crossing the street/road

My father and Brother Number 2 were giving Better Half walking directions to somewhere or other today, when they said that he'd have to cross the street. BH replied that if he were to do it, it'd be (BrE) crossing the road. Which led Dad and BN2 to expatiate on the AmE difference between streets and roads. They agreed that they could cross the street in town, but would cross the road in the country. In general, the term road is found much more often for street names in towns in the UK than it is in the US, where it tends to be reserved for either country roads or sometimes biggish thoroughfares in cities (e.g. Rochester, NY has a Winton Road within the city, but I don't think there are any streets named road within the village limits of my hometown). This led me to create a new joke:
-Why did the chicken cross the street? -Because she lived in town.

You're not going to tell me that jokes have to be funny, are you?


P.S. for more on this topic, see this more recent post: Talking about streets and roads


  1. Hmmm... I never stopped to think aboubt these street/road differences.

    This is why in Italy they call the US English as "American"!!

    People would actually tell me "No, you don't speak English, you speak American". Oooookay then...

    Hehe... cute joke!!

    No, I wont tell you jokes are supposed to be funny :)

  2. Wait a sec. I already know when to use street and road in AmE, but you didn't tell us when to use which in BrE! A few weeks on vacation/holiday and you're already losing your chops?

  3. Well, from my Scottish BrE perspective, I would NEVER cross the street, but only ever the road. Presumably on the basis that all streets are roads, but not all roads are necessarily streets. Or is the difference in AmE so clear that a "street" is not even considered "a road"?

  4. From my point of view (BrE)a street is a road with buildings by it.
    The part that I cross, with the vehicles on it, is always the road.

    So there's a difference between standing in the street, on the pavement/sidewalk, and standing in the road waiting to be run over.

  5. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines Street: town or village road that has (mainly) contiguous houses on one side or both –Latin: strata (via): paved (way)
    Road: line of communication, esp. specially prepared track between places for use of pedestrians, riders or vehicles- Old English: rad (ridan: ride)

    It would seem that long established towns (Roman origin?) have mainly streets, whilst newer developments may have more roads. Although many places have a High Street, which presumably was the beginning of that settlement with buildings. Many of our main routes still follow the line of the Roman Roads connecting their towns e.g. Ermine Street, which is still called a “street” although, despite John Prescott, it does not have contiguous houses, but, perversely, it is usually known as the Great North Road.

    I would normally say, “crossing the road” even if I was crossing, say, Oxford Street.

  6. Re "Road" on names of Streets: (1) some roads would originally not have been built up. Many suburbs of London have a "London Road" which was originally "the London Road", i.e. the road from the outlying town to London, most of whose length would originally have been lined with fields. Similarly, if you travel between the conjoined towns of Luton and Dunstable, you start on Dunstable Road [in Luton], which changes halfway along to Luton Road [approaching Dunstable]. (2) "Road" is usual for a road called after a major building on it: Station Rd, Abbey Rd, Church Rd. (3) "Street" suggests to me that buildings are flush with the pavement/sidewalk/footpath, which is itself flush with the carriageway/road. Suburban streets generally have grass verges, perhaps treelined, and gardens, with offstreet parking. "Road" to my mind conveys this image of relative spaciousness and greenery, as opposed to the more congested and central "Street"; thus "Road" is probably more appealing to someone looking to buy a house.

  7. Sorry, my info about BrE was more implied than stated there (it was very late!). My point was intended to be (as Cameron says) that any street can be (and is) called a road in BrE, if one is talking about the (AmE) paved/(BrE) tarmacked part where the traffic goes. In AmE, city children playing games in that area are said to be playing in the street (hence terms like street hockey--which Wikipedia calls road hockey, which I've never heard before, but it may be Canadian). In BrE, they'd be playing in the road. So, if you want to refer to the tarmacked/paved bit in BrE, then call it the road, no matter what part of town or country you're in.

