I spend time in southern California. Yesterday morning (on a hot April Fool’s Day when Mother Nature was tricking us poor Chicagoans into believing the winter is over) I was thinking about regionalism and clarity and the phenomena particular to California regarding identifying highway routes with “the” in front of the number. “Take the 405 to the 10 and go east to the 110, then north to Pasadena…” someone might tell you. Always a definite article ahead of the route number. Having grown up in the Washington DC area (were we might say, “take 395 south to the Beltway and then go on the outer loop to Maryland and until you get to Indian Head Highway and go south toward St. Mary’s”), I find this fixation on particularizing a route number (which is by its route number is already particularized) quite amusing. I remember an episode of NCIS a few years ago (back when I was still watching that show, I loved Illya Kuryakin on The Man From U.N.C.L.E and was so thrilled to discover David McCallum still working and still utterly charming decades later). Someone in the supposedly Virginia-based NCIS office was talking about a car being chased “down the 395” — a roadway locally known in DC as either 395 or Shirley Highway. I laughed heartily at the writer in Los Angeles who had never lived anywhere else and in oblivious southern Californian fashion assumed that the rest of the country referred to route numbers with that definite article up front. If I were to confront this writer with the problem…perhaps as he swills his chardonnay on the patio while his sprinklers are spinning water across his lawn, unaware that San Franciscans are on drought restriction…I daresay the response would be, “huh?”
The “the” leads me to consider the definite versus the indefinite article. Articles are considered determiners in English grammar. The difference between definite and indefinite is particularity. “The” is definite and particular. “A” is indefinite, not particularized, imprecise. “A” friend is a general idea and could be any one of many. “The” friend is quite particular. Special. The vaguery of “I have a dog” is different from the specificity of “I have the dog that ferociously ate the front bumper of a police car in Chattanooga.” Ohhhh. THAT dog. It was a police car, but it was THE dog.
Articles, whether definite or indefinite, are in fact adjectives that relate to (dare we say determine) nouns. Angelinos have opted to determine and declare their freeways definitely. The rest of us are in a zero article state as regards our freeways, for “freeway” is a non-count noun and the general rule is that you do not use an article with a non-count noun.
Well, the real lesson from this foray into American English grammar is, next time you are in Los Angeles, make sure you stick with “the” in front of the freeway numbers or you will be exposed for the tourist that you are. Really.