'The' culture war

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As we've discussed from time to time, some English proper names take a definite article ("the Times", "the Bronx") and others don't ("Language Log", "Brooklyn"). The public transport system in Boston is called "the T"; the public transport system in Philadelphia is called "SEPTA".

But sometimes, the same name for the same (in some sense) entity gets a definite article in one speech community, and not in another. Apparently people in the Los Angeles area generally use definite articles with freeway numbers ("the 101", "the 405"), although people elsewhere in the U.S. generally don't. (See Language Hat, "'The' + Freeway", 8/1/2010, for some discussion and scholarly references.)

Yesterday, JC Dill sent in the picture on the right, along with an interesting sociolinguistic commentary:

As you may know, there's a war of definite articles between San Francisco (SF Bay Area aka SFBA) and Los Angeles (SoCal).  In the SF Bay Area we talk about taking 101 to San Jose, in SoCal they talk about taking the 101 to Ventura.

So it was with some surprise that I saw the Bank of America (formerly Bank of Italy, a SF company) ad in a MUNI bus stop today.  Clearly this company has lost their SF roots.

I expressed some skepticism that things are so cut-and-dried, especially with respect to (the) Muni, whose own website describes itself this way:

Welcome to San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni).  Founded in 1912, the Muni is one of America’s oldest public transit agencies and today carries over 200 million customers per year.

On the other hand, there things like this:

There will be a World Champion San Francisco Giants victory parade on Wednesday. Please take Muni to the parade.

Whatever the extent and contexts of such variation, JC wrote:

I found it extremely jarring to see "the BART" and "the MUNI" on that bus stop sign.  It was *so* obviously not written or proof read by anyone in SF.

The question is, though, is there really a systematic "war of definite articles"? Is there a systematic difference between northern and southern California in overall propensity to use definite articles with proper names? NoCal certain has some articled names, e.g. "the Embarcadero" or "the Bay Bridge".  And SoCal has plenty of common garden-variety un-articled ones, like "Wilshire Boulevard" and "Rodeo Drive".

The null hypothesis, I think, is that the freeway-naming business is the only systematic difference, with things like BART varying in the way that they do elsewhere in the world. But it would be interesting to find that a more general pattern is forming.



130 Comments

  1. Spell Me Jeff said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 8:30 am

    Can't you look this up on the Google?

  2. Jeffrey Shallit said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 8:38 am

    In Ontario, some highways get a "the": "the 401", "the 407", "the QEW". But some other highways don't: nobody in Waterloo ever says "the 85". I never did figure out a reason why.

  3. Matt said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    I live in London, and while some roads here have a formal definite article (The Strand, The Mall) there are a handful of main roads which seem to have gained one colloquially – it's always the Old Kent Road and regularly the Holloway Road. There are others, like Longacre or Haymarket, which you would expect to have gained it, but most people seem happy using their names properly.

  4. Mark P said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 8:46 am

    I have noticed the SoCal usage and sometimes do it myself when I'm out there, or even when I refer to a SoCal highway to my coworkers back home. But I can't imagine referring to highways at home in the Southeast with the definite article. Highways with names are often used with the definite article ("take the Alabama Highway …"), but not always (take Calhoun Avenue). Numbered roads never take "the". Maybe the SoCal usage is based on shortening something like "the 101 Expressway" to simply "the 101".

    I don't think I have ever heard a TV reporter in LA refer to a numbered highway in another part of the country using "the.". But I can't actually recall actually hearing them refer to another highway.

  5. jfruh said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 8:53 am

    The freeway article thing is prevalent where I grew up in Buffalo too ("the 190", "the 400") to the extent that I still use it about half the time even after living my adult life in the SF Bay Area and in Baltimore. I remember feeling a little thrilled when I found out Toronto did it too (and said "pop" instead of "soda" to boot). Is there a Lake Ontario sprachbund?

    Having lived in the Bay Area I have to say that the ad above doesn't exactly jump out at me as wrong, though when I tried in my head to compose sentences about the area's public transit systems I tended not to use articles. One way to tell if this is truly a SoCal linguistic invasion would be to discuss not freeways but public transit. What shorthand do LA folks use for their fairly extensive rail transit system — "Metro Rail," "the Metro Rail," or something else?

  6. jfruh said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 8:55 am

    On a side note about definite articles, I always grew up referring to the big dance at the end of one's junior or senior year of high school as "the prom," only to find upon leaving Buffalo that it's almost universally referred to as "prom," as in "Do you have a date for prom?" Always strikes me as bizarre — doesn't use of an article seem much more in line with standard American English?

  7. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » ‘The’ culture war [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 8:57 am

    [...] Language Log » ‘The’ culture war languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2844 – view page – cached December 16, 2010 @ 8:18 am · Filed by Mark Liberman under Language and culture, Variation [...]

  8. Ed said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:02 am

    On Law and Order last night one of the detectives talked about a suspect taking "the 287" from Hartford to NY. The wife and I both called foul at the same time.

  9. Thomas said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:03 am

    For the Bay Area transit systems, I thought the system name was unarticled, and the individual trains were articled. So, you might take BART from Oakland to The City, but you better hurry down the escalator because the BART's coming. Similarly with AC / the AC if you're bussing it through The Town.

  10. David Donnell said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:04 am

    Some old school types here in NYC insist one should always say 'I live on the Bowery', not 'I live on Bowery'.

  11. pj said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:16 am

    @ Matt – I'm pretty sure Strand belongs in your second category, where the article is not part of the official name.

  12. Kathleen said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:19 am

    When I lived in L.A., I was corrected for referring to Interstate 10 as "I-10." I was told "It's 'the 10'." I responded by pointing out that the freeway in question runs right through my hometown (Tucson, AZ), and that we call it "I-10."

    When I lived in L.A., I generally spoke of "the 101" or "the 5." Now that I live in Pennsylvania, I refer to "80" or "79." I never even noticed it until today. Weird.

  13. Matt Heath said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:19 am

    Matt: Isn't the difference that Old Kent Road is the old Kent road (the older of two road Londoners would once have used to get to Kent) while "Haymarket" is just a name? I think it's the norm in England more generally that the X end of the road from X to Y is officially "Y Road" but usually called "the Y Road"

  14. mgh said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:27 am

    did we run out of peeves, and have to start inventing new ones?

    it is correct to ride Muni and to wait for the Muni. hell, you can even wait for a Muni. "Muni" is the system and "the Muni" or "a Muni" is a bus (or line, as in "I spent all freaking day waiting for the 71 and it never came").

  15. Nick Fleisher said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:36 am

    When I lived in the Bay Area, it was always plain "BART" and "Muni" to me, though I'm from Philadelphia, the land of plain "SEPTA", so can't claim native NoCal intuitions.

    On the topic of freeways (or "expressways", as I always think of them, being from Phila), it occurs to me that the general pattern is to use no article when calling them by number, but to use an article when calling them by name. So, in Philadelphia, you can take 76 or you can take the Schuylkill, you can take 676 or you can take the Vine, you can take 476 or you can take the Blue Route. There is a gap in the paradigm with I-95, as it has no non-numerical name in Philadelphia: you can take 95, but you certainly can't take the 95.

  16. language hat said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:39 am

    Some old school types here in NYC insist one should always say 'I live on the Bowery', not 'I live on Bowery'.

    Good lord, do people really say the latter? I lived in NYC for 23 years, and I don't think I ever heard Bowery used without the article.

    Anyone interested in this topic should check out the academic paper discussed in my 2008 post Mark linked to above; its argument may or may not be correct, but it's certainly interesting.

  17. Nick said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:47 am

    Several road names in Belfast — such as the Falls Road, the Shankill Road, and the Crumlin road — usually take the definite article. This seems to be less common in England, notwithstanding Matt's examples, and the Hagley Road in Birmingham.

  18. Zeno said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:51 am

    They may call it "Bank of America" (or even the Bank of America), but it's really been NationsBank in disguise since the takeover of 1988. The merger gutted BofA, leaving little more than the name as a label for the merged entity. The headquarters is in Charlotte, NC, not San Francisco.

