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How should I phrase a question that must be answered with an ordinal number (e.g., the third prime)?
How to ask a question to get an ordinal number answer

In my native tongue, Malayalam, there is a question word - "ethraamathe" - which we use to get an ordinal number as answer. In other Indian languages, and also in many foreign languages like Dutch and German, such a question word does exist. But in English there is no one word for such a question.

I have once read in a Phantom strip cartoon book from US a sentence that uses what number. Using this expression it is easy to ask "What number president of America was Abraham Lincoln?" to which one would answer "16th". A professor from Oxford University has said in one of his letters to me that what number can be used in informal speech. In his opinion, "Where in the numerical order did Abraham Lincoln come as President of America?" can be used in writing.

I would like to know whether American and British people use ‘what number’ in their speech. Some Indians also use how manieth as an ordinal number question.

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marked as duplicate by coleopterist, Hellion, MετάEd, Kit Z. Fox Feb 2 '13 at 12:54

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

To be useful, the expression will have to be howmanieth, without a space, assuming howmany is a word. – Kris Feb 2 '13 at 6:44
I haven't heard anyone using 'how manieth' anywhere I have been in India. Most Indians are aware that English does not have an 'interrogative ordinal'. – user32480 Feb 2 '13 at 11:24

1 Answer 1

I think this question is different from the possible duplicate @coleopterist mentioned. That question asks how one should phrase the question, not whether a particular way of phrasing the question ("what number") is used by American and English speakers.

Either "What number president..." or "Which number president..." are ways I would typically ask the question, so yes, for this American English speaker, "what number" is natural. "Which president..." might work, too, if the context is clear. If the context isn't clear, I can imagine asking it more like this: "Abraham Lincoln was which president - first?, second?, third?"

English could adopt the word "whichth" for this, but to be honest, I never realized English was missing a word for this until I learned that Mandarin had it, more or less, as 第几.

While we're at it, we could also add "whenth", as in "Whenth did you arrive to work this morning?" (Answer: I was the third person to arrive.)

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If you asked me "whenth" I arrived at work, I'd probably respond with the time (e.g., 7:30), not "I was third." (I'd likely assume the -th suffix was forming some sort of archaic verb, and maybe guess that you had gone to see a Shakespeare play the previous evening.) I wouldn't make the jump to "Oh, Steve is looking for an ordinal answer." (I'm just pointing out that it would take some time to establish such a word.) – J.R. Feb 2 '13 at 11:21

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