“THE” + FREEWAY.

Back in 2003 (in my thousandth post), in a discussion of the general phenomenon of place names with and without “the,” I mentioned the fact that Southern Californians use the definite article when referring to freeways (“the 405″), and there was some discussion of that in the thread. Now Kári Tulinius sends me a link to a Washington Monthly discussion by Kevin Drum, who provides “the long-awaited semi-official explanation for this phenomenon. It’s official because it appears in an academic journal, but only semi because I remain a little skeptical anyway”:

The article is called “The” Freeway in Southern California, by Grant Geyer, and it appeared as a note in the summer 2001 issue of American Speech. His story starts at about the time that LA’s original five freeways were being built in the 30s and 40s:
In about 1941, just before the completion of the first of the famous freeways, intercity traffic came into Los Angeles on the north-south axis on U.S. 99, U.S. 101, or California Route 1…. Before the freeways were built, locals generally preferred the old, time-honored street or road names instead of numbers in conversation. So for ‘U.S. 99′ they said San Fernando Road because the highway followed that particular named street, as far as the distant end of “town.” Likewise, ‘U.S. 101′ was Ventura Boulevard and ‘Route 1′ was Pacific Coast Highway….Route 1 or Route 101 was not used in town.

When the federal interstate system grew up, the southern California area got its share of funding and road numbers…. However, for the first 20 years of the interstate system, no one used the numerical designations…. The interstate routes around Los Angeles were called the Ventura Freeway, the Hollywood Freeway, the Santa Ana Freeway, the Golden State Freeway, the San Bernardino Freeway, the Pasadena Freeway, the Glendale Freeway, the San Diego Freeway, the Santa Monica Freeway, the Harbor Freeway, the Riverside Freeway, and the Long Beach Freeway.
….The strange-sounding usage of the plus number, as in the 118, was the natural result of an amazing proliferation of new, minor interstate cutovers, extensions, and bypasses that began about 1975…. [It] was even more pronounced when new major Los Angeles interstates sprang up without having any precursors and without being extensions of earlier, nonnumerical freeways. The first one I remember in this category was the 605 Freeway.

… My objection is that this is all pretty ad hoc. Basically, Geyer is saying that other big cities had named highways too, but they just didn’t have quite as many as LA, so the never caught on. But if all your highways have names, and that’s the original source of the, then why would it matter how many you had? You either get accustomed to referring to them by name or you don’t, and if you do, you’d be just as likely as LA to evolve to using the with a numerical designator too. But nobody else did.

An interesting theory and a cogent objection. (With regard to NYC, a commenter in the linked Washington Monthly thread says, quite correctly, “New Yorkers never bother to learn the numerical designators. I drove there daily for years, and I still couldn’t tell you what number the Van Wyck is, or the Major Deegan, or almost any of them for that matter.”) I throw the floor open to suggestions.

Comments

  1. I will be very interested to hear what others think on this. I’ve never been anywhere near SoCal, but I still find saying “take the 405″ easier than “take 405″. Then again, I’m a Kiwi, and we identify outlanders by their failure to use the articles when using the English names for our two major islands, so I’m probably not qualified to judge.

  2. In England everybody uses “the” with numbered streets, thus one would say “take the M1 to London”, never “take M1 to London”.

  3. icegreentea says:

    Up here in Canada (I live in Toronto), we use ‘the as well. We have a mix of names here. A couple of highways are still called by name (the QEW (Queen Elizabeth’s Way), the DVP (Don Valley Parkway), etc etc). The 400 series super highways that popped up in the last few decades are always called ‘the ‘ (even though all of them of have official full names). Finally, we have some pre-400 series highways that are just called ‘Highway 7′ or ‘Highway 10′.

  4. I’m Canadian as well, and icegreentea is correct.

  5. Which means that any special pleading that applies to L.A. had better apply to Tronno as well, or the theory goes down among the dead men.
    (I first ran into this Torontonian phenomenon in the novels of Tanya Huff, in which the city is an important minor character, sort of like San Francisco in Armistead Maupin.)

  6. Mike Magee says:

    I am from Orange County California and I discovered this difference when I went to school in San Luis Obispo which is half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Half the people were referring to “the 101″ as just “101″ and I discovered it was due to where they grew up. My explanation was similar to Mr. Geyer’s: I had lived my whole life either next to “the Ventura” freeway or “the San Diego” freeway. It sounds very odd to me when people leave out the definite article.

