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Oooh, we struck a nerve (or something!) with last week's letter on using the definite article (or not) in front of highway names that are composed of numbers!

From Joey Gelinas:

I can't speak for SoCal when it comes to using "THE 210" or "THE 5" when referring to a route number. I've only been in Southern California for three short days, but I have lived in Phoenix for the past 11 years and hear this particular convention used regularly. I go from home to my workplace on the I-10, carefully avoiding the 60 because they're widening it again.  

From Andrew Charles:

I can't comment on why SoCal natives say "take the 210" (as you suggest perhaps they say "the 210 Freeway" instead of "Freeway 210" for some reason), but I think one clarification needs to be made. When someone says "go south on 75" the full phrase would be "go south on Highway 75". As "Highway 75" is understood as a name the definite article is not used. In contrast "610 loop" is not a name, but a description - 610 in this case is used as a genitive noun describing "the loop". The object is not "610", but "loop" which requires the article. You could also say "take the loop on 610", with "610" as dative. Compare "turn left onto West Street", "turn left onto the west street" and "turn onto The West Street".

From Jack Haines:

We have a number of major tollways and highways in Chicago, and the grammar changes depending on whether you call the highway by its name or its number. I'll give you two examples: We have I88 (the East/West Tollway), and 290 (The Eisenhower (or The Ike). When we refer to the road by the number, we don't use the definite article. However, when we refer to the road by its name, we do use the definite article. So, it's common to hear, "Take the tollway to 290, and get off on 294." Or "Take I88 to the Ike, and take that all the way to the Dan Ryan (or Damn Ryan)."

I think that this referring practice is akin to our using the definite article with general nouns that are accompanied by proper names: the Sears Tower; the Rocky mountains; etc.

From Francois Vincent:

Just a note to let you know that most anglophones in Montreal (Canada) use the same "SoCal" phrasing when it comes to highways. When going North, we wonder if we should take "the 13" or "the 15". This may be related to our frequent exposure to the french usage "prendre le 13 nord" which include the article.

From Alec Frank:

As a SoCal (near) native, I think I may know the reason, as Cathy Kelty observes, that we use an article when referring to our numbered freeways.  Interestingly, as an apparently inobservant SoCal (near) native, I had never noticed that others didn't do so.

My guess: the first freeways were built here and given popular names, and there weren't so many that we needed numbers. The Pasadena Freeway ... uh ... the 110 was the first, constructed in the late 1950s. So, in the 1960s, long before the common use of numbers to identify these limited access highways, they were all known universally by their popular names, such as "the Harbor Freeway," "the Hollywood Freeway," "the San Diego Freeway," etc. (The one exception that comes to mind is the San Gabriel River Freeway that seems to have always been known as "the 605," probably due to the excessive length of its "true" name.) When we began to be overrun with freeways, we replaced the names with the numbers for ease and clarity, but kept the article in each. 

Many Angelenos of my generation and earlier continue to use the more colorful monikers, sometimes being met with quizzical looks from visitors and relative newcomers. 

From George Kimble:

A reader questioned why Southern California folks refer to freeways as "The 210".

I believe that is a holdover from the days when we used names for freeways, rather than numbers. There was the Harbor Freeway, the Pasadena Freeway, the Hollywood Freeway, the San Bernardino Freeway, etc. You gave directions by saying "Take the Pasadena north to Avenue 52". 

It was only later (early '70's?) that most people began to use numbered system. 

From Gordon Brown:

In TOWFI 155, page 4, the last Sez You asks about using the definite article with the name or designation of a major road. I don't recall noticing it in any other parts of the USA, but in Canada and England that usage is the norm. In England, even secondary roads are usually referred to in this way, for example "the B-303". And in countries with Romance languages (at least in Europe), where the language itself requires an article in more cases than English does, roads take a definite article.

From David Zecchini:

As a long time resident of Ohio who recently migrated westward to Southern California, I'd like to share my experiences with freeway naming conventions in everyday speech... 

From what I've seen, Ohio seems to follow the more common pattern of not including the article (i.e. "Take 75 East to Columbus, then take 71 North"). It was indeed a puzzlement to see references to "the 5" and "the 405" when I arrived in SoCal. But I think that once you've driven on those roads for any length of time, it becomes second nature to refer to them as such. 

I have two theories as to why this happens. Southern California has an enormously confusing series of roads with somewhat long distances between points of origin and destination (the L.A. "urban sprawl" often means crossing a great deal of turf to get to where you want to go...especially with large populations who commute upwards of 2 hours to work each day). Because using side streets, smaller freeways, and "shortcuts" often take 3-4 times as long to get through than even the jammed up freeway system, almost every set of directions ends up taking you onto these two primary freeway systems (and to a lesser degree to "the 101" which is often necessary for getting to popular sights in "the Valley." Because they are used SO often in giving directions, and because direction is usually implied by the destination (i.e. heading to South County from L.A. it's obvious you're going South. Heading to the Valley from downtown, it's obvious you're going North, etc...), it becomes very easy to shorten and approximate the speech.  If you're just going to "take 5," it flows better from speech (and implies something other than the popular phrase "take 5") if you add the article. "Take THE 5."

