ENGLISCH/796: Questions to Mrs Gobbledygook (140) Which son are you? (SB)


140. Asking for ordinal numbers

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

I wonder if you possibly know the answer to a question which seems to interest a lot of people in my part of the world. In mediterranean countries children are most important in ones life. If you talk about sons, it is even more important to know, who is the eldest, the second, or the youngest.

Now, how do I ask in English a question to which the answer will contain an ordinal number? I would be very much obliged to know what question can be asked that will give me the answer without being rude or impolite.

Thank you

Franco Cerili (from Italy)


Dear Mr Cerili

How does one ask for an ordinal number? Let us look at the following example:

David has seven sons. Charles is the third son but we don't know it. If we want to find out whether Charles is the eldest or the youngest or the third son, a native English speaker would use the simple question word "which". Meeting Charles on a party your conversation might go like this:

Charles: "Hi, I'm Charles. I'm the son of David Smith." You: "Oh, hello Charles. Which son are you?"

And it is fairly clear what you are trying to find out. If you don't note that the young man's name is Charles, then he might answer the question "Which son are you?" with:

"I'm Charles."

So in that case, if you really want to find out whether he is the first, second, third, or fourth son, the conversation should go like this:

"I'm one of John Smith's sons."
"Oh, where in the family do you come?"

or you could say:

"So, which son are you, the eldest, the youngest?"

And he will probably reply:

"I'm the third son."

However, in Britain this is certainly not a piece of information that people are in general very interested in. Perhaps that's why we haven't got a tailor-made way to inquire ordinal numbers. But they have in some other languages. Anyway, you probably will not hurt the feelings of anyone, if you ask as suggested.

Thanks for writing

Mrs Gobbledygook

28 July 2008