  8. This reminds me of something I've wondered about - do roads have articles in BrE? To clarify: I live in New England. When talking about a road, we put a "the" in front (e.g. "Take the Reading Road") but when talking about a street it would just be "Take Main Street". Numbered highways do not have articles - "Take 95 South to..." My friends from elsewhere in the US laugh at my "the" in front of road names but I laugh at theirs when they say "take the 95". Where would BrE speakers fall in this?

    1. I don't know how consistent the practice is, but there's a strong tendency:

      The Bloggsville road is the thoroughfare (robust enough for motor traffic) that leads to Bloggsville — either from the place of speaking or by convention from some starting point agreed in the past. As such, it may be identified by a single number such as A 99 or B 1234, or a name such as Whotsit Street, Whotsit Avenueetc or even Whotsit Road. Indeed, different stretches of the Bloggsvlle road may have different numbers and/or different names. (In speech, we say the A99 and the B 1234

      Bloggsville Road is a thoroughfare name. Almost certainly it identifies a thoroughfare (of at least moderate width and extent) which lies within the boundaries, of a city/town/village, and which constitutes the start (or a very early stage) of the route to Bloggsville — or possible which used to mark this.

      For example, in my home city of Nottingham three roads diverge under the names Derby Road, Ilkeston Road and Alfreton Road. (Derby is a city relatively close to to Nottingham; Ilkeston and Alfreton are towns of comparable distance.) In each case, if you drive along the road and keep driving without turning off, you'll end up in the city/town of the corresponding name. However, each of the three thoroughfares changes its name long before the Nottingham city boundary.

      Those the places are relatively close to Nottingham. By contrast, Edinburgh, where I live now, has a London Road although London is about 400 miles away. London Road is only 1½ miles long. In the old days, no doubt, stage coaches would start the journey to London along this road, but it's not now an obvious route — certainly not the way I would drive.

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  10. I think in British English you would only normally say “the” if giving directions and referring to a road bearing the name of a town or signposted to a town: e.g. “At the next roundabout take the London Road” but otherwise you would omit “the” e.g. “turn right into Queen’s Road”. Although, of course, it is not that simple as I realised that, in general conversation, I would refer to “the High Street”, but, on the other hand, simply say”Oxford Street, Regent Street etc.”

  11. There is also the High Street to refer generically to what AmE speakers generically refer to as Main Street.

    The issue of whether routes take numbers before in AmE (take 95 versus take the 95) is a well-known dialectal difference within the US. Not sure we really want to get into that here! In the UK, one does use a the before route numbers, e.g. take the M1. (Route numbers are prefaced by a letter to tell you what kind of road it is. There's an explanation here.)

  12. Thank you, Peter and Lynne - that answers my question. I wasn't trying to get into the US dialectal differences here, don't worry! They do interest me, though, and sometimes my weird New Englandnesses have roots in BrE... so I thought I'd ask about the BrE take on it. :)

  13. Growing up (in central New York state), I eventually figured out that streets are built to provide a place for new buildings; until these are built, the street is fallow and rather useless. Roads, on the other hand, evolve from trails used to travel between more distant places. Streets are designed and mostly straight for maximum packing efficiency. Roads evolve and usually (or at least originally) wind around the topography for minimum traveling effort. I wonder how well this characterization holds up world-wide.

    Suburban developers, of course, build winding streets and name them "X Road" in order to suggest a peaceful rural environment, but those are really streets.

    When I moved to Richmond, Virginia, I discovered that two of the streets, Broad St. and Cary St., have extentions into the surrounding counties, where they are known as Broad Street Road and Cary Street Road. This "Street Road" combination was at first jarring and annoying, but I've gotten quite used to it now.

  14. A further twist on Suelily's point: "the London road" means "the road to take if you want to go to London". It may or may not be called "London Road", but there is (I think) a difference between referring to the name of the road (without an article) and referring to its purpose (often with one).

    As a sneaky trick to confuse tourists, two roads in the centre of Oxford, High Street and Broad Street are known locally as "the High" and "the Broad". Referring to them by their full name is an immediate cue for social ostracism.

    That's the only exception I know (though I am sure there will be other such local usages) to the distinction between the BrE usage of always including the word Street/Road/etc, and the AmE willingness to drop it. So the answer to the question "Where is the British Museum" is "In Great Russell Street", never "On Great Russell".