  19. adam said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:56 am

    I'd tell people that I lived on 'The Bowery' but then I'd by lying about my address.

  20. Spell Me Jeff said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:57 am

    In Utah, we do not use articles, and generally we do not use the word Interstate. You will often hear "I-15" or simple "15." We actually have very few Interstates, so there is rarely confusion.

    No concrete evidence for this, but I think there is a preference to not prefix "I" to a number if doing so would create a hiatus. Thus "I-15" and "I-70" are common, but "I-80" is less so.

    State highways are generally the number alone, e.g. "89." Local stretches of some highways might be referenced (in context) according to placenames, as in "The road to Moroni," which goes to a lot of other places as well.

  21. Craig Russell said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 10:08 am

    After living in Oregon for ~10 years I moved down to LA. Interstate 5 runs all the way down (and up) from one to the other. I go back up to Oregon several times a year to visit family. After a while I noticed that I call the same freeway "the five" when I'm referring to the part that's in Los Angeles, and "I-5" (which is what we call it in Oregon) once I get a certain way up it. I'm not sure at what point exactly the changeover occurs. ("You are now leaving the five. Welcome to I-5")

  22. richard howland-bolton said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 10:16 am

    In Britain the numbered roads seem always to take the article: the M1, the A146 or the B1468.

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 10:23 am

    For California, googling reveals numerous in-the-wild instances of the arguably redundant "the El Camino Real," but I don't know if there's a north/south split in the incidence of that phenomenon.

  24. language hat said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 10:23 am

    I'd tell people that I lived on 'The Bowery' but then I'd by lying about my address.

    Are you one of those people who call Sixth Avenue "Avenue of the Americas"? I've heard they exist, but I never met one.

  25. Graham said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 10:29 am

    Richard just beat me to the numbered road comment there, but I'm also curious to know if anyone else is aware of countries having an article prepended to it.

    What I'm _not_ referring to are countries whose names take an adjective in them (the United Kingdom, the Federated States of Micronesia, and so on).

    One example I've heard over the years has been "the Yemen", which I must confess I can't find too many Google hits for. I'm sure I've heard this applied to a few other select countries as well and wondered if there was anything in particular that singled them out?

  26. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 10:37 am

    I'm so glad to see this here/ This is a difference I noticed on my own, and I've been accurately using it to guess the origins of people I meet. I live in Santa Cruz, where road maps regularly divide the state between north and south, and which is variously (inaccurately) described as being in Northern or Southern California — it's Central Coast, please — and most of the people I meet grew up somewhere else.

    Those few people I meet that actually grew up here don't use the article.

    I wouldn't say there's a war over the article, because most of the people I meet aren't aware of it until I tell them about it. Personally, I think it's cute when southern Californians use the article, and neutral when northern Californians don't.

  27. vanya said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 10:47 am

    Are you one of those people who call Sixth Avenue "Avenue of the Americas"? I've heard they exist, but I never met one.

    I assume those will be the only people who will call the 59th Street bridge the "Ed Koch".

  28. GeorgeW said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    @Graham: I would assume English 'The Yemen' is a literal translation of the name in Arabic which carries the definite article al-Yaman (unlike Egypt 'Misr').

  29. Eric Fischer said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 10:56 am

    The most culturally inappropriate thing about these signs is not the "the" but that they are also posted at bus shelters deep in AC Transit and SamTrans territory, where you will be waiting a very, very long time if you are expecting to take Muni or BART.

    It is worth noting that Muni's own maps from the 1960s and 1970s were called "Ride the Muni," so the "the" used to be very visible and official for a long time, as weird as it sounds now.

  30. Graham said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:04 am

    @GeorgeW

    Ah, that may very well be it. Thanks!

  31. rootlesscosmo said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:05 am

    The use of the definite article for San Francisco neighborhoods follows no pattern that I can see: The Mission, The Castro, The Excelsior, The Richmond, The Sunset, The Tenderloin, The Fillmore, The Haight, but never *The North Beach, *The Chinatown, *The Pacific Heights. The most recently adopted names (SOMA, NOPA) don't use the article but The Castro is a 1970's (i.e. fairly recent) name for what was previously called Eureka Valley. The usage doesn't seem to vary consistently with age (Chinatown and the Mission are both fairly long-established; Crocker-Amazon and The Ingleside are fairly new.) Neighborhoods named for an already-named physical feature (Twin Peaks, Russian Hill) get that feature's name without an article, but except for that convention, I think sheer arbitrariness (which is also my provisional explanation for the variable freeway usage) is the rule.

  32. Steven said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:07 am

    My mother, brother, and I were driving from SF to LA via I-5. They've lived in LA, I haven't. I noticed that they referred to freeways without "the" until around Bakersfield, at which point they both started using the "the" prefix.

    Must be something in the air..

  33. Dan T. said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:16 am

    Here in Boca Raton, there's a street named "Camino Real" with no article (Spanish or English) preceding it.

    Public transit seems to get a "the" more often than not; "the subway", "the tube", "the Metro", "the A train", etc.

  34. Bloix said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:17 am

    Here in DC we say "the Metro" but we also say "Metrobus" and "Metrorail," which are its constituent parts. (Well, we usually don't say Metrobus and Metrorail – Metrobus is just "the bus," while Metrorail is "the Metro." We would use the longer terms only for a conversation about something like funding or legal responsibility.)

    But the recorded message in the station elevators says, 'Thank you for riding the Metrorail," which is disconcerting.

    Another DC tidbit: people who work for agencies usually leave off "the" even where general usage would include it. So "CIA" and "the CIA," "EPA" and "the EPA," "FDA" and "the FDA," etc. One exception: acronyms that are spoken as words don't ever take "the": NASA, FERC, NOAA, DARPA, NIST, etc.

  35. Robert Coren said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:27 am

    My understanding is that in Britain numbered roads generally take a definite article ("the M1"); I was unaware that this was the case anywhere in the US. I'm wondering if this is a result from the various "named" freeways in the LA area ("the Santa Monica Freeway", etc.), but the existence of "the West Side Highway". "the Long Island Expressway", etc., has not had a similar effect in New York.

  36. Bloix said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    There's a peculiar use of "the," which is supposed to be the definite article, to mean something indefinite. If my car is in the shop, I have to catch the bus. Which bus? New Yorkers say, "I'm taking the train." Which train? If your mother falls ill, she may have to go to the hospital. Which hospital? I'm out of milk, so I go to the store. Which store? Why don't I catch a bus, take a train, go to a store? "The" seems to be the definite-indefinite article.

  37. jim said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    @Matt: The Strand is always referred to by Londoners using the definite article, but it's not formally part of the name–if you go there and look at the name on the road signs, it just says "Strand", and (for example) the Australian High Commission gives its address as "Australia House, Strand".

  38. Bloix said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    rootlesscosmo:
    The difference is that neighborhood names that are an adjective, where the noun has been dropped, take "the," while neighborhoods that retain the noun generally don't.

    So, Russian Hill, but The Castro [district]; Chinatown, but The Height [neighborhood].

  39. Someone said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    Reminds me of an ad I heard on the radio when I lived in Buffalo. It was talking up the expanded coverage of some cell phone carrier, and it included testimonials supposedly drawn from users in the Buffalo area.

    What jumped out at me was one of the voices saying something about normally having difficulty getting a signal in the Southtowns. That's a common local term for the suburbs south of the actual City of Buffalo; there are corresponding Northtowns on the other side. But she said "at the Southtowns", as though it were a bar or a store or something. If she were actually from the area, she'd have said "in the Southtowns". It ruined the ad's attempt at localization.

    Also: in the recent movie "Knight & Day", Cameron Diaz's character is supposedly a resident of Boston, but she refers to a highway as "the I-93". A Boston native would simply say "ninety-three", no article, no "I".

