on the highway/motorway

Regular reader JHM sent me a link to this article from a Washington Monthly blog, in which an American complains about British (and European, more generally) road signs:
And as long as I'm venting a bit here, what is it with Europeans and compass points? Their road signs tend to be gloriously well designed and easy to decipher, but they never include the words north, south, east, or west. So when you get to a crossroad, all the sign tells you is that one direction takes you to, say, Chard, and the other direction takes you to Axminster. Unless you've memorized the map, or happen to be a local who doesn't really need the sign in the first place, you don't know which direction to go. (If you're lucky, one of the cities on the sign is the one you want to go to, which makes things easy. Usually it's not.) But although I might not know every town and village in the area, I always know from a quick look at a map which general direction I want to go. So why not add the words north and south here? Some sort of EU-wide directive to banish directional notation, or what?
JHM writes to ask:
Does the linked article ring true to you? If it is true that road signs tend not to indicate compass direction, I find this very odd indeed (even though (in New England at least) six or seven times out of ten the posted compass direction has a very low correlation to an actual compass point).
JHM often writes to ask if things that he's read about Britain ring true for me, and I think I always say "yes, it's ringing". I suppose that illustrates the extent to which we get so accustomed to things being one way that we never imagine them being another way. In this case, I have to say "yes, it rings true, but..."

When I lived in South Africa (and had a car), I don't remember ever seeing a sign on a (BrE) motorway/(AmE) highway* with a direction on it. This got me lost in the (AmE) boondocks when I needed to get from a rural hotel in the Northern Province to Swaziland. None of the signs said which way was north or east, and none indicated how to get to the major towns in the province (or to the border). Instead, at each (chiefly AmE) intersection there were signs pointing toward(s) the next town on the road. One thus needed to know every single town along one's route in order to make sense of the signs. I imagine GPS is very useful there these days.

While I don't drive in the UK, on occasions I'm a passenger for a longish car journey (Americans would usually say trip, but that tends to be reserved for shorter journeys in BrE). Initially, I was only travel(l)ing for southeastern Scrabble league matches, and thus only experienced the A-roads (trunk roads), which are so-called because they are designated by A + a number, e.g. the A27. (There are also B-roads, which are more local.) A-roads are roughly comparable to state routes, like New York State Route 31, which goes through my hometown.** But unlike the US roads, the British roads are not called by different names depending on the direction you're driving in. So, if I give you directions out of my town, I'll talk about 31 East or 31 West . A friend of our family lives on a different route, just outside the village, and her address is "[house number] Route 88 South, Newark, NY", meaning she lives on the stretch of Route 88 that lies south of Newark. (Before you think "hey, I've been to Lynneguist's hometown, note that it's not the Newark that has the big airport you've been to. That one, despite its pretensions, is not in the state of New York. My hometown doesn't have a travel agency, let alone an airport. It has apple orchards. And cows.)

In Britain, people don't talk about "the A27 West" (though Google the phrase, and you'll think me a liar; but really, no one says it! At least not with the same name-like intonation that one says "Route 31 West"). When you join the A27, the sign will tell you about upcoming towns, not whether you're going east or west. If you're on that road driving east from Portsmouth, you have to get past Chichester before you start seeing signs for Brighton, if I remember correctly. So, if you want to get from Portsmouth to Brighton, you'd better know that Chichester is on the way. You need to constantly make decisions about which town to head toward on roads like the A27, since for the most part, they are not limited-access roads with on-ramps and off-ramps. They have roundabouts (often called traffic circles in the US, but rarely seen there--though I believe New Hampshire has quite a few). Lots of them. The signs on the roundabout exits will indicate the number of the routes and some number of upcoming towns/landmarks, as in the picture below.

So far, so much like my South African experience. But then I graduated from southeastern Scrabble events to national ones, and got to be a passenger on the M-roads, the national motorways--which are more comparable to American Interstate highways. M-roads are dual-carriageways with limited access--ramps rather than roundabouts--and they tend to be used for longer journeys. When one approaches an M-road, one may see compass point names on it--except that they're not really describing the direction of the route, they're describing the destination. That is, instead of saying, for instance "M3 North", they say "The NORTH", along with whatever cities you might get to along the way. (So, in the sign here, it's not saying that Nottingham is in 'The North' so much as it's saying that this road goes to The North, and it goes to Nottingham too.) What's interesting in this picture are the (N) and (S) in parentheses/brackets after M42. You see this in places where you need to take different routes to different entrances to a motorway. Once you're on the M42 going south, there will be no signs along the way that say M42(S), whereas in the US, signs telling you what route you're on and what direction you're going in are planted regularly along the right side of the road. The reason why (M6) in this photo is in parentheses/brackets after M42(S) is to indicate that this roundabout is not taking you to the M6 but to the M42 which takes you to the M6 , which will get you to 'The S. WEST'.

Incidentally, in England people talk about the East (meaning the east of England, not 'the Orient') a lot less than the other directions. There are two reasons for this, I think. (1) There's a lot more West than East here--in that the island juts out, particularly in the Southwest. (2) London is treated (rightly or wrongly, depending on where you live) as the hub of the universe (sorry, Boston), and it's fairly eastward. So, striking out from London, there's very little to the East. Well, there's Essex (Americans: that's where Jamie Oliver is from. English folk: make it a new joke if you're going to make it). So, while you hear/see the North, the South and the West, and the Northeast/west and Southeast/west, you rarely hear about the East.

Back to the American side... as JHM notes, the directions on particular routes may bear little resemblance to the compass direction when you're on the road. Routes are not perfectly straight lines, and non-Interstate routes can involve a number of different roads that add up to a route in the right direction. For instance, if you look at the map for US Route 20, you'll see that, in spite of its status as an east-west coast-to-coast route, there's a bit in Idaho that runs north-south. Still, we'd instruct people in Idaho to take Route 20 West if they want to get to Oregon, because 20 West is, in essence, its name.

Rather than designating the different types of route by letter, American route types are distinguished by the shapes of the shields on their signs (images/links courtesy of Wikipedia):

Interstate Highways
U.S. Routes
State Routes
And within states there may be other kinds of route. There are systems to the numbering of the routes in both the US and Great Britain, but I won't go into those here, since they're not very language-y. So, if you're interested, see here for the US Routes and Interstate system and here for Great Britain.

Side notes:
* Highway is probably the most dialect-neutral term in the US, and can apply to various types of routes--the key is that there's no stopping and starting on a highway. On the west coast, one tends to hear freeway. For limited-access roads in/around cities, I'd say expressway. Major toll roads, run by individual states, have their own names. In New York, it's the Thruway. Several other states have turnpikes, which is sometimes shortened to pike, as in the Mass Pike--that is, the Massachusetts Turnpike.

