Is there a fixed rule that decides whether to read a Roman numeral as a cardinal number or an ordinal number?

For Example, WWII, we say World War Two, but Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Elizabeth the Second. Minsk II agreement is also read as Minsk Two agreement.

(Yes, we can say the Second World War and the Second Minsk Agreement as well.)

Again, my question is whether there is a fixed rule that dictates the way Roman numbers are read in title or name (like citation guidelines we used in college), and if so, what would that be.

  • 4
    the rule is that "the second" should only be used with people's names.
    – user180089
    Jul 25, 2016 at 19:34
  • 8
    No. There can't be a fixed rule for popular abbreviations; they leave out what's predictable in a phrase, and that's different for different phrases. Jul 25, 2016 at 19:54
  • 2
    No, there is no general rule.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 25, 2016 at 20:53
  • I remember a movie (or TV show) where someone picked up a book from a table and read the title: "The Biography of Malcolm the Tenth".
    – GEdgar
    Sep 3, 2016 at 14:05

3 Answers 3


I don't think there's a real, well-defined pattern.

However, from observation it seems:

  • A number, roman or not, after its subject is usually a cardinal number (e.g. "Chapter five", "World War Two").
  • A number, roman or not, before its subject is usually an ordinal number (e.g. "Second World War", "25th Olympic Games").
  • Regnal numbers, roman or not, are always ordinal numbers (e.g. "George the Fifth", "John Paul the Second", "Robert of the House Baratheon, the First of His Name" :-) ).
  • Dates follow their own pattern because "June 2" is actually not "the second month June" but just "the second day of the month June" and as such the number is not related to the number of Junes at all.

This is not a grammatical rule, but it should be good enough as a guide on how to pronounce these titles.


There is is no such general rule to govern how Roman numerals are read. It depends on widely accepted practices.

Observe the use in each of the following,

  • Henry VII -- "Henry the Seventh"
  • Star Wars: Episode II -- "Star Wars: Episode two"
  • Saturn V -- "Saturn five"

Roman numerals don't take an ordinal suffix like Arabic (everyday) numerals. But when read out it's irrelevant that the roman numbering system is used, so we generally use ordinal or cardinal numbers as appropriate. However it's not always that simple. Our monarch is the second in a sequence of Queens called Elizabeth, so we use the ordinal. WWII is an interesting example. But it works the same as saying "item two in a list" or "the second item in a list" the first referring to an index (cardinal) and the second a sequence number (ordinal). This will be familiar to anyone who's worked with zero-based arrays, where the first item has index zero (unless you've already tested to a zeroth item).

I'm sure there are exceptions even to this rather vague pattern. It's more meant to explain what's happening than to set out a rule.

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