My other theory arises from the fact that these two freeways are so deeply ingrained in people's necessary modes of travel, and represent such important boundaries and landmarks to the area (extending for LONG distances through HEAVILY populated areas), that in a sense it's a form of personification. Anyone who's ever been trapped in the "grand parking lot" that is "the 5" on Saturday afternoon can attest to its ability to inspire rage. It's easy to see "The 5" as a deliberately malevolent, directed force keeping you from getting where you need to be on time and forever blocking your progress.

From Sheri Martin:

I too am a Bay Area transplant to SoCal, and though I have lived in Los Angeles County for ten years, I flat out refuse to use "the" in front of a freeway number. After all, you wouldn't say "the Main Street" or "the Melrose Avenue". (I also admit to a large amount of northern prejudice.)

However, I do have a theory as to why Angelenos do this. Until recent years, freeways were more commonly referred to by their names than their numbers. Traffic reporters still refer to 101 as the Ventura or Hollywood Freeway (depending on which way you're going), and to I-5 as The Golden State Freeway. Traffic reporters in San Francisco may refer to 101 as The Bayshore, but they never call 280 the Junipero Serra Freeway.

By the way, my favorite freeway name down here is 10 eastbound - there's a huge sign in Santa Monica naming it the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Freeway. Transcontinental indeed!

From John Hindsill:

What's the quickest way to L.A.? The freeway [this appears to be a fantasy considering actual southland congestion]. Which freeway? The 10 Freeway. In other words, '10' merely specifies which freeway.

As an aside, here in southern California we are as apt to specifiy a freeway by name as by number: e.g. the San Bernardino Freeway (10 e. of L. A.); the Santa Monica Freeway (10 w. of L. A.).

From Steve Folkers:

The use of the definite article before freeway numbers is unknown to this Midwesterner! However, in the Chicago area we do use "the" when referring to an interstate expressway that has a name as well as a number. For instance, "Go south on the Edens," and "Go south on 94," mean the same thing. I agree with your observation that "the 5" might be short for "the 5 freeway." Here, "the Edens," or "the Kennedy," or "the Dan Ryan" definitely implies the word "expressway" after the name. Confusingly, all of those names refer to different stretches of Interstate 90 / 94, but that's another story!

Thanks for all you do -- keep up the good work!

From Chandra McCann:

I found Ms. Kelty's letter on highway appellations very interesting, as here in southern Ontario, it is quite standard to say "take the 401" or "take the 15" when giving directions. As far as I am aware, this is not short for "take the 401 highway", as I have never heard anyone refer to a highway in this manner. If the word "highway" is used in the phrase, the word "the" is dropped, as in, "take Highway 401".

Although I can't be sure in speaking for the rest of Canada, I believe I have also heard this wording being used in the western provinces of Alberta and British Columbia.

From Tessa Swallow:

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and I never thought it was weird to say "take the 405 north to the 101." It actually weirded me out whe someone thought that was not normal. Haha. I don't know why we say that. It definitely refers to taking the 405 freeway, though.

From Doug Holdham:

In Issue 155 you asked if other regions referred to a highway as "the (highway number)". In southern Ontario our secondary highways have single or double digit numbers and we would say "take highway 7", for instance. Our main expressways have larger numbers and we usually say "take THE 401", without mentioning "highway" since such a number obviously refers only to a highway.

From Silvio Graci:

There is another language which I haven't seen represented on your site, probably because it's so hard to "talk" about. The American Sign Language sign for "animal" is the process of positioning your hands near your chest and making a "breathing" motion, sor t of like mimicking ribs opening and closing during breathing. Again, it's hard to describe in words, but there are some sites that show the signs for words. (I was just looking for some on a search engine, but could not find any right now.) Anyway, I found interesting that the sign for "animal" is basically a representation of "breath", as I did the fact that it relates so closely to the origins of the non-sign language word. (By the way, the sign for human is different, so the sign for animal does not mean any breathing creature.)

Interesting.  Graci, Silvio!

From Paul Earl:

Phrase: "He was beat six ways from Sunday."

Place of Origin: Rome

Explanation: Until recent times, Catholicism was all the rage. Disbelievers, or heretics, had a rough time of it. So rough, in fact, that the Pope sent out orders to every Archbishop in the land to beat the devil out of the person who showed up last to services each Sunday. The poor sap was beaten Monday through Saturday of the following week, each day with a different instrument: Stout Mace, Iron-tipped Boot, Broad Sword (flat edge, not the sharp edge), Wide Belt, Stones, Ice (winter) or Cabbage (summer). Although this practice was abandoned in 1982, memories remain strong, especially amongst the wretched. And so it came to pass that the phrase "beat six ways from Sunday" was used to describe someone who was beaten. 

Fascinating detail for an etymology for which there is absolutely no proof.  And Melanie was raised Catholic - she'd have heard of such a practice if it wasn't abandoned until 1982! 

From Richard Timberlake:

[In response to our tongue-in-cheek query about the plural of rhinoceros last week:]

 It's (or they are) rhinocerotes.

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Last Updated 06/22/02 05:56 PM