Is it “the 46 East” or just “46 east?”

Most of my journeys from my home to anywhere, include driving on a highway.

freeway signs

Be it the grocery store, the bank, into town for lunch or on my way to one of the beach cities on the Central Coast, I’m usually on 46 East, 46 West or the 101.

There, I did it. A unique and regionally specific reference to a freeway using the definite article “the” in front of a road number. For those of you who don’t remember sentence diagramming, a definitive article is a determiner ( the in English) that introduces a noun phrase and implies that the thing mentioned has already been mentioned, or is common knowledge, or is about to be defined (as in the book on the table ; the art of government ; the famous poet and short story writer )[1].


Not being a native Californian, I hear in my own language a mish-mash of ways that I describe a road when giving directions. Sometimes I put “the” in front of the road name,  sometimes not. 30 years of living in Southern California taught me that freeways always have a “the” in front of the number. “Take the 110 to the 405 and wind up the south bay curve…”

Why does it sound natural to my ear for me to drive on 46 East – without the definitive article – and on the 101  -with the definitive article? Turns out it’s an historical accident.

In an article on the KCET website[2], this unique, regionally specific speech pattern is explained. It has to do with the history of freeways. Southern California had a few freeways long before the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956[3] defined the nations freeways and numbering system. The freeways in So. Cal already had descriptive names. A definitive article before the name made grammatical sense. The Santa Monica Freeway, The San Bernardino Freeway. Numbers were assigned to the existing roads, sometimes multiple numbers to the same named road. For years, road signs had both the name and the number. It wasn’t until new freeways were built, “The San Gabriel River Freeway” and “The Redondo Beach Freeway” in the 1990’s that drivers gave up trying to remember names and went with the numbers. But the definitive article, “the” stayed in usage. People had ingrained the habit, so they said, “the 101, the 405, the 5.”

Being from the Midwest, where we didn’t even call them freeways – they are expressways – I picked up the “the” as I learned to navigate. But when I moved from Southern California to Central California and added new freeway names to my memory bank, they didn’t include the definitive article. Thus, I still drive the 101 (which runs the length of California) and 40 East.

Mish-mash. At least I know why





3 thoughts on “Is it “the 46 East” or just “46 east?”

  1. Hi Linda, Great question and “history lesson”. My wife has relatives back east and they question using the word “the” in front of the numbers constantly. Now we can tell them why!


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