** Two things to know about AmE regionalisms when it comes to routes:
  1. Some Americans say route like root, others say it like rout. I grew up with the former, but the latter sometimes creeps into my speech because of other places I've lived. These dialect survey maps indicate that the 'rout' pronunciation is more common in the South and Midwest. In a forum on Canadian English, someone named Kirk says:

    About "route," I use both pronunciations of the word depending on context. For instance, I've never heard anyone say "rowt 66"...it's always "root 66" for "route 66." So, if I see an official route as in a state route I definitely pronounce it "root." When I was younger I had a paper route and I almost always pronounced it "rowt" in that context. In other, general usages of the word, I use "root" and "rowt" pretty interchangeably.
    My pattern and Kirk's pattern are the same. I grew up saying 'paper root', but now tend to say 'paper rout'.

  2. Southern Californians (and perhaps others) prefix route numbers with the, but Northeasterners like me don't. So, I'd say Take (Route) 5 but an Angeleno would say Take the 5.


  1. I generally put "I" in front of interstate highway numbers, e.g. "I-5".

  2. Of course, then in the US we end up with situations like this (note that 95 South and 128 North are the same road).

    I didn't know until I looked it up that such a thing is called a wrong-way concurrency. Thanks, Wikipedia!

  3. Interesting topic. One thing though, is that traffic circle sounds very formal to me. I'd be much more likely to use rotary to refer to those pesky things they seem to have all over the place in Massachusetts. But that could be chalked up to a regional difference between New England and the rest of the US.

    Also, there is at least one place in the US where a limited access highway makes use of a rotary rather than the usual on and off ramps. The intersection of Routes 57 and 5 in Agawam, MA, is pretty strange. Going into a rotary (unexpectedly) at 65 mph is something that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.

  4. Lynne, I (ScE) can't say I've ever heard motorways referred to as "M-roads" before. Nor even thought of it. Is that one you've heard people use, or have you extrapolated it yourself from As and Bs?

  5. Now that's interesting. Thanks in part to all the British influence in India, we never have road signs with the compass points indicated. Then again, out here one tends to survive on the rule of collectivism--if you want to get to some place, asking for directions tends to work better than using maps.

  6. Is Newark, N.Y. pronounced /'nuɘrk/, like the one in New Jersey (which, by the way, is in Essex County -- I grew up there), or /ˌnuˈɑrk/, like the one in Delaware?

    New Jersey, I should point out, has plenty of traffic circles/rotaries/roundabouts, especially in its southern portion, and so do the adjacent parts of Pennsylvania.

    I am a /rut/ person, but I use /raut/ when talking about computer routing, or about the device for making large holes in things.

  7. My own experience how USers say "route" is that when talking about roads it rhymes with "fruit" and when talking about computers it rhymes with "kraut". I had assumed that the computer way of saying it had come from some accent used frequently by the US military, as they were involved with the development of Internet routing as we know it. They would also probably have the word rout in their vocab.

  8. In Australian English, route is historically pronounced root, and the rout pronunciation is despised by traditionalists as sounding "too American". However, these days many Australians use the rout pronunciation to avoiding sounding like root, which in Australian slang is equivalent to BR shag.

  9. All I have to say is, I'm thoroughly messed up on this one. When I'm asked which is correct, I shrug.

  10. London tube stations are an exception: they often have signs referring to lines running northbound, southbound, etc. Of course there's the same problem that they actually snake around in all directions--- so that from Euston you can get to King's Cross on the northbound Victoria line or the southbound Northern line.

  11. Who needs any new Essex jokes when there are so many good old 'uns to go round?

  12. I'd agree on the M-Roads think - I'm a Brit and have never heard that phrase, always 'Motorways'.

    Also - one of the other reasons we don't refer to 'The East' very much is that the main region you could describe as 'The East' is one of the few regions that has a proper name - East Anglia, and so people always call it that.

    Most of the others don't have names in common use (some people would use Northumbria rather than the North east, or Wessex instead of the South West, after the ancient kingdoms, but they are nowhere near as commonly used as East Anglia.

  13. If we use the American voice on our Satnav it tells us we are "Off route" calling it "rowt", a pronunciation we Britons think of as specifically American.

    And surely nobody goes on a long journey that is new to them without first planning on the atlas where they are going, so they would know that going on the A27 from Portsmouth to Brighton they would go past Chichester, Arundel, Worthing and Shoreham before they got there.

  14. It's not just Californians*; here in metropolitan Arizona, we call highways (interstates, state routes, and city loops) "the X" all the time. When asked for my (AmE?) cross-streets (the well-known intersection nearest one's residence), I say "Indian School and the 51." (That's State Route 51, which only exists as a connecting highway between I-10 and SR 101 within the city limits of Phoenix. On another linguistic note, its name was recently changed to the Piestewa Freeway in honor of a female Native American soldier who died in Iraq -- its previous embarrassing name was the Squaw Peak Parkway. But no one except drive-time DJs ever calls it anything but the 51.)

    Having grown up driving in Phoenix makes me anxious about how I'd ever possibly manage to find my way in cities that aren't laid out on a severe grid with regularized numbering.

    *One could make the argument that Phoenix is little more than a suburb of Los Angeles -- as is Las Vegas and most of the rest of California -- when it comes to matters of dialect. I'm not making that argument, but one could.

  15. Just to say I agree that 'M-road' sounds weird but that we *do* use the numbers regularly: i.e. the M4 is the motorway that runs between London and south Wales.

  16. ms. redboots: Americans, at least the ones I know (including myself), set out on quite long trips without reference to maps all the time, trusting their government's highway-signage system to get them wherever they need to go. Maps are usually only necessary once you arrive wherever you were going and need to navigate an unfamiliar city.

  17. To add to mrs. redboots and jonathan's exchange, I note that mrs. redboots' example (Portsmouth to Brighton) is under 50 miles of travel. To call that a 'long journey' seems quite laughable to an American, but then again the scale of the two countries probably has a part to play in that difference.

  18. I am mildly surprised that so far nobody has commented on the comparative futility of adding compass directions to British signposts , given the way the roads meander round so much . You can find an example on almost any page of a GB atlas (except perhaps in East Anglia), where to go to a town (say) north of your present position you have to go east or west for a way before turning north ... would the signposts in question carry the direction in which they are pointing , or the bearing of the named town/city ?

    Geographers , I seem to recall , measure things like how much longer a road journey is than a stright-line one , and the ratio for GB is , I recall , very high comapred to N. America . Is there a geographer on the bus ?

  19. To provide a contrast, check out an interesting series of posts about transport design and sign notation issues in the other direction, by Geofftech, a UK resident who moved to South Carolina and who had some degree of frustration with the US system.


    I grew up in central Indiana and still have trouble dealing with non-grid layouts, which I always mentally project onto their nearest compass direction despite the carnage that this may cause.