  7. I grew up in Southern California and my relatives are mostly Texan – we all use “the” before major numerical highways. It’ve heard suggestion that this may be a Southwestern phenomenon?
    If it helps the investigation at all, when I say “the 101″ in my head, I’m thinking “the 101 freeway.” When I hear people drop the “the” it feels to like they’re dropping reference to the implied object – the freeway – which makes the number sound like an abstract set of units.
    I hate to be provincial, but do people really say “take 5″ as driving directions?

  8. Yes.

  9. rootlesscosmo says:

    “Take 5?” Sure. “What route did you take from LA?” “We were in a hurry so we took 5,” or “I-5.” Here in the Bay Area the standard usage is to omit the article, as can be confirmed by listening to local TV traffic reports. And Geyer’s explanation seems shaky, because US 101 (or just “101″) is also “the Bayshore Freeway,” often called that, and the oldest East Bay freeway was “the Nimitz,” but the article didn’t carry over to the numerical designation. My hypothesis is that both usages were equally likely back in the formative years, and sheer chance determined that one would prevail in Southern California and the other in Northern.

  10. Agreeing with that parenthetical comment about New York. Even the big green directional signs there omit numbers in favor of the names of bridges and roads. If you’re trying to get the hell out, the only hint you’ll get of a destination rather than a thoroughfare is “New England,” thataway.

  11. Huh. There are lots of native speakers of Californian up here in Oregon, but I have never heard anyone say “the I-5″ or “the 5.” It’s always “the freeway” or “I-5.”

  12. My wife, who grew up in California, uses the “the” in front of numeric highway names, and it has rubbed off on me, though I grew up here in Illinois and had not used that usage before. It now sounds like an article is missing if it’s left off.

  13. caffeind says:

    I think the traffic radio announcers determined usage, since commuters are always listening to these same few people to try to find which route sucks least. The radio personalities’ usage could be random, or determined by station policy, or by using the definite article to sound more folksy and Southern.

  14. Arthur Crown says:

    Since I always took the subway, my memory of Robert Moses’ NY road system is from the radio. There was “the Northbound Major Deegan” and “the Southbound Major Deegan”, like two Jekyll & Hyde characters. The Northbound Major Deegan was the really bad one, he was always in some kind of trouble, but maybe I was just listening in the afternoon.

  15. “We were in a hurry so we took 5″
    Even though I know this is just a regional shibboleth, suggesting you took a short break because you were in a hurry kind of makes me want to argue for the correctness of adding an article.

  16. mollymooly says:

    The evidence from outside the USA (and I can add Ireland to the “the” users) suggests “the” is the default, and it is the deviant regional US phenomenon of “the”-lessness which requires explanation.

  17. I live in Columbus, OH and am a relative newcomer to the area. But there are certain things you can get away with. Even though no one calls one route the freeway, even though it’s clearly marked a freeway, everyone calls it 315, it’s state route number. However, there is a road here called Polaris Parkway, named for the mall that it serves, and you can get away with calling that “the parkway.” Of course, Columbus is not that incredibly large of a city, so there is really only one parkway worth mentioning.

  18. Some geoforensics via Google:
    Scanning the major north-south (odd-numbered) interstates in the US, starting on the east coast and working west, the the results for “took.the.[number].south” versus “took.[number].south” are as follows:
    95 – 1, 82 (so 1 “the”, 82 no “the”)
    81 – 0, 30
    77 – 0, 20
    75 – 1, 15
    65 – 0, 16
    57 – 6, 6
    35 – 2, 32
    25 – 0, 8
    15 – 3, 68
    5 – 9, 81 (California north-south interstate)
    And the same analysis on two north-south California highways:
    395 – 3, 21 (California inland highway)
    101 – 71, 121 (California coastal highway)
    (The results include some extraneous entries, but not many. The 6-6 tie for 57 is not significant because of scarce data.)
    So I suggest that this is largely a Californiaism, and an extreme coastal one at that, applying to state highways more so than the interstates.
    Enterprising researchers are invited to do further analysis on California’s east-west state roads to distinguish NoCal from SoCal usage.

  19. Crown, Arthur says:

    Just for the record, I know you’re interested, Norway doesn’t use the article. But on the other hand, they practically don’t have any roads (and the ones they do have they’re putting underground).