  40. Mr Punch said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    Here in the Boston area, the transit system is indeed "the T" (formerly "the MBTA," "the MTA" and "The El," yet numbered highways never get the definite article. But I-90 is "the MassPike," and other named highways and parkways (not municipal streets) sometimes do too: the Strandway, the Jamaicaway, the McGrath and O'Brien Highways (no one can tell them apart) – though also Memorial Drive, Storrow Drive.

    I was surprised, visting New York last month, to hear plain "Bowery."

    Up here, Bank of America is trying to appear "local" – a barrage of ads referring to Boston and New England. (Starbucks too.)

    National names: The Gambia comes to mind.

  41. JC Dill said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    Thank you Mark for posting this discussion. I'm loving the comments!

    One thing you brought up in our email exchange is that "take BART to" out-Googlefights "take the BART to" (220K to 38K). I posited that the entries for "take the BART to" are likely to be written from outside SF (e.g. tourist guides to SF).

    @Zeno, I know. That's what made this sign so annoying – it's like rubbing salt in the wound, that BofA isn't a San Francisco company anymore. If BofA were still headquartered in SF, the ad copy would have been proof-read by someone in SF and the definite articles removed. Instead it was (my theory) written by someone in an ad agency in NYC or LA and never proofed by someone in SF.

  42. Eli said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:54 am

    Since I haven't seen Chicago mentioned anywhere yet:

    For highways, we have "the Kennedy", "the Edens", "the Stevenson", "the Eisenhower", "the Northwest Tollway". It would definitely be marginal at best to talk about "taking Kennedy to O'Hare". But, for people who do not know the names, one takes "I-90" or "I-94", not "the 90".

    One of the most jarring things I've seen in regards to this is in the beginning of Fool Moon, by Jim Butcher, one of a series of novels set in Chicago. The protagonist talks about "taking the JFK", something that a native Chicagoan would never say. ("JFK" evokes an airport, not a highway.) I later found out that Butcher had not even been to Chicago until after his third novel, and, indeed, after that the geography and terminology gets much better.

    For public transit, we have "the El" (spelled by the CTA as "the 'L'") and "the CTA". Again, the definite article is obligatory.

  43. John F said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:54 am

    Sadly there seems to be a movement away from using the definite article in country names, at least in British English. In my view The Gambia and The Sudan et al have a nice ring to them.

    I've heard 'The France' used in a humourous context.

  44. Eli said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:57 am

    Oh, I just realized: We have "the Kennedy" and "the Dan Ryan" but never *"the Lake Shore Drive".

  45. xyzzyva said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    The old TV movie The Day After always bugged me by saying "the I-70", decidedly out of character for the Kansas City area.

    Then again it's still nice to see a film so intent on being in KC, so the error is forgiven, even without a burnt-end sandwich.

    This is one of those things that slips in for even the most careful writer/actor writing outside their familiar area, like the use of wait on line by New Yorkers.

    Hurray for covert regionalism!

  46. ella said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

    I can attest to the use of the definite article for highways etc in Anglo Quebec – here in Montreal you hear about 'the 15', 'the 40' aka 'the T-Can' (the transcanada highway) and even 'the Decarie' (part of the 15), even though the expressway in question is named after the boulevard that runs parallel to it, which would never get 'the'.

  47. xyzzyva said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    Oh, and apparently we in Missouri originated the US's whole numbered-highway thing, so I claim dibs and declare the article-less form correct.

    Too bad our lettered road system didn't spread as well… Articles definitely ain't happening there, though for those like OO, use of "double-_" is mandatory.

  48. Rick said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    We recently spent a week in Phoenix, AZ, and the traffic announcer on TV called a road "the 101" (a different 101 than along the west coast) and "the I-10". I'm from the southeast US, and hadn't run across that usage before, so to me it was noticable.

  49. Thomas said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    @JC Dill: I think you're just plain wrong that it's not idiomatically local, possibly because you're expecting it to say something it's not saying. If they're telling you to do your banking while waiting for the train or the bus, you would expect them to say "waiting for the Muni", right? Certainly it would be "waiting for the BART"!

  50. Jeffrey Kallberg said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    When I was growing up in LA (1957-75), we never referred to freeways by numbers. It was always "the San Diego Freeway," or "the Santa Monica Freeway." When I would return to LA, starting in the late 70s (I think) I started noticing the definite article phenomenon with the numbers ("the 10"), and assumed it resulted from a proliferation of freeways (too many names to remember?), and a simple transposition of the number for the name (so "the Santa Monica Freeway" became "the 10").

  51. Russell said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

    A: I too find the determiner-less versions unmarked, and thus those ads caught my attention right away. At least it's not "the Amtrak" [insert joke here about likelihood of wishing you could do something while waiting for an Amtrak train vs a BART train]

    B: NoCal? I've only ever seen or heard NorCal.

    C: @Thomas (9:03): Do people talk about "taking AC" or anything like that? I guess I've just been linguistically deprived. I'm used to "AC transit" when you actually have to specify the bus system.

    My native Bay Area friends are very happy to point out whenever I add "the" to freeway numbers (which I assume I do due to having grown up in the LA area) [actually, I think it's more likely to happen when multiple of them are around so they can gang up]. I agree with Nick (Fleisher) that freeways with non-numerical names probably get the article most of the time. Not that anyone I encounter, other than traffic reporters, refers to (the) 880 as "the Nimitz."

  52. Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

    Re the in country names:

    (1) Obviously, until recently we had The Ukraine. That is, until Ukrainian independence and its official insistence that its English name excludes the article — though the Ukrainian government's authority over the English language has been questioned by some.

    (2) Sadly, one never hears The Lebanon any more, although it is well attested, e.g., here.

  53. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    Nick Fleisher @ 9:36 am: Did you also think of freeways as "expressways" when you lived in the Bay Area, where they are actually quite different kinds of roads? Expressways are divided highways with four or more lanes, but may have cross-traffic, traffic lights and sidewalks; freeways are limited-access.

  54. Russinoff said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    For kicks, I once submitted to an interview with campus recruiters from the CIA, who referred to their organization without the definite article. I wondered whether this is standard internal usage.

  55. Jeremy B. Merrill said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

    A few weeks ago I was driving (just east of LA) and heard a traffic announcer say that there was heavy traffic on eastbound the 10.

    Since this obviously doesn't make sense with English word order (*purple the car), it was either a speech error (boring explanation) or the the in the 10 is being reanalyzed not as a determiner but as part of the name of the highway. (Which would be interesting…)

    SoCal resident, grew up in North Carolina.

  56. joon said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

    coby, i've noticed that my friends who grew up in the bay area but have been transplanted to the east coast complain that the "freeways" here (what we would call highways or expressways) are often not, in fact, free. there are tolls on the mass pike, the NJ turnpike, and stretches of I-95 in many different states. in the bay area, the roads are all free (but the bridges have tolls). so it seems to me that there's a good non-arbitrary reason for the difference in nomenclature.

  57. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc:

    Ukraine's insistence on removing "The" from the country's English name actually shows a good understanding of English. More or less vaguely defined regions often carry the definite article ("the Middle West," "the Middle East," "the Sahel"), and since the word Ukraïna means 'border region,' a similar vagueness would be implicit in retaining the article in the country's name. (In Tsarist days the name was, in fact, used somewhat vaguely.)

    Something similar could be said about Sudan (once called "The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan"), though "the Sudan" is still used for the larger region (and occasionally but inappropriately for the country).

  58. GeorgeW said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

    @Coby: The Sudan also has the definite article in Arabic: al-Sudaan (actually with assimilation, as-Sudaan).

    @Post Hoc . . .: Lebanon has no definite article in Arabic. This may be a pre-nation-state construction referring to an area of the Levant.

  59. Melissa Peskin said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

    I always thought the LA way of saying "the 5" and "the 10" was because they have the low-numbered interstates in that corner of the country (east-west interstates are even numbers, lower in the south, and north-south interstates are odd numbers, lower in the west). I figured that saying "5" and "10" sounded too naked. The Pacific Northwest has a different solution – they say "I-5" to add the extra syllable. I grew up in NY and now live in VA and have always referred to interstates by number only "95", "84".