  20. Andrew Ruddle, the meandering is true also of many state routes in the eastern US. Route 16 in Massachusetts, for example, is very curvy and rarely ever heads directly east or west. In fact its general direction is more north-south than east-west. But we call it 16 East if the eventual destination is the coast and 16 West if the eventual destination is inland. Sometimes this does require a bit of thought when giving verbal directions!

  21. To add to the point made by Andrew Ruddle about the meanderiness of the roads here - one important difference is that the whole of Britain is small enough that you can fit it all, in usable detail, into a journey-sized road atlas (slim with gigantic pages that each cover quite large portions of the country, which you try hard to balance on your knee when navigating and still manage to steer at the same time…)

    You can see this echoed (taken for granted) in Mrs Redboots' comment: "And surely nobody goes on a long journey that is new to them without first planning on the atlas where they are going"!

    I wouldn't say you hear the West in talking about England, either. Wales is the West of Britain, and it borders the Midlands. There is the University of the West of England, though (Bristol) and West of England provides a bureaucratic definition - I find both of these uses much more specialised than the North and the South East, &c., and perhaps a bit "invented".

    As a further aside, when naming English regions my gut feeling would be to say - without research - that we use North East rather than Northeast, and so on. The Met Office forecast which I've just looked at does say "southeast England will remain largely dry", but such a usage doesn't circumscribe a region the way "The South East is an affluent area" does. (The same forecast goes on to say "Rain will clear southeastwards from England and Wales, except from southeast of England", which fits with the above.) It's a fun conjecture from here to say that in considering the shape of England, the most important direction is North/South - so perhaps in saying North West in preference to Northwest we are saying firstly North, then (less importantly) West.

    Lastly, as for the A27 West in Google, you're right: West is certainly not part of the name. Some substitutions:

    Then follow the A27 westbound towards, and past, Brighton & Hove.

    Then follow the A27 in a westerly direction towards, and past, Brighton & Hove.

    Then follow it west towards, and past, Brighton & Hove.

    Two complications: firstly, often the cardinal direction will take an initial capital, making it seem as if it were part of a name. This is a style point.

    Secondly, in constructions like "M5 {n/N}orthbound" (which you'll hear on radio traffic reports) I'd maybe say the _____bound does form part of the name, but much less strongly than in "Route 20 West". (I think its road-sign equivalent is the M5(N).) Having stretched this comment to such a length already I think I'll leave this last question open for now!

  22. I'm similar to Dunce, above, in that I'm a flatlander from Chicago where the grid prevails. I'm used to being able to make three right turns and end up right where I started. Even moving to Florida, where there are a lot of lakes in the way of straight roads, messed me up.

    I have to point out something that you didn't make your usual concession to Brit/American speech on in this post, and that is the "dual carriage-way." Would Americans call that a two-lane highway? or a four-lane highway?

  23. I'm going to disagree with your side note that says "the key is that there's no stopping and starting on a highway". As a Californian (currently Southern), I can say that this is incorrect here. A Highway is a road that is maintained by a government agency higher up than the local city. State Highway 75 is the main street in my town, and it has 9 (at least) stoplights on it.

    Also, I always heard growing up that the word "freeway" was a comparable term to "tollway" or "toll road". We had freeways in the West because we didn't have to pay to use them, while in the East they stopped you every few miles and made you hand over a quarter. Nowadays we have both toll roads and freeways in So Cal. We also have expressways in California, particularly in San Jose, and we don't consider that word a synonym for freeway. Expressways are just major roads that have very few stoplights, kind of like an express bus route has very few stops. (And I'd pronounce that rowt.)

  24. 1) Jonathan Bogart: "Having grown up driving in Phoenix makes me anxious about how I'd ever possibly manage to find my way in cities that aren't laid out on a severe grid with regularized numbering."

    Phoenix street numbering and naming is horrible. Every city in the metro area has a different east-west and north-south zero point, and some streets change names at street boundaries. I can't count the number of times I've had problems finding an address based only on the street address. When you find yourself at 1000 W. Southern and need to find 1600 E. Southern, you might well need to go west on Southern, because the place you're looking for is in a different town.

    For a real grid system, try Denver metro, where there's a common zero point for all the towns in the area and nearly all the streets keep their names. (To be fair, the streets keep their names even when they're not continuous, so getting from E. Girard to W. Girard doesn't involve much travel on Girard, but there you go. 8-)

    2) I can definitely confirm that I don't pay much attention to maps when travelling* even long distances in the US. I've driven from central North Dakota to central Nebraska over a mix of county, state, and US highways (about 500 miles) without worrying much about what town was next, and without trouble. FWIW, I don't know that I'd be as sanguine about this in the northeast.

    3) The strangest traffic signage I can recall was on a trip from central (then West) Germany to Metz. The road we were on seemed to pass through the central square in each town, and in each of those squares there were signs revealing the way to Metz. I don't recall a single such square where there was only one sign revealing the way, though, and in one case I remember four. It turns out that all roads don't lead to Rome.

    * Not the preferred AmE spelling, of course, even though "spelling" is preferred. Spelling reform that results in less regular spelling is suboptimal. "Color" is obviously correct, though. 8-)

  25. mamunipsaq:
    As a person raised in Central Massachusetts relocated to Washintgon, DC, I can unfortunately say that rotary is not used anywhere but MA...possibly some of the rest of New England.
    Washingotn DC has lots of rotaries, but they are called Circles here (ie. Dupont Circle.) I was repeatedly made fun of for using rotary when I got down here...not to mention numerous other "Massachusettsisms" that you don't know aren't used till you leave the state...
    Now there is a whole sub-set of a "Common Language" Massachusetts vs. the rest of the US.

  26. I agree with cathy's comments that a highway doesn't necessarily have no stops, and her comment that tollway and freeway are essentially complementary terms (a tollway is a highway you pay to go on, a freeway is not paid).

    I used to live in Phoenix and agree with Doug's point that the street naming/numbering there is horrendous. I lived near the boundary of Tempe and Phoenix and it was always a mystery when one received an address that was something like 1000 E. 40th Street whether that meant E. 40th, Tempe, or E. 40th, Phoenix - because those addresses were many miles in opposite directions.

    My understanding of Phoenix's use of "the" in front of Interstate numbers (e.g. "The 10") is that it's a result of Phoenix getting a lot of Los Angeles transplants.

  27. I was a bit mistified when I got to the states and found all these compass point signs. I dont know whether I want genessee east or west, I want to go towards del mar, or la jolla, so its very confusing for me.

    I feel like the UK is better signposted than the US in terms of getting you to where you want to go without looking at a map. In the UK, even very minor roads are signposted very well with a sign telling you where the road heads towards, and in the US its only really freeways that are signposted. Also, upon moving tho the US I would often pass where I needed to turn too quickly to realise. I think I've got used to the system now, and just realise that the two countries are very different.