  20. Growing up in suburban Chicago it was ‘Route 14′ and ‘Route 12′ (pronounced ‘rout’, not ‘root’), never just ’14′ or ’12′; to get in and out of the city you took the Kennedy, the Edens, the Ike (Eisenhower), or the Dan Ryan (aka ‘the damned Ryan’), or even LSD, but never ‘the’ LSD…

  21. The Dan Ryan, the Eisenhower, the Skyway, the Bishop Ford, yes, and in Chicago it’s the “expressway”, not the freeway. But the Eisenhower extension is also the 290 extension-a road that is only within the Chicago suburb area.
    In South Dakota, everyone knows you can take highway fourteen (or just “fourteen”) all the way to Minneapolis or even Chicago. “Twenty-nine” (interstate #29) goes north and south through Sioux Falls, and I-90 (eye-ninety) will take you to the Black Hills.
    If you live in Minneapolis, 35W (thirty-five doubleyou) goes north and south, mostly south, and you can take it to 80 or eye-80, (I-80) which runs the length of Iowa.
    When I teach names of countries, I tell my beginning English students to use “the” for plurals: the Netherlands, the United States, the Philippines (Islands), but not “The Canada” or “The Mexico”. But in Arabic you put “the” in front of almost everything–Jordan is il-urdun الأردن (“the earth”, I think).
    Oh yes, and for those Illinoisians who like to leave the main highway and travel on historic 66, you still can get your kicks on Route 66 (pronounced rooot) not on the route 66.

  22. Arthur Crown says:

    Nijma: Jordan is il-urdun الأردن (“the earth”, I think)
    Jord is ‘earth’ in Norwegian, so they probably got the word from the Vikings.

  23. not “The Canada” or “The Mexico”
    Is “The Gambia” the last holdout of “The Ukraine,” “The Sudan,” “The Congo,” …?

  24. Crown, A. says:

    The Ivory Coast

  25. Crown, A. says:

    The United Kingdom, it must be something to do with adjectives rather than plurals.

  26. mollymooly says:

    El Salvador, formerly just Salvador, is bucking the trend.

  27. In case no one has mentioned this yet, just as “the 5″ is short for “the 5 freeway”, plain old “5″ probably used to be short for “interstate 5″ or “highway 5″. (Is “the M2″ short for “the M2 motorway” or something?) I’ll hazard that all English speakers would use a “the” before “5 freeway” and not use one before “highway/interstate 5″. Maybe the regional variation in the short forms just reflects differences in preferred long forms.

  28. it’s funny, I think I’ve only ever heard highway names in conjunction with the definite article. I was born in Toronto, grew up in Southern Ontario and England, and currently live in Montreal. If I were to describe any numerical motorway I would call it either ‘the 401′ or ‘highway 401′ if I were being a bit more formal. Or else use the colloquial name – here in Montreal two of the major routes are almost universally referred to in English as ‘the Metropolitan’ or (my personal favourite) ‘the T-Can’ and I find it nearly impossible to remember the proper numbers when I’m looking for the correct exit on one of my rare automotive adventures.

  29. I use “the” with numbered freeways that are in California, but not with freeways that are anywhere else. I probably came up with this rule as a result of being a non-Californian who knows a lot of Californians.

  30. I thought it was interesting. From an AskMetaFilter post:

    It’s in Los Angeles near where the 101 and 5 freeways meet.

    And not “the 101 and the 5.”

  31. Charles Perry says:

    Well, Arabic uses the definite article in a lot of contexts that English doesn’t, but, apart from Al-Urdunn (from Yarden, the Hebrew name of the Jordan river), all the Arab countries between al-’Iraq and al-Jazair (Algeria) omit the article: Suriya, Lubnan, Misr (Egypt), Libiya, Tunis. However, the colloquial name of Syria, al-Sham, uses it.

  32. I live in central California. I would never use “the 5″, and a few of my friends from San Francisco do, which I find curious.
    Freeway names have long(-ish) and short versions. The long-ish versions would be “I-5″ or “Highyway 101″. The short versions, used when context has already been established, are simply the numbers (“take 132 west, then skip 5 on your way to 580 west…”).
    It appears that Geyer is attributing the use of “the” to the fact that freeways were previously given names in relation to streets, not to the fact that Los Angeles has lots of freeways. And I find this to be a very sensible explanation.