    This is a folk etymology of course, but if I wanted to test it…
    – Is the "I-5" form in the PNW used consistently for the single-syllable interstate numbers?
    – Do they also say "I-90" in the PNW or do they just say "90"?
    – Do lots of people on the east coast say "I-95" consistently, and it's just me who only says "95"? (Where I grew up I-95 was a radio station a la Z100.)

    I'd be interested to see if someone could find any evidence for either my theory or Jeffrey Kallberg's theory about replacing existing highway names with numbers. NY also had lots of pre-interstate highways. Growing up we didn't use the numbers, maybe because a number could have separate names for different stretches, e.g. I-95 is "the [New Jersey] Turnpike", "the GWB", "the Cross-Bronx", then "the New England [Thruway]" – and it's nice to be able to separate them, because the Cross Bronx is the worst highway in the city, hands down, but the Turnpike isn't as bad.

  60. Robert Morris said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    I hope this isn't too off-topic, but this reminds me: Apple always gets me with their insistence on no article for referring to their iProducts.

    For example, "Do not eat iPod shuffle."

    They do, however appear to be OK with an occasional "an" ("put an iPad under the tree" was in a recent e-mail I got–although so was "the next-generation MacBook Air," but probably only because it really does sound bad otherwise).

  61. Erik Zyman Carrasco said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

    When I first heard the NJ Transit from my friend, it sounded deviant to me (I'd always thought of it as NJ Transit), but now I find it fine (along with the anarthrous form).

  62. Eric Fischer said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

    Since no one has mentioned it yet, I'll also point out that Muni routes *do* take the definite article. "Take the 22 to Church and Duboce and transfer to the N Judah."

    For BART routes you have to say "train" or "line" as part of it: "Take the Pittsburg-Bay Point train to MacArthur and transfer to the Richmond line."

  63. e.g. said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

    I'm surprised nobody has mentioned (the) Titanic. When Cameron's film came out in '97, I couldn't believe how they referred to it just as "Titanic". That still sounds strange to me. Does anybody else feel that way? I mean, I *think* everyone says "the Lusitania" or "the Hindenburg"…or are there some people who don't?

  64. Bloix said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

    Roussinoff, see my comment at 11:17.

  65. Tim Buchheim said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    Lifelong southern California resident (Orange/LA/SB counties). Numbered highways for me always have the definite article: "the 405", "the 210", etc. But that has only been completely standardized since the late 80s or so. Before that I used to hear things like "I-5" or "US 101" often.

    When a direction is added the article is optional (although more likely to be included than not), and the direction marking can take any of several forms. These are all common: "eastbound 10", "the 10 east", "the eastbound 10", "the east 10", "east 10".

    Local public transit agencies are mixed. Santa Monica has "The Big Blue Bus" but downtown LA has "DASH" (no article). The county-wide system (LACMTA) used to be called "the MTA" but is now just "Metro" (with no article) after a rebranding effort a few years ago. "Foothill Transit" in the eastern part of LA County has no article. OCTA in Orange County tends not to have an article. The commuter rail service (Metrolink) doesn't take an article.

  66. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

    @Eric Fisher (and a general question that has always bothered me): So Muni routes take an article, good; but what about other cities that have numbered bus (or — oh my God — streetcar/light rail/tram) lines? Do you normally "take the 12 and change to the 15"? Or is there any other standard way of expressing this kind of thing?

  67. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

    e.g.: I think sailors and others closely connected with ships do regularly leave off the 'the'. When I toured the ship at Dundee which I had always known as the Discovery, I was rather surprised to find that the staff simply said Discovery. (This enables the city to call itself 'The City of Discovery'.)

    This parallels the difference people have already pointed out with names of government agencies.

  68. Garrett Wollman said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 5:10 pm

    @Melissa: I take it, then, that you grew up in Putnam or Westchester (ObLL: the "County" is understood), or perhaps Dutchess?

    (For everyone else: "I-95"-the-radio-station is a dead giveaway; it's WRKI (95.1 Brookfield, Conn.).)

  69. Chuck said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

    A friend has suggested that Caltrans post a sign on the highway between Paso Robles and King City saying END THE 101 – BEGIN 101.

  70. Mark Etherton said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 5:45 pm

    For me at least, in London public transport takes the definite article. On the Underground ("the Tube") there's "the District line", "the Central line", &c., and buses are "the 70", "the 148" and so on.

  71. Kathleen said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

    Somewhere up above, Xyzzyva noted that the movie "The Day After" referred to "the I-70" which isn't what people in Kansas City say. When I saw the movie (while living in Kansas) I didn't even notice that — but I did notice when a character referred to the town of El Dorado, and pronounced it "El Do-rah-doh." Sorry, but in Kansas, it is "El Do-ray-doh." And let's hear it for Versailles (Vur-sails) Missouri!

  72. xyzzyva said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

    More KC area factoids:

    While for interstates and US highways the prefixes I-__, US-__ are clear, the local state highways differ: Kansas highways are labeled with a preceding K-__, but the Missouri highways have no clear label—the number alone is all we've got. Every once in a while, I'll see M-__, but it always looks wrong, and I've never heard someone say it out loud. Thankfully, the most relevant ones have high numbers (291, 152, etc.), but in a few cases (7) I'm not sure which class of highway it is.

    Only two are ever referred to by a name: Bruce R Watkins Drive (US-71 south) and the Kansas Turnpike (I-70 in Kansas).

    In summary:
    Interstates: I- (optional, usual)
    US highways: US- (optional, but uncommon)
    Missouri state highways: ??- (who knows)
    Kansas state highways: K- (obligatory)

  73. Dennis Brennan said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Spikebrennan/List_of_place_names_starting_with_%22The%22

  74. Adrian Bailey said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

    Russinoff, Bloix: cf. Harry Mathews' My Life in CIA http://www.complete-review.com/reviews/mathewsh/mycia.htm

  75. yclipse said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

    Another area where this usage is common is in the insurance industry, but only with certain particular companies such as "The Hartford".

  76. BongoBob said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 6:58 pm

    American: "in the hospital". British: "in hospital"

  77. Craig said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

    I believe I recently saw a program set in DC (Bones?, Lie to Me?), in which a character mentioned taking "the 95", which immediately gave away where the show's writers are not based.

  78. Alan Walker said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 7:51 pm

    There's a custom in some parts of northern Australia to use "The" plus some or all of a place name. "The Isa" is Mount Isa, "The Alice" is Alice Springs, "The Katherine" is Katherine. There is even "The Loo" for Borroloola.

    The Australian National Dictionary quotes journalist and writer Douglas Lockwood:

    "Yet it's strange that I’ve never heard The Darwin or The Batchelor or The Renner or The Pine Creek. Some names just seem to fit naturally with an article, others are awkward."

  79. Bloix said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 8:03 pm

    For ships, standard naval usage is without 'the,' eg:

    The last air attacks of the battle took place on 6 June when dive bombers from Enterprise and Hornet bombed and sank heavy cruiser Mikuma…

    http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq81-1.htm

  80. Bloix said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

    Another obsolete usage: "The Argentine" for Argentina. "Argentina" itself is an adjective and originally meant something like silver-ful – the original name was Tierra Argentina (Land of Silver) and then Republica Argentina, which translates as the Argentine Republic, and hence "the Argentine."

    There is of course the Czech Republic, but no one as far as I know says the Czech. What do people who go there call it?

  81. Colin Reid said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

    In the UK, if you say "Take the " it usually means take a bus on the route with that number. If you say "take the to " it means catch the train (or possibly plane) departing at that time. "Take the " means drive along the specified road. In all cases the article seems to be compulsory.

    You can also use "I'll have the " when ordering in a restaurant. Here I think the article is optional, though.

    At the other end of the scale, it's not possible to use an article in front of a house number as far as I know.