    I'm definintely seeing an increase in roundabouts here too, some enormous ones in sacramento.

  28. In my experience each state has a different state route sign shape -- there isn't a common one like the way you have them arranged suggests. The CA shape is a triangle with the sides bowed out.

  29. "dual carriageway" is a divided highway, i.e. there is a separate carriageway for each direction, so you can't have a headon collision while overtaking. All motorways are dual carriageways, but the description is mainly used for the non-motorway ones.

  30. I've always found it interesting how Americans use North, South, East and West so often, much more often than we do in Brazil. Probably 9 out of 10 Brazilians couldn't point to one of those directions (or is it only me?)

  31. Wow, a lot of comments piled up while I was out and about today!

    Just a few responses.

    Indeed, the usual way to refer to interstates is either Interstate +number or I-number. I used to live by I-35, for example.

    On M-road, I've only heard it used when explaining the road system. Yes, they're usually called motorways. If you search "M-road" on Google, you get a lot of examples of "£5.6m road" and the like, but I did find a suitable example in instructions for a radar detector from www.radardetectors.co.uk:

    "Please Note that whilst in the CITY mode the device will not detect any locations on Motorways or ’M’ roads so you need to remember to switch to either the ’M/WAY’ or ’ALL’ settings when driving on a Motorway or ’M’ road."

    světluška--all this doesn't mean that Americans can point to the north when asked. We need the signs to tell us which way is north! It just means that when we plan journeys, we picture the map and know that 'up' is north, and so if we know we want to go 'up', we look for signs that say 'north'.

  32. Re: metropolitan Phoenix street naming and numbering:

    Well, there you are, then. It makes perfect sense to me because I've grown up with it -- and I can't imagine not making sure of the city first when getting an address, in which case the location would be clear -- but of course to transplants it's less obvious.

    For what it's worth: in Arizona, all highways regardless of jurisdiction are referred to as freeways, even though there's not a toll road in the state. It's a city of transplants.

  33. (And by city, I mean Phoenix. I'm committing the usual sin of taking the largest metropolitan area as representative of the state as a whole.)

  34. We have some interesting naming conventions for freeways in Los Angeles County.

    For example, the 101 (US-101). Between Downtown Los Angeles and the Valley, the 101 is the "Hollywood Freeway", runs roughly north-south (well, more like NW-SE), and the posted signs will say "101 North" and "101 South". But after you get to the Hollywood Split (the interchange where the 101 meets the 170 and the 134), as you enter the Valley, the 101 becomes the east-west "Ventura Freeway". And in the Valley, the on-ramps for the 101 are posted in some places as "101 North" & "101 South", and in other places as "101 East" and "101 West", and some on-ramps will be posted as both "101 South" and "101 East"!

    Likewise, the 110, while not having a major direction change, has two names. South of Downtown L.A., the 110 is the "Harbor Freeway" (I-110). North of Downtown, the 110 is the "Pasadena Freeway" (State Route 110).

    But no one really says "Hollywood Fwy", "Ventura Fwy", "Harbor Fwy", or "Pasadena Fwy", unless they're a newscaster discussing rush-hour traffic, a horrible crash, or a car chase.

    I should also say, that having lived in both Southern California and the Midwest, I tend to make a distinction between "freeways" and "highways". The way I see it, a freeway has at least 3 lanes going in each direction, goes mainly through urban and suburban areas, has lots of traffic, and generally also has a center divider that's usually made of concrete. A highway only has one or two lanes going in each direction, goes mainly through small towns and countryside (or along the beach, in the case of the PCH - Pacific Coast Highway), has much less traffic, and doesn't always have a median between lanes of traffic going in opposite directions. If a highway does have some form of median, it's generally either a strip of grass or a suicide lane. That's how I see it, at least.

  35. Just to comment on Tim's observation: Could the scale of the countries really be at the heart of all this?
    After all, the whole UK can more or less fit in just the Northeast US, and if we only had to worry about, or be familiar with, that area, it would probably be a lot easier to navigate by towns.
    But trying to cross the country, you end up in areas that you have no idea which way is up, especially in the fairly flat and non-descript midwest.

  36. Bill (and others): OK, Britain is not very large but it is densely populated and has a lot of roads, so it is worthwhile to look at the roadmaps before starting off. When these maps come in book form, they are arranged so that consecutive pages take you on a west-east journey, and arrows direct you to the page you need to travel north or south: there is also a summary page at the beginning with the major roads (motorways and A-roads) and an indication of which page to read for each area. When in the USA a few years ago we found atlases (Rand McNally were the big name)frustrating because they seem to have a rule of one state per page, in alphabetical order! Imagine the contrast of Massachusetts and Texas fitted in to the same page area ... and frantically riffling through the book to find Connecticut as you cross the boundary.

    Itinerantlondoner and Sarra mention areas of Britain - can I add The West Country, meaning Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, perhaps some of the area near Bristol and Bath ... but definitely not Wales?

    And getting back to where it all started, now I live in London, I would be very pleased to see N-S-W E indicators outside all tube stations: tourists and Londoners can all be confused when they emerge from the depths, because the exit may be on a side street (e.g. Russell Square), or it may be one of several options for a large station such as Oxford Circus. Perhaps I should write to Boris about this!

  37. Ah, road geekery. Everyone has to have a hobby. Random comments:

    1)Each US state has its own system of road numbering, and sign shape (and colors) for roads. Some of these systems defy easy analysis, like Pennsylvania's, whereas others', like here in Mass., are essentially random.

    2)The two US systems of highways, otoh, are named logically. The earlier 'US highway system', follows the rule that odd numbers go north-south, evens east-west, which is paralleled in the later Interstate hw system. In the former, the lower numbers start east and north in the country, which means the interstates reversed the problem (this means that US 1 parallels I-95 along the east coast, US 20 parallels I-80 and 90 across the northern tier, etc. Note that, amongst interstates, one and two digit numbers are the main routes, and three digits are the spurs and trunk lines, and 'beltways', loops, circumferential highways, etc. The famous 'Washington Beltway' (ie., from the cliche about modern Washington political insiders being 'inside the beltway') is I-495 in MD and VA, running around DC, and spurring off I-95. The most significant interstates are those one and two digit ones ending in 0 and 5.

    3)Not only are the route numbering signs different from state to state, but so are the bulk of the other signages. Standard signs, such as stop, yield, etc., are nationwide, but signs directing people to communities, giving distances, showing where routes veer off, etc., can vary widely from state to state, with some states doing a very much better job of this.

