Cardinal Directions and Ordinal Directions

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Direction is the pathway along which an object is moving.  Direction is also the location of a feature based on the position of another feature.

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.

Cardinal versus Relative Directions
What is the difference between relative and cardinal directions?

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