  82. Colin Reid said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

    (Angle brackets are a bad idea.)

    In the UK, if you say "Take the (number)" it usually means take a bus on the route with that number. If you say "take the (time) to (terminus)" it means catch the train (or possibly plane) departing at that time. "Take the (letter) (number)" means drive along the specified road. In all cases the article seems to be compulsory.

    You can also use "I'll have the (number)" when ordering in a restaurant. Here I think the article is optional, though.

    At the other end of the scale, it's not possible to use an article in front of a house number as far as I know.

  83. Nick Fleisher said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 8:45 pm

    @Coby Lubliner: Yes, your textbook definition of "freeway" is what people in Philadelphia mean when they say "expressway"; the term "freeway" simply isn't used at all. I find it hard to imagine using the term "expressway" to refer to a road that has traffic lights or sidewalks, though I can think of some highways in south Jersey that are like that and that might be called expressways locally. In any case, all of the interstate highways (textbook freeways) that run through Philadelphia are referred to locally as expressways: I-76 is the Schuylkill Expressway, I-676 is the Vine Street Expressway, etc. So yes, in the Bay Area I always thought of 80/580/24/101/etc as expressways, though I gradually got used to saying "freeway" as the Californians do.

  84. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:11 pm

    @Spell Me Jeff: here in Alabama (and in Georgia), I-85 is routinely called eye-eighty-five. Most of the time, there's not enough roads to cause confusion (especially in sequence: "To go to Tuscaloosa, take 280 to 459 to 20/59 and get off on McFarland" or even reduced "280-459-20/59 is normally faster than 85-65-20/59 or 85-82" where those roads are a mix of interstates and US highways) and we'll use bare road numbers when possible, but if disambiguation is needed "I" is prefixed to interstates, "US" to US highways, "Alabama" for state highways, and county roads have a number of different ones that change depending on familiarity from "county road X" to "X" or "[county] X"

    Could the LA difference be caused in part due to influence from Spanish? While I'm not familiar with Mexican custom, in Spain numbered roads are referred to as "la M-30" or "la A-6".

  85. Kenny Easwaran said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:56 pm

    I just noticed – today's New York Times crossword puzzle had as clue 55 down, "San Francisco's public transit system, with 'the'", and the answer was MUNI. This confirms my suspicion that "the BART" is completely ungrammatical, but "the Muni" is only slightly dispreferred. Of course, having spent ten years in the Bay Area, but never actually lived in San Francisco, I have a lot of experience with BART and very little with the Muni, so my article usage may not be any better of a guide than a newspaper from New York.

  86. Janet said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

    Recently I was feeling irritated by a Lexus billboard on 580 (westbound from Oakland towards the Bay Bridge), which was extolling the virtues of a Lexus for use on "the 580". I figured they must have hired a non-CA ad agency who didn't know about the North-South divide on use of the definite article.

    Back when I was a kid, my grandmother always referred to the road where she lived (in St. Louis County) as "The Litzinger Road", which used to irritate my mother no end. A road that went to a place could legitimately be called "the end-point road", but in this case the road was named after a person, not a destination. (Though in fairness to my grandmother, I think possibly the Litzinger place was somewhere on the western reaches of the road, and hence her locution).

    Oh, and here in CA, for something to be a "freeway" it has to have limited access with no cross streets etc. When you are driving up 101 and get out of the cities the highway goes in and out of being a freeway. When you see a sign that says "end freeway" it means that the highway may become undivided, and you will come across roads that intersect with it. It doesn't refer to whether or not you have to pay a toll.

  87. Camryn Brown said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:32 pm

    I have been living in SF for 4 years and my wife has been here for over 30. Both of us say "the 101" and "the 280", and we're pretty sure all our friends do too. I've never heard anyone say "I-280". Maybe "I-5" but it's not "familiar" as it isn't really used for daily commuting. I think the "I" for interstates is like "Mr" or "Mrs" i.e. a formal title. As for names that the freeways may have, barely anyone seems to know those.

    I'd say that BART and Muni are less clear cut than people seem to think too. Plenty of times people add a "the", even if referring to the system rather than individual buses or trains. Only 30% of San Franciscans were even born in California. Less actually in the city. So, it seems unlikely we would have strong, clear cut local idioms.

  88. Robert Coren said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:48 pm

    @Mr Punch:

    Of course the McGrath and O'Brien Highways are often referred to as "The McGrath" and "The O'Brien". And my (possibly incorrect) understanding is that the O'Brien is in Cambridge and the McGrath is in Somerville.

    The names that make up the road I call "The Ways" (The Fenway,The Riverway, The Jamaicaway,The Arborway) definitely all have "The" as part of their names (although here, too, the article doesn't show up on street signs). I have friends whose address used to be "70 The Fenway".

  89. Qov said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:56 pm

    I just asked a former Washington state resident which Seattle bridges went across Lake Washington. He answered "ninety and five-twenty." No "the" and no "I". But it's definitely I-5 from where highway 99 crosses the border right through to Oregon.

    Unless I'm referring to "the 401" I usually use the word highway, as in "the Yellowhead Highway," "the trans-Canada highway" or "highway three."

  90. TO said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 1:07 am

    @ Melissa Peskin and Qov
    I'm a PNW native and I think I generally use "I-5" "I-90" and "405" for our local interstates. In my experience, all three can be said either with or without the "I" but the forms above seem most normal to me. Highways seem to follow a similar pattern: "Highway 9" "Highway 2" but "520". Again, the alternate forms may be used as well, but there are never definite articles.
    What factors govern the alternation between shorter and longer versions would be an interesting question. I think I'll have my ears perked for this for a while.

  91. Anthony said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 3:06 am

    California does not allow numbered state routes to have the same numbers as U.S. Highways or Interstate Highways, so it is not necessary to say "I-80" to distinguish it from "California 80". (There are exceptions to this rule, but they all involve continuations of the same highway with a change in funding status.) Thus it is relatively uncommon to hear Californians saying "I-80", "I-110", "I-238", etc., with the exception of "I-5". (But it's *never* "the I-5".)

    BART rarely takes the definite article, except in the mouths of tourists, but Muni sometimes does. Individual BART trains are referred to as "the train" or "the Concord train", not "the BART". Individual Muni buses are "the bus". I'm not sure what the common usage for individual rail-cars in the Muni light rail network is.

  92. Thomas said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 4:21 am

    @Russell (12:29): I certainly heard both "AC" and "AC Transit" used to refer to the bus system when I lived in Oakland, and "the AC" to refer to an individual bus. But it could very well be that unadorned "AC" was slangy, though.

  93. maidhc said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 4:30 am

    There is a definite north-south divide. A few years back a SF area radio station hired a traffic reporter from SoCal who talked about "the 101"; they were immediately deluged with complaints. If it were a named highway it would take the article, but the only one I can think of is "The Nimitz", and I've never heard anyone other than radio traffic reporters call it that.

    Chuck—funny!

    Another divider is "PCH" (Pacific Coast Highway), which in Northern California is always called "Highway One".

    Numbered buslines take an article, like the 22 (which runs all night up and down El Camino Real and attracts people looking for a warm place to sleep). But "Caltrain" never takes an article.

    People sometimes say redundantly "the El Camino". There is a street in Santa Clara/San Jose called The Alameda (not to be confused with the town of Alameda), but in Menlo Park Alameda de las Pulgas is just that (Avenue of the Fleas). Actually there are a few other Alameda de Somethings and Camino de Somethings scattered about that don't take an article.

    There is some justification for "The Alameda" because it was the very first one, going back to Mexican days.

    Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem In Back of the Real that starts

    railroad yard in San Jose
    I wandered desolate
    in front of a tank factory
    and sat on a bench
    near the switchman's shack.

    I know exactly what he's talking about. The "tank factory" is the old FMC plant, and it's just a couple of blocks off El Camino Real. So I'm sure he meant the title to be a pun, but none of the litcrit I've read about the poem has ever picked up on it.

