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Expressing numbers in English: Part 3


We continue our look at the various ways we express numbers in the English language. In part 3, we look at Room, bus, document & road numbers, ordinal numbers, and American and British billions plus very big numbers. 

So let's, as we say, push on with...

Room, bus, document & road numbers

For a change, let's start with an exercise:


Can you say these phrases and their numbers correctly?

  1. I’m in room 26.

  2. Take the number 47 bus.

  3. You'll find room 252 on the second floor.

  4. Please refer to invoice number 13465.

  5. Take bus number 501.

  6. Take this letter to room 3476.

  7. I need document 1760.

  8. Room 2994 is unavailable at the moment, but 2991 has an equally good view.

  9. You’ll find it on invoice number DB17608018.

  10. Of course. You'll need to take the A47 until you come to the crossroads with the B6047. Continue left to Melton and then take the A606 to Grantham.

We'll be coming back to these examples...

Of course, teachers often tell their students how to read numbers, but whenever there are examples of room, bus numbers or even documents (such as numbered invoices) it is not always necessary to read the numbers in full.

For example, we can say I’m in room 26 (twenty-six), take the number 47 (forty-seven) bus, take route 66 (sixty-six).

But with three figures, we then usually say:

  • I’m in room 252 (two–five–two); 

  • Please refer to delivery note number 134 (one–three–four); 

  • Take bus number 501 (five–oh–one; American English: five–zero–one); 

  • The A890 to Ullapool (the A-eight-nine-oh; not many Brits actually say zero in road numbers; it's just one of those things.)

Should you be lucky to go into four figures or more, then you can begin to read them like telephone numbers. 

Room 3476 becomes three–four–seven–six (or thirty-four seventy-six in American English), while 2994 becomes two double-nine four.


However, a number like 1760 would be better read as individual numbers and not as seventeen sixty, as this could be confused with 7016, when spoken as seventy sixteen),

Invoice number DB7004242 could be read as DELTA BRAVO seven hundred forty-two forty-two or simply as DB seven double-o [double-zero] four two four two. 

If you're in the UK, it may be necessary for you to take the A4199 to Leicester (the A four-one-nine-nine or A four-one-double nine).

So. Back to Exercise 5. Can you now say the phrases and the numbers correctly? The answers are at the bottom of the page.

Ordinal numbers

First (1st), second (2nd), third (3rd), twenty-fourth (24th), and five hundred and twenty-seventh (527th) are all examples of ordinal numbers. 

But let's explain what ordinal numbers are and how we say them. This is perhaps best demonstrated as they are most used with months of the year, and at most, there are thirty-one days in the month. So when we see 5 April we say (the) fifth (of) April.

 Those numbers in full:

                    1  first                  8  eighth               15  fifteenth              22  twenty-second               29 twenty-ninth

                    2  second            9  ninth                 16  sixteenth             23  twenty-third                   30 thirtieth

                    3  third               10  tenth                17  seventeenth       24  twenty-fourth                 31 thirty-first                    

                    4  fourth            11  eleventh          18  eighteenth          25  twenty-fifth                   

                    5  fifth                12  twelfth             19  nineteenth          26  twenty-sixth

                    6  sixth               13  thirteenth        20  twentieth            27  twenty-seventh

                    7  seventh         14  fourteenth       21  twenty-first         28  twenty-eighth 


When it comes to listing numbered points either on a piece of paper or just itemising (Number 1, number 2, etc.), we can express these in one of two ways. 

We can either say first: Let’s look at the first question, or we say number one: Let’s look at number one or let’s look at question number one. We don't say let's look at question first, question second, etc.


We can use ordinal numbers as adjectives to express degree: He was arrested for second degree murder.

Quality: I’m going to fly first class to Singapore.

Or position: Robert Kubica finished in first place at the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix.

As adjectives are usually before the noun, then we would normally say the first question (NOT question first). 

We can use them as adverbs – not ordinal numbers – to say, for example, let’s do this question first (I suggest we begin with this question [but this might not necessarily be question number one]). 


We do not generally use ordinal numbers as nouns, but there are two notable exceptions.

We can use a first to mean a beginning, as in this example: TESCO made an announcement that was a first for the company; they were going to sell cars. However, we do not usually say that TESCO did a second or a third. 

The second is that ordinals are used when referring to dates within the month that is being talked about – for example, a speaker who wants his listener to get something done within the month they are having the discussion might say: I would like the document signed by the fourteenth. 

However, in the above paragraph, 'the second' - in the context of the text - means the second exception, but it is not necessary to repeat the word ‘exception’ as it is clear from the context what ‘the second’ is. 

And finally...

You may have even heard people saying ‘wait a second’, but this is a meaning of time, not a number, and is used to tell people to wait a very short time – not literally one second, but probably not more than a minute. 

As an extra piece of information, when we want to describe the number of an annual festival or event (such as the Kraków Film Festival), and if we want to mention the fact that in 2017 it is going to be the fifty-seventh such festival, then we would write The 57th Kraków Music Festival. If we write 57. Kraków Music Festival, it looks like number 57 in another itemised list of some kind!


