The beginner’s guide to French ordinal numbers | With audio pronunciation

Ordinal numbers are numbers used to show the order of something – for instance, first, second, two hundredth, etc.  To make a regular, or cardinal, French number an ordinal number, most of the time you’ll add the suffix -ième to it.

But there are a few exceptions, notably the number un, which becomes premier or première, depending on the gender of the word it’s modifying.  

Let’s learn about ordinal numbers in French!

What are ordinal numbers in French?

View of a building on the corner of a row of Parisian buildings in the Saint-Germain district.
Elles habitent au troisième étage.

Elles habitent au troisième étage.

Ordinal numbers in French are used the same way they are in many other languages, including English – to show order or ranking.

The French ordinal numbers you’ll most commonly come across are the ones from one to ten:

Higher ordinal numbers follow the same basic pattern of the number with -ième attached to the end. For instance: vingtième (twentieth), dix-hutième (nineteenth), centième (one hundredth), mil-cent-quatrième (one thousand one hundred fourth).

How to write French ordinal numbers

A fawn and black pug looks at the camera with a soulful expression.
J’ai déjà eu des carlins. Fifi est mon troisième.

As we saw in the previous section, most French ordinal numbers are the number with the suffix -ième at the end. For instance, sept (seven) becomes septième (seventh); quarante (forty) becomes quarantième (fortieth), and so on.

Here are some other rules for writing French ordinal numbers:

Ordinal numbers don’t change depending on the gender of the subject.

For instance:

Jacques habite dans le quatrième arrondissement de Paris. (Jacques lives in Paris’s fourth district.)

C’est la quatrième fois qu’il invite sa copine chez lui. (This is the fourth time he’s invited his girlfriend to his place.)

As you can see, even though arrondissement is masculine and fois is feminine, the ordinal number suffix -ième stays the same.

Ordinal numbers are never pluralized.

Even if you’re talking about multiple things, an ordinal number’s suffix remains -ième. If you think about it, this makes sense and is the same in English. We don’t say thirds place, for instance.

That said, in literary or poetic language, there might be an exception. For instance, Mes premières fois (My first times) is the French title of the delightful Netflix series Never Have I Ever.

But this is type of usage is extremely rare and not used in everyday language.

In most cases, ordinal numbers follow basic French spelling rules.

So this means….

When a number ends in “e”, drop it when you add the suffix -ième to make it an ordinal.

For instance, quatre becomes quatrième.

When a number ends in a “q”, add a “u” before the suffix -ième.

For instance, cinq becomes cinquième, vingt-cinq becomes vingt-cinquième, and so on.

When making neuf an ordinal number, drop the “f” and add a “v”.

For instance, neuf becomes neuvième, quatre-vingt-dix-neuf becomes quatre-vingt-dix-neuvième, and so on.

Ordinal numbers are most commonly included in a sentence or phrase, but they can sometimes be on their own.

For instance: Il est arrivé en premier (He got here first.). Or, C’est mon troisième. (It’s my third/That’s the third one I’ve had), if the subject is known.

More examples:

J’ai déjà eu des carlins. Fifi est mon troisième. (I’ve had pugs before. Fifi is my third.)

Il est en quatrième cette année. (He’s in 8th grade/year nine this year.)

I promise it’s a lot easier to use French ordinal numbers than all these rules might make you think!

For one thing, in most cases, when you say them, you won’t have to think about the rules as much. For example, cinq is pronounced the same way on its own as it is in the ordinal form cinquième. 

And the more you speak, listen to, and read French, the more you’ll get used to them.

How to make un an ordinal number

A pink birthday cake with shredded chocolate pieces on the bottom part and dollops of different creams and jams in pink, red, and white on part of the top, with a black number one stuck into it.
C’est son premier anniversaire. (It’s her first birthday.)

Although there might be a few additional things to do, like dropping or adding a letter, all French numbers become ordinal numbers by adding the suffix -ième to them…except for un and second.

Let’s talk about un first (No pun intended…Well, maybe).

Un (one) changes completely as an ordinal number, becoming premier. This total change is similar to English, where one becomes “first” as an ordinal number.

NOTE THAT THIS DOESN’T APPLY TO NUMBERS THAT INCLUDE UN. For instance, vingt-et-un becomes vingt-et-unième, cent-et-un becomes cent-et-unième, et so on. ONLY UN (ONE) – CHANGES TO PREMIER.

As you’ve probably noticed, premier and the more rarely used second (more on this below) are the only French ordinal numbers that don’t include the suffix -ième.

And to stand out even more, unlike the -ième ordinals, premier changes to agree with the gender of a subject.

So if you’re using premier with a feminine noun, it will change to its feminine form, première.

For example:

C’est son premier vélo. (It’s his first bike.)

vs

Il a gagné la première place au concours de cuisine. (He won first place at the cooking contest.)

On the other hand, as with all ordinal numbers, premier isn’t pluralized, unless maybe there’s some literary or poetic wordplay involved, which would be rare.

What is the difference between deuxième and second?

A woman holds up two fingers, indicating the number two. Her hand is clear in the foreground and the rest of her is blurred in the middle ground.

When you make deux an ordinal number, you’ll typically just follow the usual rules and add the suffix -ième: deuxième.

But sometimes, you may notice that another ordinal form of deux is being used: second.