    4) Here in Mass., the rotary was originally designed as a way of slowing down traffic at intersections and in downtown areas. Sometimes, over the years, this worked too well, as in the legendary Sagamore rotary at the junction of Rtes. 6 and 3 at the Sagamore Bridge heading onto Cape Cod (which is now of course an island due to the canal). This resulted in epic, legendary traffic delays at vacation weekends, and was a disaster. Several years back the state decided to spend big bucks to destroy the thing, and run Rte 6 as a flyover shooting straight to and over the bridge. This opened last summer, and the reviews are decidedly mixed, as the darn bridge is still probably too narrow to handle the volume of traffic expected of it anyhow.

    5) The use of the definite article before a route number is also very common in Canada, or at least Ontario, where all the main numbered limited access highways are called by the___, ie., the 401, the 403, etc. What I noted when I lived in Buffalo was the strong tendency to use this usage for some of the local WNY freeways as well, i.e., 'the 400', the 33. Of course, there is another 'the' usage common for highways in the US. Many highways have numbers AND some name, either 'The Mass Pike', 'The NYS Thruway', etc., or some descriptive name, such as a name of a person the road is named after, or a city/ region, etc. Some of these roads have state or federal system numbers, which outsiders will refer to them as, whereas others in some states just have the descriptive name, which in any case is what the locals use, even when there is a number (which tends to be what goes on the AAA maps, atlases, etc.). 'The 33' in Buffalo has several names, depending upon where it is, which is confusing, especially because the locals all know where 'The Scajacquada' is, even if you don't. In Vermont, for instance, where there are very very few highways, I lived in a section of NW VT where there was only really one, and the locals actually referred to it as 'The interstate'.

    6) Many times State X has highway A that goes to the border with State Y and continues there, as Y Rte. A, but sometimes the road continues as Y Rte. B., etc., which can get very confusing, especially because in such cases there is highly likely to be a Y Rte. A somewhere else, even quite close by.

    7) There is a wide variety of alternate names for the same things within the overall orbit of 'road/ highway stuff', throughout the country, which varies state to state. Some of these terms tend to be regionalisms, but not all. There are numerous different words for the type of road that is limited access and divided, with no intersections, etc., several different words for the lane at the far edge in each direction where broken-down cars stay, different words for the thing that separates the two directional roadways. Traffic circles, rotaries, roundabouts are all more or less the same thing, even though various states dispute this. You get the idea.

  38. I don't know how common this is in the rest of North America, but one thing I love here in rural Ontario is the way that they show house numbers on street signs at intersections, so you know whether to turn left or right to get to house number 100 (for example). That would be really useful in UK streets - I think some city 'A to Z' maps have them, but having them on the street signs themselves is great.

  39. I remember having the same problem as a beginning driver--in Iowa. That there would be directional signs w/ town names on them, but not "east," etc.

    And I didn't know if, from here, Atlantic was between me and Des Moines, or on the other side.

    You can *find* the "east" on the route-number sign, but that takes a bit more looking.

    M roads--my one trip to England, 18 years ago, involved driving, and I thought I'd picked up the term "M road" from locals on that trip.

  40. Oh--the underground!

    We don't have north and south in NYC--uptown, downtown, the Bronx, Brooklyn- and Queens-bound.

  41. It's true that British roadsigns are more likely to tell you where the road is going to take you next than which direction the road is going in.

    On the other hand, in my experience of the tri-state area around New York, NY, the equivalent roadsign will tell you the name of the road and leave out any indication of where the road will take you. True, you might be given an indication of which of two adjacent exits is for the northbound Washington Avenue and which is for the southbound, but there isn't going to be any help for you if you don't know in advance whether either direction of Washington takes you toward your intended destination.

    This fouled me up for a long time - it meant I couldn't rely on signage in the way I was accustomed to in England. I could almost always find my way around England by following signs, because I knew the relative positions of a lot of places. That kind of knowledge is much less useful here.

    Now I know to try to plan trips by recording road names/numbers (and compass directions) rather than place names.


    I've never heard anyone refer to a Motorway as an M-road before. I think Ms. Guist was extrapolating.

    Incidentally, in BrE roads when designated by letter/number take a definite article that would be weird in AmE. To get from Oxford to Winchester you take the A34 via Newbury. You go up the M4 and over the Severn Bridge to get to Wales in a Mini. But I never heard of anyone taking "the I-95".


    I'm amused by the claims of some commentators that their part of the USA does indeed have a lot of traffic circles or rotaries. I have to assume these people have not visited England, and therefore don't have a handle on the quantities we're talking about.

    I don't know if it's still happening, as I haven't been back to England much since I moved here in 2001, but during the 1990s it seemed there was a concerted effort going on to replace traffic lights entirely, simply by painting a white circle in the middle of every intersection. With a driving population that is accustomed to (BrE) roundabouts, the effect is remarkable - the junction instantly becomes about five times more efficient at safely redistributing traffic than it was with lights.

    I dread to think what would happen if the experiment were tried (in mirror image) here!

    "Englishman in New York" Andy

  42. To give Americans a sense of how many roundabouts/traffic circles/rotaries: I've never seen a four-way intersection with stop signs in this country. When Better Half's family came to the US, they had to ask for instructions on how to know who would have the right-of-way at such an intersection, because they just weren't used to them. Now imagine your town with roundabouts/traffic circles/rotaries every place where you have a four-or-more way intersection.

  43. Re roundabouts/rotaries, etc. The daddy of them all is surely that north London monster, The Hangar Lane Gyratory System.

  44. In central London, roundabouts are extremely rare, and virtually every "four-way intersection" – or crossroads, as I would probably call it – is governed by traffic lights.

  45. Unless one is driving in the night time, are compass directions really necessary? All it takes is a glance at the sun...

    (From India, where driving is done by asking passersby for directions, not using maps!)

  46. Anon, yes, traffic lights--but not so many stop signs. In Brighton, where we don't have lights at a 4(+)-way intersection, we typically have a (mini-)roundabout.

    Shreevatsa, you must live in a place where the sun usually shines. Much harder to find the sun when it's raining! ;-)

  47. I have an observation which I think explains why it makes more sense to use directions on signs in the US than to do so in the UK. In the US, route numbers are exactly that: they number routes, not physical roads. In the UK, numbers tend to refer to the physical stretch of road.

    So, for example, I64 is a route from St. Louis, MO to Virginia Beach, VA. To say one is traveling on I64E doesn't actually imply one is traveling east, just that one would end up at Virginia Beach (the eastern end of I64) if one stayed on I64E.

    Because the US system numbers routes, rather than physical roads, it's very common to be simultaneously traveling on more than one route: I64W and I77S share the same physical road from Charleston, WV to Beckley, WV. My favorite example of this in in Lynchburg, VA, where one can simultaneously be traveling on US 501 North and US 501 Business South.