    1. There's also the Corn, known fully as Cornmarket Street.

      What is this that roareth thus?
      Can it be a Motor Bus?
      Yes, the smell and hideous hum
      Indicat Motorem Bum!
      Implet in the Corn and High
      Terror me Motoris Bi:
      Bo Motori clamitabo
      Ne Motore caedar a Bo---
      Dative be or Ablative
      So thou only let us live:---
      Whither shall thy victims flee?
      Spare us, spare us, Motor Be!
      Thus I sang; and still anigh
      Came in hordes Motores Bi,
      Et complebat omne forum
      Copia Motorum Borum.
      How shall wretches live like us
      Cincti Bis Motoribus?
      Domine, defende nos
      Contra hos Motores Bos!

    2. These things change.

      On Word of Mouth the other day, Michael Rosen stated that he had avoided in-crowd speech in his Oxford days — he didn't say whether it was an anti-establishment gesture or to distinguish himself from the public school-type speech around him. Dr Laura Wright seemed to be saying that some years later, certain terms had dropped out of the lingo. The Eagle and Child was no longer The Bird and Baby.

      Similarly, I'm pretty sure that in Michael's day we no longer spoke of the Corn. Or at least far fewer people said it than at the time that the rhyme was composed. The rhyme signals its extreme age by the Latin:
      • the fact that it's used at all as the source of a joke
      • the way the rhymes work only with a style of Latin pronunciation that was already going out of fashion a century ago.

  15. The story as I've heard it: In the UK 'street' (which is from Latin) often implies Roman origins. i.e. there are various villages with names like 'Friday Street'; they are all situated on old Roman roads.

    Similarly the City of London (i.e. the actual Square Mile run by the Corporation of the City of London) has all streets and the rest of London is mainly roads, because the City roughly corresponds to Roman London.

    My MA thesis was on he representation of ethnicity in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and my impression was that they were much more likely to use the word 'street' (and a couple of other Latin-derived bits of vocab) when referring to a Roman subject - i.e. in a translation of the Acts of the Apostles - and didn't generally use it in poems set in Britain/Germany. I don't think I did the research as rigourously as I should have, though, so don't quote me on it.

    I don't think most British people are actually conscious of this distinction, which is just an accident of history. But it might contribute to the sense that 'road' is the generic term and a 'street' is, in some ill-defined way, something more specific.

  16. To describe the part of a street or road that vehicles drive on, I think I'd use the term roadway.

    In California, if you're from San Francisco you drive on 101 but if you're from L.A. you drive on the 101.

  17. All this time I thought that when Paul McCartney asked the musical question, "Why don't we do it in the road?" he meant a back road in the country somewhere. But if he was talking about a street in town, that's much more risque...

  18. In Ireland, developers of housing estates [~ subdivisions] often pick one name (e.g. that of the pre-existing main road, the historic Townland, or the Big House) and call all the roads after that. The most extreme example I know is a development near Leopardstown Racecourse, which has Glencairn Road, Glencairn Avenue, and Glencairns Chase, Close, Copse, Court, Crescent, Dale, Drive, Garth, Glade, Green, Grove, Heath, Heights, Lawn, Oaks, Park, Place, Rise, Thicket, View, and Walk, not forgetting Glencairn Way. But no Glencairn Street.

  19. One interesting thing about street and road names in Britain I've encountered is that you ALWAYS include the full name of the street, including the word "street", "road", "close", "court" or what have you, when giving directions or otherwise referring to it.

    Whereas in America, it is common to say "I live over on Linden". In Britain, you ALWAYS say "I live on Linden Street" (or "in Linden Street"). Always, always.

    Some streets don't have a street or road designation, like High Holborn, and you wouldn't add it to the name, though; it's just "High Holborn".

  20. fnarf is absolutely right.

