fact that we can say, for example:

  • The very first time I saw this film was when I was 10.

Here the ordinal is preceded by the adverb very, which is typical for many adjectives. For Quirk et al., as we have seen, the ordinals are postdeterminers. However, for Hudson they are again nouns:

I think the same arguments show that they’re nouns rather than adjectives too – e.g.

  • my second, not *mine second.
  • They’re much better without following nouns than most adjectives are, e.g. the third of them.
  • We can’t say *It seems third.

So where does all this leave us? If you feel confused that’s hardly surprising because even grammarians can’t quite seem to make up their minds about the numerals. It looks like they are on some kind of word class fault line because they display features of more than one word class. You may think this is an odd state of affairs, but if you think about it, it’s no different from the natural sciences where scholars often disagree about how to classify phenomena in the world around us. Think about the controversies surrounding Pluto, in terms of what kind of heavenly body it is. We’re finding out more about Pluto every day because NASA has managed to fly a space probe near it.

If you’re a teacher, should you discuss the word class status of the numerals in class? Well perhaps you might want to avoid this, in the same way that you probably wouldn’t discuss complex verbal constructions such as They will have been being seen which has five verbs in it. However, more able students might enjoy the challenge of discussing numerals.


  • A full set of GPaS papers is available on the Englicious website here.
  • Another sample paper, with mark schemes and commentary for 2016 assessments can be found here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s