    By contrast, road numbers in the UK are generally interpreted as referring to the physical road, rather than a route originating in one place and ending in another. It is rare (though not completely unheard of) for a physical road to share two or more number designations. Thus specifying a direction would probably be interpreted as the direction in which a traveler on the road was heading at that point, and due to the tendency of roads to meander around would be of limited use.

    On another topic, I was surprised to learn that in parts of the west a route number is commonly prefixed with "the". I had thought this was only done in the UK. It sounds completely incorrect to me to say "driving on M25" or "driving on the I64" but entirely natural to be "driving on the M25" or "driving on I64".

  48. You raise an interesting point with your use of "M-Road" vs. "motorway." Is it possible that people in some parts of Britain say M-Road and others say motorway? I heard "motorway" most often when I was there. Over here. "expressway" vs "freeway" seems to depend on region.

    Anyway, something that is confusing about the Interstate designation is that directions are based on the entire length of road. In Chicago, "I-94 West" goes almost due north. and " I-94 East" goes south, because Lake Michigan gets in the way. Of course, most people refer to expressways by their names here instead of the numbers (the opposite of what I found in California, where few people use the names). Most of our expressways have "90" or "94" in the number (or both), so it's actually easier to remember the names. We also would never call the Edens Expressway "the I-94" (we'd say I-94 to an out-of-towner).

  49. I've been following the comments to this post with interest, though I've never driven on my many trips to the UK and so thought I had no relevant experiences to relate. I just realized I do have a question though: I follow a lot of British comedians, and an absurd number of them make jokes about the road system in a way I've never understood. The list includes Stephen Fry & Hugh Laurie as well as the more recent John Oliver & Andy Zaltzman, and I'm fairly certain I came across a number in Neil Gaiman books as well. Is there something Brits find inherently hilarious about the highway system that I'm missing?

  50. I don't know the bits that you're thinking of, but the English (especially the male of the species) like to talk about the best ways to drive places. Bill Bryson sends this up in the first chapter of Notes from a Small Island, which you can read here.

    Some people read this as a way to make small talk that doesn't involve the disclosure of anything very personal.

  51. I'm tring to remember who has made what joke, but the one I remember off the top of my head is comments about A303 winning the "Best British Trunk Road Award," or "the A-such-and-such is, of course, the favorite route to travel to such-and-such section of England." It's always said in this deadpan throwaway manner as if there are big deals made of roads winning awards or everyone caring which road a celebrity might take to his destination.

  52. It is possibly relevant that, in the U.S., words like "freeway" and "expressway" have formal definitions in law. To wit, an "expressway" is a highway to which abutters do not have the right of access. A "freeway" is one which has only grade-separated intersections -- it is "free" from conflicts requiring traffic on the road to yield/give way to other traffic, regardless of whether it is funded with tolls or gas taxes. (In many places, the only expressways are also freeways; they might be called by either name, but "expressway" predominates in the older eastern cities and Chicago, "freeway" elsewhere.) A "parkway" is either a road through a park, or a freeway on which trucks/HGVs and buses are prohibited, and often both simultaneously. A "tollway" is a freeway operated by the Illinois Toll Highway Authority.)

    As for the definite article: using "the" is standard practice in Southern California and adjoining regions, in Buffalo, in Ontario, and in Montreal; elsewhere it marks the speaker as (at best) an outsider (and at worst, a Californian/Buffalonian/Torontonian/Montrealer). Other regional markers: calling a freeway by its name -- particularly if the name includes the word "Expressway" -- marks one as a northeasterner or a Chicagoan (or, with "Autoroute", a Montrealer). People from South Texas say "I.H." to refer to an Interstate Highway (and may also say "S.H." for a State Highway). Anyone who recognizes the word "Trafficway" as a kind of road is probably from Kansas City or Topeka.

    On rotaries/traffic circles/roundabouts: traffic engineers and consultants working for companies pushing the construction of British-style intersections here (often in the service of "traffic calming") insist that a "roundabout" is something completely different from a "traffic circle" or a "rotary". This is not so: they are simply regional names, and the distinctive features the roundabout lobby call out are simply the difference between 1940s and modern design standards. In Massachusetts, the name is "rotary" (a shortening of the legal term "rotary intersection"); in New Jersey it's a "traffic circle". (Warning to Brits driving in the northeastern U.S.: priority rules at such intersections vary from state to state. In Massachusetts, the rule is "yield when entering", but this rule changed within living memory, so not all drivers have quite figured it out yet. In every state, the overarching traffic rule of "give way to the vehicle with the most momentum" is still a good idea to observe -- better to be alive than right.)

  53. kpo'm
    I've been having lots of recent discussions about Chicago highway names vs numbers. The general consensus seems to be that there's a city/suburb divide. People living in the city use names and suburbanites use numbers (as do out-of-towners). As a non driving Massachusetts transplant I mostly stay out of such things, but it can get very heated.

  54. I live in San Antonio Texas where there are two ring roads or loops, so far, circular roads that go around the city. San Antonio has sprawled so much that there is an inner ring road and an outer ring road. When I first moved here it took me a while to get used to approaching 1604, the outer loop, from the East on I-10 and choosing 1604 E or 1604 W, when the loop at that point was crossing the road going north/south.

    Also, I grew up near I-95 and also Rte 1 in Connecticut, and there, even though it is a North/South Road, it runs along the coast in Connecticut, which is East/West. There wasn't ever any confusion though for me there.

    I love reading maps and navigating and am almost always impressed with American road signage.

  55. Dunce, the road rage blog you referred to... it's interesting to hear of the complaints to what one is accustomed to and what seems to work well. Usually there are a few signs before an exit telling you that the exit is coming up, some even tell you how far, 1 mile, 1/4 mile, it is to the exit, and the exits are often numbered, so you know you're getting closer or that your exit is the next one at which point you should get in the far right lane where traffic is going slower anyway, and you should slow down as you approach the exit. True, approaching the exit going seventy is not wise. Usually the recommended speed limit as you get off on the exit ramp drops down to 45 at first and then drops further.

    When getting onto a road, that far right road where people are also slowing down to take the exit, and you should be speeding up in order to get left onto the highway, I guess growing up here, it feels very natural - so that that road is kind of like part of the ramp, you know - or I know not to stay in it, but to put on one's left blinker automatically and merge onto the highway.

    I was wondering with all the roundabouts vs. four-way stops, which method is more efficient on time and gas usage. They are relatively rare in my experience and so they always seem a novelty. I like them, though I'm not sure how I would feel if they were more frequent. There are two roundabouts that I know of within fifteen or so minutes of my house, one in New Braunfels, Texas and one on McCullough Ave. At both of these roundabouts there is something in the center, a park in New Braunfels, and a stone fountain or something or statue, on McCullough, I will have to pay better attention, and the roads come in at strange angles- also there may be five roads onto the circle, come to think of it. Whee!

