How to form and use German ordinal numbers

How to form and use German ordinal numbers

by Sandra Köktaş

Updated October 20, 2023

Ordinal numbers are among the first and most important vocabulary to learn in German. These numbers — which describe the position of something in a list — are used in a wide variety of everyday applications. If you ever want to express the day of the month or make a list of things ranked in order of importance, you’ll need to know your ordinal numbers in German.

Luckily, German ordinal numbers are not complicated. Follow this guide, and you’ll be ready to make your next to-do list (or talk about German monarchs, as the case may be) in no time.

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What are German ordinal numbers?

Much like English ordinal numbers, German ordinal numbers are used to describe the order of a sequence. For example, if you are talking about “the first day of March,” you are using the ordinal number of one. 

Here are some formats in which German ordinal numbers are used in place of cardinal (or “counting”) numbers:

Date format

You can write German dates in several different ways. The first way uses the ordinal number and is what you’ll typically hear in spoken German: 

  • Am dritten Mai (on the third of May)

You can also write dates using the conventional German date format, which is a bit more difficult to say out loud. In fact, you’d probably just translate it to the ordinal number when speaking it aloud:

  • Am 03.05.2023 (on 05/03/2023) 

Note that the German and US date formats invert the order of the date and the month, with the day coming first in the German sequence.

To-do lists

Need to rank your to-do list in order of importance? You can use ordinal numbers for that, like so:

  1. Hausaufgaben machen (do homework)
  2. Gitarre spielen (play guitar)
  3. Buch lesen (read a book)

Looks suspiciously like the English, no? In the next section, we’ll discuss how to write out these numbers and speak them aloud.

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How to form German ordinal numbers

To form ordinal numbers in German, start with the cardinal number and add:

-te for numbers up to 19

-ste for numbers between 20 and 100, as well as for 1000 and 1,000,000 and so on.

Note: that the ordinal numbers corresponding with “first” (erste), “third” (dritte), and “seventh” (siebte) are irregular in German.

Unlike in English, “second” is formed regularly in German: zweite.

Here is the list of ordinal numbers in German. For reference, we’ve also included the numerical and cardinal numbers:

Numerical numberCardinal numberOrdinal number

If you’re wondering what happens to the numbers between 100 and 1000, we have good news: we don’t need an extra rule for these. 

When turning cardinal numbers into ordinal numbers, only the last part of the word becomes an ordinal number in German. For example, the ordinal number for 120 is einhundertzwanzigster, and the ordinal number for 1,345 is eintausenddreihundertfünfundvierzigster.

As you can see, cardinal and ordinal numbers get longer in German the higher they are. This is why the German dictionary and language authority Duden recommends using the numerical version of numbers 13 and up in written text.

How to use German ordinal numbers in sentences

Consider the following German sentence:

  • Er gewann den Titel zum zehnten Mal in Folge. (He won the title for the tenth time in a row.)

Why does it say “zehnten” here and not “zehnte“? We have just learned that the ending for ordinal numbers is -te or -ste. The reason that the ending looks different here is that ordinal numbers are declined

Ordinal numbers can take on the role of an adjective and describe a noun or a pronoun in a sentence. For example: Der erste Mann auf dem Mond war Neil Armstrong (The first man on the moon was Neil Armstrong).

Ordinal numbers can also take the place of a noun, in which case the ordinal number is capitalized: Der Erste, der den Mond betreten hat, war Neil Armstrong (The first one who stepped onto the moon was Neil Armstrong). 

Accordingly, the endings adapt to the grammatical case (e.g. accusative or dative), grammatical gender and number. If you are a beginner or not sure about the declension of German adjectives or nouns, it’s time to review these topics.

Common examples of German ordinal numbers

Das ist mein erster Besuch in Deutschland.This is my first visit to Germany.
Sie ist in der zweiten Klasse.She is in second grade.
Das ist das dritte Mal, dass ich dieses Buch gelesen habe.This is the third time I’m reading this book.
Heinrich der Vierte (Heinrich IV.*) wurde aus der Kirche verbannt.Heinrich IV was banned from the church.
Am fünften März ist die große Eröffnung.The fifth of March is the grand opening.
Der sechste Stock ist ganz oben.The sixth floor is at the very top.
Er gewann den siebten Platz im Wettbewerb.He won seventh place in the competition.
Das ist der achte Punkt auf der Liste.This is the eighth item on the list.
Ich fahre immer erster Klasse.I always ride first class.

*  In German, we usually use Roman numbers with a dot in titles. 

Master your ordinal numbers first

To review, here are three things you need to know about ordinal numbers in German:

  1. Ordinal numbers are used to bring order into a sequence.
  2. You form ordinal numbers by adding -te or -ste to cardinal numbers.
  3. You have to decline ordinal numbers.

For a quick and easy fix, write ordinal numbers as numerals with a dot.

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Sandra Köktas

Sandra lives in Istanbul, together with her kids, cat and dog. As a historian she thrives exploring this ancient city with her two- and four-legged loved ones. Together, they also love to go on adventures through all of Turkey and its neighboring countries. If she’s not on the road, Sandra is busy putting her experiences into writing as a freelance copywriter for the travel industry and everything related to language, culture and family. Her particular interest lies in providing information on animal welfare with her website.

Sandra Köktas
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