Cardinal Directions and Ordinal Directions

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Cardinal directions are the four main points of a compass: north, south, east, and west which are also known by the first letters: N,S,E, and W.  

These four directions are also known as cardinal points.  

Cardinal Directions

A cardinal direction can also be referred to by first using the word “due”.  For example, the cardinal direction of north can also be referred to as due north.

On a compass rose, which is a symbol found on maps that shows directions, there will be four points indicating north, south, east, and west.

A compass rose showing just the cardinal points of north, south, east, and west.
A compass rose showing just the cardinal points of north, south, east, and west. Adapted from Brosen~commonswiki, CC BY 2.5, Medawiki Commons

Ordinal Directions

Ordinal directions refer to the direction found at the point equally between each cardinal direction.  

Ordinal directions are: northeast (NE), southeast (SE), southwest (SW), and northwest (NW).  Ordinal directions are also known as intercardinal directions.

On a compass rose, the ordinal directions are each halfway between each cardinal direction. For example, NE (northeast) is halfway between North and East.

A compass rose with both ordinal and cardinal directions will have eight points: N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, and NW.

This compass rose shows ordinal and cardinal directions.
This compass rose shows ordinal and cardinal directions. Image: Adapted from Brosen~commonswiki, CC BY 2.5, Medawiki Commons.

Secondary Intercardinal Directions

Directions midway between each cardinal and ordinal direction are referred to as secondary intercardinal directions.  Examples of  secondary intercardinal directions are: NNW, NNE, and ENE.

On a compass rose with ordinal, cardinal, and secondary intercardinal directions, there will be 16 points: N, NNE, NY, ENE, E, ESE, SE, SSE, S, SSW, SW, WSW, W, NWN, NW, and NNW.

Compass rose showing cardinal, ordinal, and secondary-intercardinal directions. Image:  Brosen~commonswiki, CC BY 2.5, Medawiki Commons
Compass rose showing cardinal, ordinal, and secondary-intercardinal directions. Image: Brosen~commonswiki, CC BY 2.5, Medawiki Commons.

More About Directions

Geocentric Direction Systems
Not all culture understand direction the same way.

Understanding Direction Based on the Sun
A simple lesson plan that shows young children how to find cardinal directions based on the location of the sun.


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