    I notice with affection when American friends omit the 'street' designation when referring to British street names, for example 'Great Portland' for 'Great Portland Street'.

    fnarf is also right about streets that don't have a street designation. These often include thoroughfares which were used for fairs and markets, for example: The Poultry in Nottingham, Cornmarkets, Haymarkets, Lawnmarkets, Grassmarkets in a number of towns and cities.

    Also, in northern English towns you often get 'Gates', like Bradshawgate, Deansgate, Coppergate. These in fact (disappointingly!) rarely refer to the gates of the original walled town, but are derived from the Norse word for street, 'gata'. It would be unusual to put 'the' in front of the names of these thoroughfares.

  21. Curses! Why, in my previous post, did I pass up the opportunity to mention Whipmawhopmagate in York? A number of etymologies are suggested for this strange street-name, including this highly dubious one: "It is thought to have been the place where dogs called whappets were whipped on St Luke's Day." Oh yeah! (Well what else would you want to do in York on St Luke's Day?!)

  22. I hadn't noticed this generally about Americans (but I take the rest of your words for it), but a friend (who shall remain nameless) drove me crazy on a recent visit by referring consistently to 'Covent' (i.e. 'Covent Garden') and less consistently to 'Leicester' (i.e. 'Leicester Square'). It didn't seem to matter that everytime she said 'Covent', no one knew what she was talking about...she kept saying it.

    Of course, the reason one needs to say 'street' or 'road', etc., in British placenames is that there is likely to be more than one street/road in a town with the same designation. E.g. Brighton has Buckingham Street, Buckingham Road, Buckingham Place, all of which are in the same area. So to say someone lives 'on Buckingham' is completely useless...

  23. One thing about American streets is that (to the best of my knowledge) they always have something after the name. Be it Road, Street, Place, Avenue, Square, etc... You will never/very rarely find something like "High Holborn" in the U.S. It would be High Holborn Street, but we would call it just High Holborn.

    And there are cases over here where we use the same street name btu different street designations, but usually this is kept for small side streets (often dead-ends or culs-du-sac) where the primary street would be called "Mitchell Street" but then a small street halfway down would be called "Mitchell Place"

  24. I have learned something from these exchanges: I did not realise that a place with “street” in its name indicates a Roman settlement- it explains Churchgate Street, which is a hamlet/village on the fringes of Harlow, Essex.

    Of course “gate” is not limited to York. The City of London, which is a separate entity to Greater London has a number of streets indicating its past as a Roman then Medieval walled city e.g. Bishopsgate, Moorgate, Aldersgate.

  25. > You will never/very rarely find something like "High Holborn" in the U.S.

    Broadway would presumably be a famous exception.

  26. howard said:
    "Broadway would presumably be a famous exception."

    Though the name Broadway was originally translated from a Dutch phrase as Broad Way...but it was condensed.

  27. I will second what bill said about American naming: "road," "street," and "avenue" usually designate longer throughways whereas "place," "arch," "way," "crescent," "circle," etc. generally are shorter and/or have no outlet.

    Until reading this thread, I had never made any distinction between "crossing the street" and "crossing the road." I tend to use "road" more often, which is apparently odd as I'm American. But now that I think about it, the words really are not interchangeable. I mean, I can't fathom someone referring to a "dirt street." It has to be a dirt road to make sense.

    I don't recall ever hearing anyone use an article along with the proper name of a street. My directions might be "drive up Elm Street, then turn left" or, if I'm standing right on Elm Street, "drive up the street and turn left." But it just would be weird to my ear to hear "the Elm Street."

  28. Broadway would presumably be a famous exception
    Also the Bowery.

  29. bill and aminquery: re Road/Street/Avenue can be long vs Circle/Place/etc usually short: that's also fairly true in Ireland and, I guess, Britain.

    Nomenclature differences probably in part reflect differences in the layout and evolution of urban areas. The wide open spaces and rapidly increasing population of 20th-Century America allowed for the grid system of streets (or streets and avenues, with numbers); and also for a new development to lay out a large number of roads and ancillary services to be provided in advance of most buildings being constructed. All of which makes good planning sense, but in congested Britain I think things happen more piecemeal.