  33. I’m not sure if this helps or makes it worse, but here’s how grammarian Betty Azar (Fundamentals of English Grammar) explains how to use “the”:

    The speaker uses the (not a, 0, or some) when the speaker and the listener are thinking about the same specific thing(s) or person(s).
    Example #1: Did you feed the dog?
    The speaker and the listener are thinking about the same specific dog. The listener knows which dog the speaker is talking about: the dog that they own, the dog that they feed every day. There is only one dog that the speaker could possibly be talking about.
    Example #2: I had a banana and an apple.
    I gave the banana to Mary.
    In this example, the speaker uses the when s/he mentions a noun the second time.
    First mention: I had a banana
    Second mention: I gave the banana
    In the second mention, the listener now knows which banana the speaker is talking about: the banana the speaker had (not the banana John had, not the banana in that bowl)

    So how about this.
    -Local highways seem to almost always use “the”. There is only one and everybody knows which one they are.
    -Cross country highways use the number or the word “highway” in front of the number. Maybe this is because there is more than one of them, the one coming into town and the one going out of town. For instance, if you are in Minneapolis, there is the Highway 14 going to Chicago and the Highway 14 going to South Dakota, and probably other bits of highway 14 you can pick up in various suburbs.
    -California uses “the” because it is on the coast and the roads can’t go any further.
    Okay, I know it doesn’t explain everything, but come up with something better.
    You can use the same theory for the names of Arab countries too. Al-araq (Iraq),as-Sadeeya (Saudi), al-Yemen, al-Sudan, al-Bahrain, al-Eemiraht (Emirates), and al-Kuwait, are very specific places either close to holy sites or on the coastline, or built up from ancient cities like es-Shems (Damascus) or al-Quds (Jerusalem). Then you have places that are in the middle of trade routes, like Lubnan & Suria, (Lebanon and Syria), and Tunis, Libia (Libya was even once a generic term for all of Africa), Ooman, Albania, Falastine (Palestine), Qatar, Misr (Egypt) and the definite article gets dropped, until you get to the west coast of Africa, and there, like California, al-Magreb (Morocco) gets a definite article.
    I did leave out the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (Al-Mamlakah al-Urdunniyyah al-Hāšimiyyahالمملكة الأردنية الهاشميه), which although in the center of MY universe, has always historically been positioned between empires and superpowers. I think the definite article al- there might have something to do with the possessive though.
    near where the 101 and 5 freeways meet
    couldn’t this have something to do with the compound object, sort of like “give me the salt and pepper shaker” instead of “the salt and the pepper shaker”–or “the hammer and sickle” instead of “the hammer and the sickle”…does the Skull and Bones (Yale frat) fit here?

  34. I live in Portland, Oregon, and in examining my own usage I am delighted to find that I say “the 5″ and “the 101,” but never “the 84″ or “the 99.” “The 205,” which is a bend off the 5, is a tossup. The first two roads go to California, and I expect that I have heard them referred to by many a Californian.

  35. The mention of the radio announcements shouldn’t be underestimated in an agglomeration as automobile-derived and media-inundated as Southern California, then and now. The corresponding increase in radio advertising alongside the expanding highway system may have played a part. A savvy ad man would have used the familiar “the”, knowing the potential client more likely to drive to a business via a route he was persuaded he already knew. Better to tell them that Acme Tire Shop is located off “the” freeway, reinforcing the sense of deja connu. My guess is that municipal services such as police, fire and ambulance, each who rely on accurate road directions, quickly adopted the same pattern of including “the” for additional clarity in their dispatches.

  36. This is an old discussion and still relevant to us Californians and others. I grew up in the Midwest. We would take (US) “Highway 65 to Des Moines. Later we took “Interstate-35″. We’d talk about rural route 1 and state highway 18, and we never used “the”.

    Living now in the San Francisco Bay Area, the locals do pretty much the same thing. If you have time, you’ll talk about “Interstate 680″. With less time, it’s “Take I-680″ or just “Take 680″. Using the definite article takes longer, sounds affected, and certainly means you’re not from around here. We get as much a chuckle out of SoCal visitors who say “the 680″ as they do when we visit them.

    I really think the answer is in the radio, and now TV announcers — their habits become how most people talk. I suspect the major stations have always had a style book, so to speak, for newly hired announcers, so the tradition continues.

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