Understanding The WordPress Updating System

I’ve been a tyrant about keeping WordPress software up-to-date. Unless there is a mitigating factor, you should always run the most current version of WP.

Of course, I’m also talking about keeping your theme and plugins current as well. More on that later.

WordPress follows a well-known and established method of versioning their software. It’s really simple to keep it straight.

Before I get into that, we’re talking about 3 very different types of software – WordPress, your theme, and plugins.

How Do You Know Which Version Of WordPress You’re Using?

When you log into your admin, you’re on the Dashboard page. Look to the bottom right corner of the page. You’ll see something like this:

Screen Shot - WordPress Version

For plugins, just go to the Plugins page. Here’s a screenshot showing a few plugins and their version numbers.

Screen Shot - Plugins

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For your theme, go to Appearance > Themes, and tap, click or select (take your pick) the thumbnail image of your theme.

You’ll find something like this:

Screen Shot - Theme Version

Now that you know where to find what version of WP you are using – as well as your theme and plugins – let’s decode the mystery behind the two and three digit update designations.

The Two Digit Version Update

When you see WP v4.7 or v4.8 that means you are dealing with a major update. New features are sure to be included with a few security patches and bug fixes thrown in for good measure. The first version I ever saw of WP was 2.6. For quite some time we got used to 3 major releases per year. But the development cycle – and rationale behind it – changed in 2017 and now new versions of WordPress are no longer on a regular schedule.

Major changes are always named after a Jazz artist in deference to Matt Mullenweg, a founder of the WP project and Jazz aficionado. Miles Davis was assigned to WP 1.0. The current version, 4.9, went to Billy Tipton. “Overview WordPress Versions and Associated Jazz Artists” has the complete list with a video of each artist. Very cool.


Contrary to popular belief, an X.0 version (as in 2.0 or 3.0 or 4.0) does not signify more major changes than usual. Having said that, 5.0 will certainly be the most significant update in WordPress history. That is when Gutenberg will be launched as a part of WordPress Core. When that happens, the WP Editor that has been around for (I think) all of WP’s history will itself be history. It will be replaced with Gutenberg, a block editing system.

When a two digit update is released, many web hosts will not automatically update your site. However, in recent times, some hosts – after a some time passes following a two digit release – will automatically update your site after they back it up.

The Three Digit Version Update

Three digit updates are far more common and follow the release of a major update. They fix bugs and patch security holes in WordPress. You won’t get any new toys to play with or see anything different. Three digit updates are all about keeping your site safe and sound.

Web hosts routinely update your WP software when a three digit release is pushed out provided you’re running the current version of WP. For example, if you’re on a real old version of WP, say 3.8, your host will not automatically update your site to the latest version as in 4.9.6 (the current version as of this post).

Speaking of 4.9.6, that update broke all the rules. It was a major update even though it used 3 digits. It even included a few new features. So why not call it 5.0?

They’re saving version 5.0 for Gutenberg which was announced more than a year ago.

What About Themes And Plugins?

Themes and plugins use the same system as WordPress itself. A two digit designation indicates a major change. This means new features are included, such as an improved UI. With three digit updates you won’t see anything new. Just bug fixes and security patches. Many times a 3 digit update from a theme or plugin developer will be released when WordPress is updated.

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