Like its cousin, premier, second:

  • is only used as the ordinal of one number in French: deux. Any other number that has deux in it does not use second. For instance, trente-deuxième (thirty-second), NOT trente-second.
  • is a French ordinal number that doesn’t resemble its root number and doesn’t take the suffix -ième.
  • like all ordinal numbers, second is never pluralized.
  • agrees with the gender of the noun its modifying. In its feminine form, second becomes seconde.

For example:

C’est un livre sur le Second Empire. (It’s a book about the French Second Empire.)

vs

Beaucoup de gens sont fascinés par la Seconde Guerre mondiale. (Many people are fascinated by World War II.)

Why does deux have two ordinal options? The answer comes down to a technicality. Deuxième should be used when there are many other numbers involved. Second should be used when there are only two choices/options/rankings.

This being said, the rule can be a bit confusing. For instance, second is the French school level/year equivalent to 10th grade/year 11. But there are clearly many other school years. In this case, the use of second may be related to its Latin roots, since Latin was long the language used in academic life.

Sometimes second and deuxième might be used interchangeably. For instance, it’s common to see both la Seconde Guerre mondiale and  la Deuxième Guerre mondiale.

Both are valid names for World War II. You could say there’s the implication with la Seconde Guerre mondiale that it’s the final World War, whereas la Deuxième Guerre mondiale implies that there might be other world wars in the future. But most French people just seem to use them interchangeably.

If you make a mistake and use deuxième when you technically should use second, French people will understand you – although they might be confused if it’s with a specific phrase or term like second in school.

If you use second and never deuxième, though, you’ll probably confuse people, so make deuxième your default.

When to use ordinal numbers in French

Two people in regular clothes face off on a three lane track, about to run.

The more you speak, hear, and write French, the more you’ll realize just how common and useful ordinal numbers are.

As with languages like English, the most common ways you’ll see ordinal numbers used in French include:

rankings in a competition (première place, deuxième place, etc.).

Example: Sylvie est en première place et Paul est en deuxième (Sylvie is in first place and Paul is in second.)

floors of a building (troisième étage, dixième étage, etc.).

Example: Notre bureau se trouve au quatrième étage. (Our office is on the fourth floor.)

when talking about how many times someone has done something.

Examples: C’est la première fois qu’elle pilote un avion. (It’s her first time flying a plane.)/C’est la cinquième fois que tu me dis ça! (This is the fifth time you’ve told me that!)

when specifying the order of something/someone in a group.

Example: C’est leur deuxième enfant. (This/He/She is their second child.)

district numbers for certain cities.

Cities like Paris and Lyon are organized into arrondissements (districts) that are numbered.

Example: Ils habitent dans le douzième arrondissement. (They live in the twelfth district.)

school years/levels, from collège (middle school/secondary school) through lycée (high school/secondary school).

For example, cinquième is the equivalent of seventh grade (US)/year 8 (UK).

FOR premier: with dates.

Just as we say “the first of the month” or “the first day of…”, in French, the ordinal form of un is used for the first day of the month. So, March 1st is le premier mars (or le 1er mars in abbreviated form).

But ALL OTHER DATES use regular (cardinal) numbers. Ex: le 25 mars (March 25th).

How to abbreviate French ordinal numbers

Closeup of the Cathédrale de La Major in Marseille. We see the dome, which is in stone that is white with lines of black inset stone, like the rest of the facade around it. The white glows yellow in the sun.
La Cathédrale de La Major se trouve dans le 2e arrondissement de Marseille.

As you can see from the list in the previous section, ordinal numbers are used frequently in French. And so, as in English, they’re also frequently abbreviated.

To write the short version of an ordinal number in French, you add e, or,  less commonly, ème to the end of a number.

For instance, dixième could be abbreviated:

  • 10e
  • 10ème
  • 10ème
  • 10e
  • 10⁰ 

There doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast rule about which French ordinal abbreviation you choose. Personally, I most often see the number followed by a simple e (ex: 20e), probably because it’s the easiest and quickest one to write or type.

Here are a few  more examples, using just the regular e after the number:

  • troisième – 3e
  • soixante-quatrième – 64e
  • vingt-et-unième – 21e

How to abbreviate premier and second

As you may have guessed, our two exceptional ordinal numbers also have exceptional abbreviations.

Premier is abbreviated: 1er (premier) or 1re (première). You can also sometimes see them abbreviated like this: 1er (premier) and 1re (première).

Second is abbreviated: 2d (second) or 2de (seconde). You can also sometimes see them formatted like this: 2d (second) and 2de (seconde).

How do you make an ordinal an adverb?

Closeup of a small dog or puppy- maybe a golden retriever - and a medium-haired orange tabby cat cuddling in the grass.
Premièrement, j’aime les chats. Deuxièmement, les chiens sont sympas aussi. (Firstly, I love cats. Secondly, dogs are also nice.)

Sometimes, we might say something like “firstly” or “secondly”. How do we say that in French?

To make an ordinal number an adverb in French, you add the suffix -ment to an ordinal number. This makes for quite a mouthful!

Examples:

premièrement – firstly

Note that the feminine form is always used here because an extra e needs to be added for sound purposes.

deuxièmement – secondly

Note that secondement does exist, but it’s literary and rare enough that some French people I spoke with weren’t even aware that it’s a real word!

troisièmement – thirdly

quatrièmement – fourthly

cinquièmement – fifthly (not very common)

And so on, although as in English, it’s rare to make an ordinal over ten an adverb.


I hope you found this guide to French ordinal numbers helpful, whether you’re learning about them pour la première fois ou pour la centième fois!

Have you used ordinal numbers in French before? Feel free to share in the comments!

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.

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