1. Add '-st', '-nd', '-th' or '-rd' to the following numbers: 11, 17, 32, 41, 112

2. Write the following numbers as ordinals and as words: 4, 12, 21, 62, 99 

Now decide if the number shown in each statement below is being used as an ordinal number, a cardinal number (just another way of saying a normal number), an adjective, a noun, a date, or even a mix of two. 

3. Brian sold 18 cakes in his bakery.

4. That's the seventh time Sonia's seen that film!

5. Wait a second - I'm almost ready!

6. She finished seventh in the race.

7. So that's confirmed. I'll meet you on the fifteenth.

8. Derek is beginning his first year at university.

9. Well, that's a first - a bakery that sells fish.

10. There are 25 issues that need to be discussed from this list.

11. You'll find Simon sitting in the first row.

The answers are at the bottom of the page.

American billion or British billion?

This one has British English language purists really angry, so let's clear this up. 

1,000,000,000 - or one followed by nine zeros - is expressed as a billion in American English (in British English, it was also referred to as a milliard, but is no longer in common usage)..

What is really annoying for some is that the American billion is becoming increasingly common in British English in all areas of life (it is de facto in business). Language traditionalists say that in British English we should call this a thousand million, and that a British billion is in fact 1,000,000,000,000, or 1 followed by 12 zeros – which also happens to be the American trillion, an amount often used to describe global financial figures.

Beyond this, the differences in what are known as short scale (as used in American English) and long scale (British) go like this: 

1 & 12 zeros: American (short scale); – trillion; British – billion (long scale)

1 & 15 zeros: American – quadrillion; British – thousand billion

1 & 18 zeros: American – quintillion; British – trillion

1 & 21 zeros: American – sextillion; British – thousand trillion

1 & 24 zeros: American – septillion; British – quadrillion

1 & 27 zeros: American – octillion; British – thousand quadrillion

1 & 30 zeros: American – nonillion; British – quintillion

1 & 33 zeros: American – decillion; British – thousand quintillion 

Although there are these different labels in the two scales, realistically we do not bother counting that far, although some figures in these (short) scales have been used in texts (although they may not all be true!): 

The Trillion dollar club is an unofficial classification of the world's major economies with a gross domestic product (nominal GDP) of more than USD 1 trillion per year. (Wikipedia) 

1.25 quadrillion dollars is enough to give every single person, including the infants, their own America-style single-family home. (John Young's Blog) 

...[YouTube] has now changed the maximum view limit to 9,223,372,036,854,775,808, or more than nine quintillion. (BBC) 

Although the pengo's time ran out before the next denomination could be issued, the Hungarian monetary authorities had a 100 sextillion note printed, on hand, and ready to go. (the 

And so, if you multiply the number of stars in our galaxy by the number of galaxies in the Universe, you get approximately 1 followed by twenty-four zeros. That’s a septillion stars. ( 

The human body is thought to have 7 octillion atoms. ( 

The Diamond planet is thought to be worth $26.9 nonillion. (Forbes) 

The Area of the Milky Way galaxy is approximately 702 decillion square kilometers. (Large numbers in Science) 

As an additional piece of information, if you were to count up to 1 + 100 zeros, then its more popular name is a googol. But if you decided to count it by the normal scales, then it is ten duodrigintillion on the short scale, and ten thousand sexdecillion on the long scale. Although it is not considered important in mathematics, it is so when it comes to making comparisons with very large quantities such as the number of subatomic particles in the universe, which apparently total less than a googol. 

Now, before you ask, according to my dear friends at, the plural of zero is zeros, and zeroes is the third person form of the verb: You can see how he zeroes the mileage counter (to adjust an instrument to zero). But in American English both zeros and zeroes are acceptable for the plural. 

But back to the original question: a billion or a thousand million? Although I'm British, I have to say that the American billion now is used more globally. The USA is the richest country in the world and its finances have a massive influence everywhere. In the UK in 1975, it was announced that the UK treasury would adopt the US billion when deciding budgets. These days the British billion is largely seen as redundant (meaning no longer needed) in figures, but there are still many people out there who will insist that one billion is 1,000,000,000,000 (1 + 12 zeros) and not the American 1,000,000,000.

And absolutely finally...

In British English, zero is often referred to as a nought or ‘o’ (as in the letter ‘o’): 0.30 ('nought point three oh' or 'oh point three oh').

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Click on the audio link:


1. Add '-st', '-nd', '-th' or '-rd' to the following numbers to the following numbers: 11th, 17th, 32nd, 41st, 112th

2. Write the following numbers as ordinals and as words: 4 - fourth, 12 - twelfth, 21 - twenty-first, 62 - sixty-second, 99 - ninety-ninth

3. Brian sold 18 cakes in his bakery. (cardinal number)

4. That's the seventh time Sonia's seen that film! (ordinal number - adjective) 

5. Wait a second - I'm almost ready! (noun - but in the meaning 'wait a short time more' and is a period of time and not a number)

6. She finished seventh in the race. (ordinal number)

7. So that's confirmed. I'll meet you on the fifteenth. (date)

8. Derek is beginning his first year at university. (ordinal number - adjective)

9. Well, that's a first - a bakery that sells fish. (noun - but in reality it is the short form of 'first time' which would then make it an adjective)

10. There are 25 issues that need to be discussed from this list. (cardinal number)

11. You'll find Simon sitting in the first row. (ordinal number - adjective) 

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3

Room bus & document numbers - TEE
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