    In the South Bay, at least, there's a particular use of the term "expressway". We have several—Central Expressway, Almaden Expressway, etc. These are not freeways. They are divided roads but with very limited cross streets. There are only traffic lights at major intersections, so maybe one per mile. Another peculiarity is that the carpool lane is the right lane, whereas on freeways it is the left lane.

    In Toronto, one that has always puzzled me is "The Danforth". Danforth Avenue is a street, the extension of Bloor Street east of the Don Valley. But "The Danforth" refers to a neighbourhood along part of Danforth Avenue that used to be Toronto's Greektown. There are still a lot of Greek businesses there, although now other ethnic groups have moved in too.

  94. Cecily said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 6:21 am

    @Bloix, December 16, 2010 @ 11:28 am
    Re "There's a peculiar use of "the," which is supposed to be the definite article, to mean something indefinite. If my car is in the shop, I have to catch the bus. Which bus?…"

    Although the speaker isn't saying which shop or which bus, it will be a specific one; perhaps that is why the definite article sneaks in.

  95. Liz said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 6:44 am

    Johnny Carson had a whole bit about taking the various LA freeways, but I can't seem to find an example of it on youtube. But it would provide a whole lexicon of freeway names and definite articles in the 70s/early 80s.

    Liz '88

  96. Brian Davies said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 9:23 am

    In the UK it seems that all roads can be used with "the" – the North End Road, the Earls Court Road – but absolutely no street can have a "the" – the Regent St, the Oxford St are not acceptable.

  97. Robin 'Roblimo' Miller said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 10:37 am

    I live in Flora Duh ("Land of stupid plants"), where we use "I-75" as our highway descriptor style.

    But I also read the New York Times online, and the NYT has amused me for many years by using a gratuitous article when naming people, as in "the tree surgeon Joe Sapp," no doubt to differentiate him from "the flight surgeon Joe Sapp" and "the corporate raider Joe Sapp."

  98. baylink said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    Ah yes… "Past the Slaussen cutoff until you come to {audience} THE FORK IN THE ROAD"

    Let us not forget El Camino Double Precision, other (q.g.)

  99. What do you say: ‘Muni’ or ‘the Muni’? « Muni Diaries said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 11:04 am

    [...] rider Patricia sends this communiqué: See this post from the distinguished (really) Language Log blog, written by linguistics scholars and read by really smart and nerdy [...]

  100. J. Goard said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    I'm a full-on, "hella"-dropping Northern Californian, but I picked up articles with freeway numbers in university. (UC Davis – ! – but there were a lot of SoCal kids in the dorm…) As others have pointed out, the situation is apparently complex for many people, varying by where one is at the time and the associations one has with the freeway. I think that I rarely say "the 80" (the freeway near my hometown, running to my university town), but switch pretty freely between "I-5" and "the 5". In Korea, however, I've found myself always using the number, feeling totally wrong if I don't.

    This suggests to me that the difference is not merely an arbitrary convention about freeways, but is related to some more general the/NULL accessibility distinction. As established as I am in Korea, the freeways are just too "foreign" to lose the article (in English — despite the fact that I more frequently talk about them in Korean, article-free).

    Articles are my primary area of research, so this stuff will keep me going for hours on end. What we need is for someone to come up with the brilliant experiment that will tease out all of the variables here…

  101. J. Goard said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 11:48 am

    In Korea, however, I've found myself always using the number

    number ==> article

    Doh!

  102. Josh said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

    When referring to freeways that are only in Southern California, I use the article. "Let's take the 60 to LA tonight." However, I can't bring myself to use it for 101, because that freeway is also in the Bay Area and I omit the article for Bay Area freeways. Which leads to eyebrow furlers like "After going west on the 10 for a while, hop on 101 to get to Hollywood."

  103. Steve G said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    @Bloix and @Cecily

    To me, "the shop" and "the hospital" conjures up an archetype. Yes, the car is in "a [particular] shop" or you are going to "a hospital," but its also in "the shop" and you're going to "the hospital" (the place where all sick cars and people, respectively, go).

  104. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    On 'the hospital' etc. British usage differs significantly. We say 'in hospital', not 'in the hospital'. We say 'shop' rather than 'store', but I don't think we'd say 'I'm going to the shop' unless there is a specific one our audience will recognise – 'to the shops' would be possible. I'm not sure what the equivalent of 'shop' in the car repair sense is, but I'm fairly sure we wouldn't say that. On the other hand, 'the pub' is used in this way – 'Let's go to the pub' – 'OK, which one?' is a possible exchange.

  105. ZackZ said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

    In Michigan near my home, the freeways named "Interstate ##" (I-##) or "US Highway ##" (US-##) are always referred to without the article, so "I take US-23," (or just 23), "to 96".

    Strangely, I-96 is called an interstate in many print sources, but is technically an intrastate highway, and can also be called "Jeffries Freeway". When using this name, one will most likely say "I'm taking the Jeffries". This is similar to "the Kennedy" and "the Dan Ryan" from above. In these cases, the roads are all "freeways" or "highways", but this is implied when we say "I'm taking the Dan Ryan (Expressway)".

    From wikipedia's discussion of US 101: "As a Fifty year resident of the Bay Area, I only hear it called "The 101" by transplants from Southern California."

    If one used US Highway 101 in a sentence, it would go: "I'm taking US Highway 101 into Malibu" and NOT "the US Highway 101". And according to many residents, the correct shorthand form is "I'm taking 101". The correct form seems to coordinate with the use of the full name.

    This may account for some patterning, but why can some people get away with improperly adding the article, like "the El Camino Real", and why do "the El", "the CTA" (@Eli) require the article? I think the names for these have become abstractions for whatever category they're in. Maybe they are just 'the X road/train/mode of transit' and it doesn't matter what their full names once were, or how redundant your use is (like The Gobi Desert?).

  106. Nat said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

    In Chicago, besides the highway names mentioned earlier, when you go grocery shopping, you do it at "The Jewel". Dominick's is always just "Dominick's", but Jewel almost always gets the definite article. People from any region seem pretty used to the varying article usage when it comes to roads, but I've heard quite a few recent transplants comment on this.

  107. Nick A said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

    @Andrew

    The "equivalent of 'shop' in the car repair sense" in UK English is 'garage', surely, and we do indeed say things like "I can't drive to work today because the car's at/in the garage", but obviously not '*at/in garage'. And 'Oh, what garage do you use?' is a perfectly possible reply.

  108. Steve Kass said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 9:02 pm

    Rick wrote

    We recently spent a week in Phoenix, AZ, and the traffic announcer on TV called a road "the 101″ (a different 101 than along the west coast) and "the I-10″

    I can confirm that, in Phoenix, “the” traffic announcer on the radio, too, says “the I-10.” Bugs me no end. Nowhere else have I heard both “the” and “eye-” in the spoken name of an Interstate highway.

    I think the appellation “the I-10” is a relative newcomer to the local dialect. In my crankier moments, I blame it on the same increasing number of residents who pronounce “Tempe” as something other than a spondee.

  109. m.m. said,

    December 18, 2010 @ 2:22 am

    Russell said,
    B: NoCal? I've only ever seen or heard NorCal.

    Indeed. "NoCal" sounds distinctly off/non-native to my socal ears.

    Tim Buchheim said,
    The county-wide system (LACMTA) used to be called "the MTA" but is now just "Metro" (with no article) after a rebranding effort a few years ago. "Foothill Transit" in the eastern part of LA County has no article. OCTA in Orange County tends not to have an article. The commuter rail service (Metrolink) doesn't take an article.

    Wait, I've always heard "the metro" and "the metrolink" here in socal. Lack of the definite article sounds very reminiscent of "BART" and "Muni"

    Kathleen said,
    When I lived in L.A., I was corrected for referring to Interstate 10 as "I-10." I was told "It's 'the 10′." I responded by pointing out that the freeway in question runs right through my hometown (Tucson, AZ), and that we call it "I-10."