  56. I find it odd that Freeways/highways/motorways have numbers. In Australia all roads and highways are called by names. They have numbers as well but they are NEVER used. You take Canning highway, or Stirling highway or, old coast road.

    Tourists are often confused because they ask where route### or highway ### is and they locals don't know as they NEVER use the numbers.

  57. Extremely late to the party, but in my English home town of Towcester (pronounced toaster, to the delight of all), we have an interesting road name quirk.

    The A5 Watling Street runs from London in the east to Holyhead, Wales in the west. Along the way it runs through Towcester where it forms the high street. Fascinatingly, addresses on the high street are either Watling Street East (for the eastbound side) or Watling Street West (for the westbound side), even though the addresses are directly opposite one another. It's a single carriageway, even.

  58. My friend's GPS said "Take the motorway" to him and he was pretty perplexed. Fortunately I knew what it meant! (It was telling him to get on the NYS Thruway/I-90 East in Amsterdam. The GPS didn't even say the name or direction of the road, just "the motorway.").

    I think it's important to point out that State Highway shields only look like the one you pictured in New York State. Each state has its own design. I'm just a roadgeek though.

    Also, I always pronounce route, as in road, to rhyme with root. But in pretty much any other context it rhymes with grout (such as "paper route.").

    Fun fact (one of your example images reminded me of it): US-20 is the longest road in the United States. I've only been on it between NY-10 and NY-80, though.

  59. Hmmm....I live in Sacramento, and I don't know of anything that one could possibly call a "roundabout," unless you mean that 3-level cloverleaf nightmare downtown. I don't think that qualifies.

    We don't say "the 5,", but like Rulial said, "I-5," for the interstate. And "route" can be pronounced either way...I think I use both, but may have a slight preference for rhyming it with "out."

    A freeway is, by definition, limited access and relatively high speed, with four lanes or more. A highway may be a simple two-lane road connecting rural communities, so long as the state gives it a number and maintains it.

    A new highway is generally called by number. It may have a name, but no one uses it. An older highway may have a traditional name, often the name of the community at the other end of the road. "Jackson Highway" would be a good Sacramento example.

    A highway in (rural) Mendocino county is still called "the Willits road" or "the Fort Bragg road" depending on which end of it you live on. The state calls it a section of (California) Hwy 20. If you keep going on Hwy 20 past Willits, you have a wrong-way concurrency with (US)Hwy 101, which we do NOT call "the PCH," as they do in L.A. It is the same highway, though, running the length of the state.

  60. As a Brit I find the use of "The NORTH" on motorway signposts a bit puzzling. The North generally refers to a particular region, albeit ill-defined (which Nottingham and Tamworth probably do belong in), not a direction. Same for "The S. WEST" on that sign.

    Scotland and Wales and indeed the island of Ireland also have their "The North". To get to Edinburtgh from London you pass right through what English people mean by "the North", ending up to the north of The North. If you kept on to Inverness, you'd be entering a different The North.

    But travelling north on a motorway, you never seem to reach "the North". You get to, say, Nottingham and they're still directing you to the North. You pass through Leeds, Newcastle, wherever, and still you're not there, it's all "[name of next landmark] and the NORTH". There's probably a big sign at Muckle Flugga saying "Iceland and the NORTH".

    So motorway sign-makers must be using it as a direction, which would more naturally be written "North". Of course you can speak of travelling "to the north" (lower-case) but surely more normally in modern English of travelling "north", just as we more usually turn "left" than "to the left". Is this just a slightly archaic turn of phrase that dates back to the dawn of motorways in the 1950s? Or could it possibly be that they originally did mean "The North (of England)", back in the day? I speculate wildly.

  61. @John Cowan It would never have occurred to me to associate the computer router /u:/, for me, with the router /au/ that makes holes in things, and indeed they appear to be unrelated etymologically. Interesting that the older /au/ in "route" has disappeared so completely from BrE over the last century or whatever that it now feels alien, but has remained in the related word "rout".

  62. Hey, I've been a couple of miles south of Lynne's home town! And I know NY 31, my US base was about 100 miles east of Newark near the start of itm in Verona. There's a stonking great casino there now but that's since my time there. We went to Rochester (where my ex went to college) on I-90 not NY 31. If I'd known I'd have waved!

    Anyway, major routes out of London tend to have compass directions. 'North' seems to be a rather elusive concept on British roads; signs on the A1 in north London say "The NORTH, Hatfield". In Perth, Scotland, signs on the A9 point to "The NORTH, Inverness". In Lerwick, Britain's northernmost settlement recognisable as a town, signs on the A970 indicate "Hillswick, The NORTH". Past the turning for Hillswick the sign still pointed to The NORTH but it was January and getting dark at 3 in the afternoon so I gave up looking for The NORTH. There isn't much left for the road to go to though.

  63. Is it just me, or does it feel odd to other Americans as well to refer to a book of roadmaps as an atlas? To me, an atlas is not the sort of thing you buy at a gas station and stick under the seat of your car. It's a formal reference book that sits on the shelf of your home and has lots of colorful maps of the different states and countries, quite possible without showing any roads at all.

    Also, as others have pointed out, just because it's a highway doesn't mean you don't have to stop. The Daniel Webster Highway in Nashua, New Hampshire has an awful lot of traffic lights.

  64. Grace

    For this British speaker, an atlas isn't just any old book of road maps. It's a complete set of maps for a substantial geographical unit: e.g. Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain, Western Europe.

    In a petrol station (=gas station) you can generally buy a road atlas for one country, and perhaps a road atlas for a wider region. But for somewhere removed from the country/region where you're driving, you'll need to visit a bookshop (or Amazon).

  65. This is not really true, when approaching a motorway in the UK it is common to see signs saying for example M4 (E) and M4 (W).

    Also, in South Africa there are a mixture of signs showing near and far destinations. For example in Port Elizabeth you'll see signs both for Cape Town and Humansdorp on the N2.

  66. That's true (to some extent) of big, limited acces M-roads, but I've never seen a sign that advertises the B274 South or any such thing.

    And that the direction is in parentheses is also relevant. In my hometown, Route 88 South is an address one can have--the 'south'--is part of the name of the (part of) the highway. Not true in the UK context.

  67. Like some other Brits who have commented, I find the term M-road extremely strange, I never use it, and I don't recall hearing anybody else use it. It's just occurred to me why...

    There are two ways of looking at these roads: as system of numbering or ads a system of grading. This is somewhat conflated with British A-roads and B-roads. A roads go from one sizeable (by British standards) town to another. B-roads go between smaller towns. For this reason, A-roads are generally broader and generally easier to drive on than B-roads. The prefixes are mutually exclusive: the same road cannot be both A and B.