  30. In Dublin, many of the 1950s corporation housing estates have all their roads/streets names after some particular kind of thing: in Crumlin they're mainly ancient monasteries, in Drimnagh, they're all mountains. In these districts it's common enough to leave off the "road" when referring to any particular street - but only where it is designated "road", I think, as in these districts too there is a Mourne Drive and Mourne Crescent as well as Mourne Road.

  31. I once had some Americans stop me in Central London and ask how to get to "Leicester". Fortunately I knew of the American habit of dropping the last element of street names and directed them to the square with the cinemas in rather than telling them to go to St Pancras and catch a fast train north ...

  32. We live on a Roman Road. Which brought the daughter sobbing home from school once - "Daddy, is it true that the people who built our road killed Jesus?"

  33. Taking Dearieme's story a step further, I once heard a guy say he hated Italy because the Italians killed Jesus.

  34. As aminquiry's point: also you can say "the left/right side of the street", "the sunny side of the street", but not "the side of the street", even though you can say "the side of the road".

    Also, the verb "to cross" seems to have to different senses. For instance, if you cross the room, you can stay inside it the whole time, but it cross the river on horseback you'll start and end outside of it.

    I think Americans think of crossing the street in the second sense. Does "crossing the street" make sense in BrE the way "crossing the room" does?

  35. As a (Southwestern) American, there's nothing wrong to my ear with "the side of the street." That's where people who have minor accidents pull over to in order to exchange insurance information.

    But yes, to my ears anyway to cross the street is to encompass it. I find it hard even to imagine crossing the street in the "crossing the room" sense. (But also as a Southwestern American, I don't think of streets as places for people. They're for cars.)

  36. Peter:

    Bishopsgate, Moorgate, Aldersgate have only recently been referred to as such: until the early 1900s they were Bishopsgate-street, Moorgate-street (note 'street' in lower case).

    By contrast Bradford's Kirkgate takes its ending from gata or gate meaning... street.

  37. n AmE, city children playing games in that area are said to be playing in the street [...] In BrE, they'd be playing in the road.

    Not true. 'Playing in the street' is more common; five hits in the BNC to one for 'playing in the road'.

  38. Mollymooly said: '"Street" suggests to me that buildings are flush with the pavement/sidewalk/footpath, which is itself flush with the carriageway/road.'

    This rings true to me, and I would expect to find more streets in inner-city or built-up areas and more roads elsewhere. To me 'playing in the street' means playing on the pavement, whereas 'playing in the road' would mean on the actual carriageway.

    Isn't 'avenue' particularly used for tree-lined roads?

  39. One reason for the confusion about the suffix among Americans is that in their own country these things tend to have very fixed, formulaic meanings. For instance, here in Seattle, "Avenue" means north-south, "Street" means east-west. There are a handful of Courts, Places, and Roads and Ways, but almost all streets in the city correspond to this plan.

    Occasionally an "Avenue" or a "Street" will curve around some natural obstruction like a hill or a lake.

    This is so ingrained that even a popular shopping street in the University District, named "University Way", is universally referred to as "The Ave". It IS an "avenue" (generically speaking) but does NOT have "Avenue" in its name -- which still shocks some people who have been using the street for decades when you point it out to them.

    There's also the whole business of discontinuous streets -- we have streets that disappear for miles due to bodies of water or hills, and then pick up again as if nothing had happened in the next neighborhood over. Some streets, like Galer, might have as many as ten segments, identified only by their directional (NW, N, NE).

    Which points up another reason why Americans have trouble with the British system -- they've learned to simply ignore the suffix, and not notice or know it. I don't know whether Galer is a "Street" or an "Avenue", but I assume it's a Street because it's east-west.

    I'm guessing the difference here (between learning lots and lots of unrelated names versus learning a SYSTEM) is down to the fact that parge chunks of Seattle and American cities like it were platted and named all at once, within recent memory, probably by a developer, whereas most British streets (and those in the older parts of the US, which are named similarly) have been around longer than anyone knows. I mean, we know WHY Mickelegate is called that, but I'll bet you don't know the name of the man who named it.