    Steve Kass said,

    Rick said,
    We recently spent a week in Phoenix, AZ, and the traffic announcer on TV called a road "the 101″ (a different 101 than along the west coast) and "the I-10″. I'm from the southeast US, and hadn't run across that usage before, so to me it was noticable.

    I can confirm that, in Phoenix, “the” traffic announcer on the radio, too, says “the I-10.” Bugs me no end. Nowhere else have I heard both “the” and “eye-” in the spoken name of an Interstate highway.

    I think the appellation “the I-10” is a relative newcomer to the local dialect. In my crankier moments, I blame it on the same increasing number of residents who pronounce “Tempe” as something other than a spondee.

    From the family contact and local news reports I have had in phoenix, it's like a toss up between using and not using "the" in phoenix. That "the I-101" Is definitely something.

  110. Pflaumbaum said,

    December 18, 2010 @ 5:12 am

    What's the story with AmE in back as opposed to BrE in/at the back? Is one original and the other an innovation or are they from different ME dialects, or what?

  111. Ellen K. said,

    December 18, 2010 @ 9:08 am

    To me, not using "the" when referring to waiting on public transportation ("Waiting for BART") makes it sound like one is waiting for the whole system, rather than one particular train or bus. Which I guess is okay with trains (subways, ground level, or elevated), since they are a connected system. But, to me, it would be wrong when waiting on a bus.

    For me where I live, though, it would be "waiting for the bus" or "waiting for a bus". Amtrack's the only passenger train around here.

    As I type this, I'm realizing, there's also the issue of "waiting on" versus "waiting for". I initially used "on" when typing this post, until I got to "waiting for a bus", where "on" made it sound like on is on the bus waiting, rather than waiting for it's arrival. But we do use "waiting on" when waiting for something. Like the Rolling Stones, "I'm not waiting on a lady, I'm just waiting on a friend". Does "on" versus "for" affect whether one uses "the", "a", or neither?

  112. Ian Preston said,

    December 19, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    @Matt Heath: I can see that, in line with your theory, Upper and Lower Richmond Rd, for instance, are referred to as the Upper and the Lower Richmond Rd because they are the upper and lower of two Richmond Roads. But then why would it sound wrong to do the same with, say, Upper and Lower Regent St?

    I like your theory about roads from X to Y as well but Oxford Street is so named because it was originally the beginning of the road from London to Oxford (admittedly this is complicated by the fact that it was later developed by the Earl of Oxford) so why doesn't it get the same treatment?

    This all seems to fit with Brian Davies' argument that roads can always be given a "the" but streets never can. But don't people always refer to the road which has simply High St on the sign as the High St?

  113. Mark Mandel said,

    December 19, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

    Jeffrey Shallit Dec. 16 @8:38 am <a href=
    (*):

    In Ontario, some highways get a "the": "the 401″, "the 407″, "the QEW". But some other highways don't: nobody in Waterloo ever says "the 85″. I never did figure out a reason why.

    In your examples, only those that begin with a consonant get "the".

  114. Alex T said,

    December 19, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

    Can anyone think of an example of a city where named highways are referred to without an article, as a regular street would be? Any city where I've lived, highways referred to by name require an article: "The [Capital] Beltway," "The Stevenson," "The Beltline." Regular streets generally don't have an article: "Constitution Avenue," "Michigan Avenue," "State Street".

    I also can't think of any named streets that alternate between taking the article and not taking one. "Lake Shore Drive" never takes an article; "The GW Parkway" always does.

  115. Atmir Ilias said,

    December 19, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

    The spoken language tends always to be “shorter” when the circumstances, objects, events, etc, of a conversation are well-known between talkers. Sometimes spoken language even tends to be stooped, or to be even transformed to a body language: an eye language, or a hand-language. It is its "natural" way that the people use mostly involuntarily rather than purposefully. They are hang-ups of our ancestor language that still continue to pass on to us. Maybe it is a negative biologic mechanism that needs more time to be eliminated. Although the people use it when they feel that the “broken language”, or the object with a “wrong definition”, is going to be understood totally by the others, sometime this is accepted by linguists, without even been noticed.

  116. Panu said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 12:32 am

    Me always suspecting there no rules to English language. Me done thinking many ten year about correct usage of English article. Me own language no article none zilch at all. Me not in situation use analogy understanding English article. Now me done come to conclusion: there no rules to English article, every body use article or use no article after their own fancy. Was great liberation understanding this. From now on, me use no article none zilch at all in English, and me gonna make my own rules to English grammar. Every body gonna understand me any way.

  117. GlenBlank said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 3:40 am

    A couple of notes from a long-time Angeleno who occasionally spends time in the Bay Area:

    Here in LaLa Land, people mostly use 'the' with the highway numbers of freeways, but it's not completely universal. Some – a small minority – don't. And no one much cares which form you choose.

    Interstates are occasionally referred to as "I-[number]" (with no article) – but generally only the one-word numbers: "I-5" and "I-10" and "I-15"; but not "I-405" or "I-605" or "I-210".

    US and California highways are almost never called "US-[number]" or "CA-[number]" – though rarely, an exception is made for US-101.

    Numbers and names aren't used interchangeably, partly because they don't always match. For example, I live near the intersection of the Hollywood and Ventura Freeways, with the Ventura running E-W and the Hollywood running (roughly) N-S. The Ventura freeway segment west of the interchange and the Hollywood freeway segment to the south are US-101, while the Ventura east of the interchange is CA-134, and the Hollywood to the north is CA-170.

    Likewise, CA-110 north out of downtown is the Pasadena Freeway, while I-110 heading south out of downtown is the Harbor Freeway – but both are collectively referred to as "the 110", and treated as one continuous highway.

    (The Pasadena Freeway was LA's first freeway, and thus isn't built to Interstate – or even modern freeway – standards; so it can't be I-110. It used to be CA-11, but having CA-11 turn into I-110 apparently confused people, so it was renumbered to match its southbound extension.

    Of course, in a recent fit of historical nostalgia, the Pasadena Freeway has been returned to its original moniker, "The Arroyo Seco Parkway", both to emphasize its historical roots and to remind people it's not really a freeway in the modern sense – but the locals still call it "The Pasadena Freeway".)

    As for the 'culture war', it's pretty one-sided. San Franciscans seem to have the habit of winkling out even small cultural differences, proclaiming that their way is the only correct way, and then declaring that this is (yet more) evidence of the inferiority of Los Angeles.

    Angelenos, on the other hand, tend to regard the cultural differences between the two cities as nothing more than interesting bits of sociological trivia.

    It is, as someone once remarked, as if San Francisco and Los Angeles are locked in a never-ending competition that only the San Franciscans are aware of.

  118. Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

    @Coby Lubliner:

    Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc: Ukraine's insistence on removing "The" from the country's English name actually shows a good understanding of English. More or less vaguely defined regions often carry the definite article ("the Middle West," "the Middle East," "the Sahel"), and since the word Ukraïna means 'border region,' a similar vagueness would be implicit in retaining the article in the country's name. (In Tsarist days the name was, in fact, used somewhat vaguely.)

    Okay, if you say so. This theory predicts that The Netherlands should also be very upset about their English name. Since they aren't, they probably just haven't noticed the problem yet. Best that we keep it our little secret.

  119. xyzzyva said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    @Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc:
    But the article in the Netherlands is historically like the United States, in that it's marking a plural of separate entities. In fact, the provinces were at times actually numbered in the name of the region (Republic of the Seven United Netherlands).

    I always enjoyed that the Ukraine had the article while their language doesn't have articles at all.

    And I still support keeping secrets from the Dutch.

  120. Mike P said,

    December 20, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

    As a 5+ year resident of San Francisco coming from Providence, RI, I remember noticing (when I first moved here) the abundant use of the definite article in places I wouldn't have used it myself. The instances that most struck me were "the Muni", "the BART", "the 101", and of course certain neighborhood names ("the Mission", "the Castro", "the Haight", etc.).