    Roads prefixed with M are motorways. However M is not in the same mutually exclusive relationship. Not all motorways are prefixed with M. For example, unless it's been renamed, there's stretch of road numbered A1 (M).

    Motorways are clearly defined in law. There are different restrictions as to which vehicles can drive on them and the default speed limits are different. Some of the most up-graded A-roads may seem similar but you can tell you're on a motorway because the signs are blue, not green. In any case, you can't drive onto a motorway without passing a sign which lists the restrictions.

    The photos above show that you are on good A-roads subject to ordinary regulations but that you may come ahead to roads subject to motorway regulations. The second sign has three colours:
    • green for the major A-road (the A46)
    • blue for the two accesses to the M42
    • white for the relatively minor A road (the A4097)
    The overall colour is green because you're on a major A-road. The last exit (we drive clockwise around the roundabout) has a white sign; it's the less-than-major A4097 road and everybody can drive on it. But the blue bit signifies that it leads to a new (to us) type of road; a toll motorway. It shares it number with the regular M6 because it takes traffic to the same destinations. (The other road with two exits from the roundabout doesn't qualify for any indication, implying that it's B-road — or even an unclassified road.)

    I don't think you can equate A-roads with trunk roads. If there are four digit (as in the A4097) it almost certainly doesn't qualify as a trunk road. Even three digits is rather a lot. I would roughly equate trunk roads with the like of the A46 — with green signs and two digits (or one).

    So, yes there is a class of M-roads, but we don';t speak about them. They're examples of a distinct type of road — motorways — which we do speak about.

  68. Harry Campbell

    As a Brit I find the use of "The NORTH" on motorway signposts a bit puzzling. The North generally refers to a particular region, albeit ill-defined (which Nottingham and Tamworth probably do belong in), not a direction.

    The answer to the puzzle is that The NORTH and The North are different concepts. The former is a (potential) destination, the latter is a mega-reagion. Of course, the distinction can only exist in the written language. In the spoken language, the destination goes by the name of north.

    Two rather different terms are
    northward(s) denoting direction rather than destination
    (a rather fancy word, usually replaced by simple north)
    northbound referring to the destination of traffic on one carriageway
    (a word large confined to traffic reports on the radio)

    Roads lead TO The NORTH. Places are situated IN the North.

    The North is the serious name for the (usually) facetious up North, sometimes (never seriously) written oop North.

    The North is sometimes said to begin at Watford Gap — the first service area driving north from London. (At least, it used to be.). More seriously, the North is sometimes said to be 'north of the Trent'. By this criterion, Nottingham is in the North, but only just. In fact, people almost always place Nottingham in the Midlands or, more specifically the East Midlands. Similarly, Tamworth is in the (West) Midlands.

    The concept of Central England exists, but hasn't really caught on, because the notional centre of England is London. Here is Scotland we speak (and write) of the Central Belt which includes the capital Edinburgh, the chef metropolis Glasgow and most of the high-population centres. The rest of the country is usually divided into named regions, but we can speak of the North or the North East. We rarely speak of the South. Rather, it's the Borders.

    East and West are important concepts at the edges. The spelling of my surname is reckoned to be an East Coast convention; Bing's origins allegedly lie in the West Coast. The terms have escaped to England through the names of the two railway routes between London and Scotland.

  69. The North and The NORTH, what, like spam (email) and SPAM (meat)? It's a novel interpretation but I wonder how many motorists would read such a vital semantic role into the use of capital letters. I'd say upper case on road signs tends to be used for visual effect rather than fine lexical distinctions. The "THE" is surely redundant clutter, as the pictures of signs show. They don't write "The Motorway", or should it be "The MOTORWAY". What are they playing at with The N. WEST? Surely NORTH WEST.

    But my question remains why this rather old-fashioned way of phrasing it (travelling "to the north") when "north" would be the usual and more concise way of expressing the idea of "northwards". The North/South is a rather vague concept whose boundaries no-one can agree on, more cultural than precisely geographical, as in the US perhaps, and not a term that's very useful on roadsigns.

    The (Scottish) Borders are nothing like synonymous with the South of Scotland. They are just one, eastern, part of southern Scotland.

  70. Harry

    But my question remains why this rather old-fashioned way of phrasing it (travelling "to the north") when "north" would be the usual and more concise way of expressing the idea of "northwards".

    Again, there's a distinction that can only exist in the written language. To the north is a direction to the North is a destination.

    I''ll accept you're right about the Borders being the the eastern part of the South of Scotland. But the fact remains that we don't say 'the South East' — at least I don't remember ever hearing it.

    Nobody is confused when they read The NORTH because they know where they're going, and they know that the destination is/isn't in their personal sense of what the North is.

  71. I don't think you can equate A-roads with trunk roads. If there are four digit (as in the A4097) it almost certainly doesn't qualify as a trunk road. Even three digits is rather a lot. I would roughly equate trunk roads with the like of the A46 — with green signs and two digits (or one).

    There are actually two parallel classifications. There is the sign colour: blue (motorway), green (trunk route) and white (everything else), and there is the lettering M, A, B.

    The primary motorways are all Mx, but there are some motorways that are Ax(M) - particularly the A1(M): the A1 switches back and forth between A1(M) and A1 several times. Generally the ones with an M number were built specifically as motorways, while the Ax(M)s are upgraded roads.

    Virtually all trunk routes are A-roads (I'm sure there's a B-road somewhere just to trick us all out), but the reverse is certainly not true. The number of digits is a rather loose indication of importance; the big dual carriageway where I grew up was the A580, while the A58 was a smaller road into town.

    Maps, by convention, show the motorways in blue, the trunk routes in green, the other A roads in red and the B roads in yellow.

  72. BrE (Scot, late 60s) My wife and I like to “pootle”, which for us means “explore by car” (not pointlessly, which is what the spellchecker thinks: is that just spellcheck in AmE). Typically, we will drive to a town we don’t know, Park up, and have a look round. For larger towns, we will use the local park-and-ride. To get to, say, Ayburgh, we will follow signs that say Ayburgh. Sometimes we might see a sign for Ayburgh (S). This means the southernmost of two or more exits from a manor road, all of which will take you to Ayburgh. The hey point is that, all of the way through the suburbs, the signs will continue to say Ayburgh. Eventually, I would expect “Town Centre” to start appearing, with lots of directions to car parks. For coastal towns, I would expect signs for the beach, or a “promenade”.
    Early this century (only just) I was pootling through Florida, heading south from Orlando to the Keys, and planning to have a look round Miami. At some point the signs stopped saying Miami, and started giving me street names, and the names of towns further south. Not even a sign for “Downtown”. I never did see any of Miami. Perhaps a better understanding of grid systems and street naming conventions would have helped.

  73. I guess a "long trip" would sound like an oxymoron, then. ~_^


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)