  40. fnarf wrote:
    > I mean, we know WHY Mickelegate is called that, but I'll bet you don't know the name of the man who named it.

    Fnarf, perhaps his name was Mick? ;-) ;-) (Sorry, everybody - just couldn't resist it!

  41. Does BrE have an equivalent for "roadkill"?

  42. Hi Lynne,

    Actually, I thought your joke was funny!


  43. Mention of "gate" in previous notes can be confusing. To suggest that the word refers to a gate in a wall is often inaccurate, the possible association with the Scandinavian 'gata' can also link with the old use (in Scots) of 'gait' as for walk - hence Marketgait for Market Walk.

  44. Just an aside...

    While I was out of town this weekend, I drove under a bridge that had its street name printed on it...

    "Street Road"

  45. Fnarf, I've always been fond of that system, but must needs point out that it's hardly universal -- in LA, our place was on the intersection of two avenues! And yeah, that whole thing with the cross streets (and avenues that span the entirety of the city) doesn't really work in London, which is why you don't have A System, you have The Knowledge! :)

  46. I was born and raised in the SE US. I might say 'Get out of the road!' or 'His house is up the street.' In both cases I'd be referring to the thing that runs in front of my house. In my usage roads are in the country, but anywhere else I used road and street interchangeably.

  47. I was born and raised in the SE US. I might say 'Get out of the road!' or 'His house is up the street.' In both cases I'd be referring to the thing that runs in front of my house. In my usage roads are in the country, but anywhere else I used road and street interchangeably.

  48. The history of the word road is interesting, and casts some light on its present-day use.

    The OED has three main headings

    I.The action of riding, and related senses. Obs.

    II. A place where ships ride.

     III. A way, line, or path, and related senses.

    Sense I is by far the earliest, first found in a translation attributed to King Alfred the Great. Even if he didn't actually write it, it must date to his lifetime in the second half off the ninth century. Although this sense became obsolete, there's a strong tendency for later senses of road to suggest compatibility with horse riding — and subsequently the driving of vehicles.

    Senses under Heading II emerged in the fourteenth century.

    Heading III senses are even more recent, first recorded in 1580. The most important is:

    4.a. A path or way between different places, or leading to some place. Originally: a way wide enough to allow horses, travellers on foot, or horse-drawn vehicles or the like, to pass; (later) a wide way which motor vehicles, cyclists, etc., can use, typically having a specially prepared surface. Also with capital initial, as the second element in the name of such a way (cf. Rd. n.). Now the usual sense.

    By contrast street tends to be associated with walking — often with no overt destination.

    Other things being equal, to speak of children playing is the street can sound not very disturbing, which playing in the road rings alarm bells. It suggests that they may be playing in a place where cars go.

    I wouldn't wish to hear

    *As I walked out on the roads of Laredo
    *What's the word on the road?
    *These kids are road-smart, and speak in road-slang.
    *We must combat road crime, road drugs, and aggressive soliciting by road walkers.

    When it comes to names, an urban thoroughfare which is unsuitable for traffic might be called various things, including Street (as well as Close, Lane, Alley etc — but not Road. (There is no corollary; a thoroughfare named Street may well be — and usually is — open to all manner of vehicles.)

    There's an interesting group of exceptions to this distinction. A handful of really old traffic-bearing place-to-place roads — originally made by the Romans — have the unexpected names Watling Street, Ermine Street, Dere Street and possibly others. These names are fossils from a time before the word Road was available in any senses other than those under OED Heading I.

    The use of road to mean simply 'way' extends in the North of England to expressions such as any road, some road, no road (= anyway, some way, no way.) I haven't heard the latter two, but any road was extremely common ('frequently used', I mean, not 'vulgar') when I was growing up in Nottingham.

  49. BrE (Scot, late 60s). Glad to see that I’m not the only one re-visiting older posts. Just to say that I have no idea if I say cross the road or cross the street, and don’t find either usage strange or jarring. Likewise with playing in the street/road. To be fair, though, when I was a kid, there was so little traffic in our village that we did play in the bit where cars go. How else could you play football or rounders?


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