    Upon reflection I probably hear those first three examples without the article as often as I hear them with, and the article-insertions are probably predominantly from non San Franciscan natives (as so many people here are). Yet I still think of the pattern as a feature of Bay Area speech, since by comparison to Providence (where we say "route 95" or "95" or "I-95" and "RIPTA" — no article) here there are so many extra articles floating around.

  121. Atmir Ilias said,

    December 21, 2010 @ 1:56 am

    It reminds me a story about a girl who asked her new boy friend, “Why you did not use definite articles with freeway numbers?” He replied that his father had always used them that way. Next time, when they had a conversation with his father, she asked him, why he did not use definite articles with freeway numbers. The father said that his father had always used them that way. At the end, the girl asked the grandfather why he did not use definite articles with freeway numbers. The grandfather said, “Because I always didn't have time to use definite articles”.

  122. Charles Belov said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 12:40 am

    "Welcome to San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni). Founded in 1912, the Muni is one of America’s oldest public transit agencies and today carries over 200 million customers per year."

    *blush* This comment is off the clock, and I am speaking strictly for myself, not the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), but I'm going to have to forward this paragraph to my webmaster hat. The paragraph would correctly read:

    "Welcome to the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni). Founded in 1912, Muni is one of America’s oldest public transit agencies and today carries over 200 million customers per year."

    Something about too many cooks…

    The following is official usage, so far as I know:

    the SFMTA
    the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency
    the 71 Route, where "route" refers to a bus route
    the N Line, where "line" refers to a rail line

    The following is my personal, unofficial usage, some of which has made it onto the official website and which may or may not be correct, and which I have heard from others:

    the San Francisco Municipal Railway
    Muni (when referring to the Muni system or to a surface route)
    the Muni (when referring to the Muni Metro, the subway)
    the 71
    the N

    And aside from "the" issues, I use:
    train (even when referring to a lone rail car, something that was a peeve of a former colleague)

    Things I've read from others:
    N-line
    71-line
    (universal use of "line"; use of a hyphen separator)
    MUNI (all caps; it's not an acronym, but the trademarked "worm" logo leads some people to believe it is)

    I'll note that transit.511.org universally uses "route," including for rail, so there is no consistency between agencies within the San Francisco Bay Area.

    Things I've heard:
    "bus" when referring to a light rail vehicle. I've even heard it when referring to a heavy-rail BART train. Apparently, "bus" is in the process of being genericized.

    I have never heard "the BART." I have occasionally heard "the Muni" even when referring to surface routes, but usually "the Muni" seems to refer to the subway.

    Hope this helps.

  123. Charles Belov said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 12:49 am

    Oh, yes, and "The" is part of the official name of "The Embarcadero" as it appears on the street signs.

  124. Charles Belov said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 1:12 am

    @Bloix said,
    "rootlesscosmo:
    The difference is that neighborhood names that are an adjective, where the noun has been dropped, take "the," while neighborhoods that retain the noun generally don't.

    So, Russian Hill, but The Castro [district]; Chinatown, but The Height [neighborhood]."

    Interestingly, I've been hearing "Potrero" and "Bernal." The "Hill" part is getting dropped but there's no gain of a "the." But I would still say "the" with "The Castro District" or "The Haight District."

  125. Charles Belov said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 1:32 am

    Actually, there are exceptions in the other direction as well. The Parkside District and the Ingleside District don't take "the" when "district" is dropped. At least not in my variety of San Franscicanese.

  126. Charles Belov said,

    December 25, 2010 @ 3:14 am

    For the record, I've corrected http://www.sfmta.com/cms/mhome/home50.htm to read "Welcome to the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni). Founded in 1912, Muni is one of America’s oldest public transit agencies and today carries over 200 million customers per year."

  127. Andy said,

    December 26, 2010 @ 4:37 am

    In Houston, where I grew up, numbered freeways never take an article, but word-named freeways always do. Thus, you can take "45" or "I-45" or "the Gulf Freeway," into town, but you would never say you *"took the 45" or *"drove on Gulf Freeway."

    When I moved to Los Angeles, it didn't take me long to pick up on using the articles for numbered freeways. To get to work, I take the 101 to the 110 to the 10 to the 405 to the 90 (and somehow this is the fastest, most direct route…). Even though this method is second nature to me now, it still sounds completely wrong to use the article with Houston streets. I use one method when in LA and another when in Houston, which leads me to believe that there's some degree of rote memorization and arbitrariness, rather than a strict mental rule for using the article. The exception is the 10 freeway, which runs through both cities – I've occasionally slipped and referred to "the 10" in Houston, much to the amusement of my family.

    One thing I've noted here in LA is PCH – I would always say "I live on PCH" instead of *"I live on the PCH." This kind of goes against the rest of the article love-fest that happens in SoCal.

  128. cHARLY said,

    December 26, 2010 @ 5:57 am

    In Utah, we do not use articles, and generally we do not use the word Interstate. You will often hear "I-15″ or simple "15." We actually have very few Interstates, so there is rarely confusion.

    No concrete evidence for this, but I think there is a preference to not prefix "I" to a number if doing so would create a hiatus. Thus "I-15″ and "I-70″ are common, but "I-80″ is less so.

    State highways are generally the number alone, e.g. "89." Local stretches of some highways might be referenced (in context) according to placenames, as in "The road to Moroni," which goes to a lot of other places as well.

    I'm from Utah, and I always said I-80, I-15, and 215. I think the latter two developed into that pronunciation based on some sort of syllabic matching–in fact, I didn't realize they were different at all til I was well into my teens.

    I always said Highway 89, but then, it's State Street for a lot of Utah county . . . .

    Since moving to WA, I say I-5, the 520 bridge (always the bridge!), and the I-90 bridge. Any other Washingtonians, esp. natives, to weigh in?

    And of course it's "the 101;" haven't you heard the Phantom Planet song? "Driving' down the 101/California here we come!"

  129. Boris said,

    January 10, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

    I'm in New Jersey and I would never use "the" in front of a highway number. As for a bare number without any prefix, it varies a great deal. I will prefer I-95 (where it's not "the Turnpike" of course) and I-80, but no prefix for 295 and 287. 76, 676, 78, and 278 can be either. I can also imagine saying route (pronounced root) 287 and route 295, but not any of the other interstates. Non-interstate numbered routes can always be prefixed by route, but for most it's optional. The exceptions are low numbers (I imagine they'd be exceptions for interstates too, but there aren't any here). I would never say "take 10". Always "route 10". I don't know where my cutoff is. "Take 18" sounds right, but "take 21" does not, but 22 and up seem to always be fine. The only partial exception is "the 42 Freeway" (though simply "42", never "the 42").

    Very few numbered freeways have names that are well known. The turnpike is only partially I-95. Apparently 78 is Phillipsburg-Newark Expressway, 80 is the Christopher Columbus Highway, 280 is the Essex Freeway, and 278 is the Union Freeway. I had to look all of these up.

    Christopher Columbus Highway. Does anyone call it that?). Interestingly, when a numbered route (non-freeway) has a name, it depends on the road as to whether the number or the name are used. 27 is almost never "Lincoln Highway", but Speedwell is never "202" unless you're going far enough on 202 that it's no longer Speedwell.

    As for mass transit, no articles for SEPTA, PATCO or New Jersey Transit (never NJT or NJ Transit when spoken out loud). With PATH, with or without the article is OK. For the MTA, I can't imagine saying "I take MTA" with or without the article for subways or buses. Metro North does not get an article, but the LIRR does. AMTRAK doesn't.

    When referring to a specific vehicle, I certainly wouldn't say I'm waiting for a/the SEPTA or any of the others. It always needs a "train" (or "bus") at the end and even then only if it is unclear which agency's train or bus it is. Otherwise it's "the train" or "the bus".

  130. Charles Belov said,

    March 6, 2012 @ 2:56 am

    I see by http://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf/6950011361/ that at least in the 1930's someone was using "the Muni" in an official manner, as it appears on a map cover.

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