Usage question for PNW Dopers: the/not-the I-5

“I-5” vs. “The I-5.”

I always understood that in Southern California, a “the” is used in front of the “I” when naming interstate highways. As in, “I took the I-5.” (I believe I learned this on the Dope. Thank you.)

I always understood also that elsewhere in the country, nobody uses “the.” (I believe I learned this on the Dope as well.) Certainly everywhere I have lived people would don’t: “I took I-94, I-55, I-84, etc.” Or they refer to the highway by some other name: the Stevenson, the Northway, the turnpike.

But then I started reading a new novel by Aaron Elkins, who IRL lives on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, and his main character, who has lived in Seattle for a number of years, says something about getting on “the I-5” after a meal in downtown Seattle. And since Seattle is not in Southern California, and will not BE in Southern California until continental drift carries Los Angeles up past Oregon, this does not add up.

So which is it? Did Elkins make a mistake? Did a Los Angeles-based copy editor make an unauthorized change? Or DO PEOPLE IN WASHINGTON STATE SAY “THE” I-5 DESPITE EVERYTHING I THOUGHT I KNEW??

(Yes, I know that many Canadians refer to “the 401,” etc., which is certainly analogous but then again these are not part of the US interstate highway system.)

Pls advise. Many thanks.

Not to throw a wrench into the whole system but I use “The 5”. I rarely hear it called “The I-5” and I know I never use the phrase.

Oregonian who travels to Washington regularly here. The only people I know who say “The I-5” (Or just “The 5”) are transplanted Californians.

It is I-5, absolutely not “the” I-5. See all these search results from the Seattle Times. There are no search results for “the I-5” that aren’t referring to “the I-5 corridor” or “the I-5 commute” or some such. Maybe Elkins is far enough away from I-5 that he is uninformed, or he’s a stubborn New Yorker (his home in Sequim, a retirement community, is hours away from I-5).

It’s “I-5” along with “405” (or “I-405”), “520,” and “99.”
There is no “the.”

My guess is a copy-editor went nuts or the author is one of those people who thinks they’re being quirky while they’re really being annoying.

I live in the Pacific Northwest but not Seattle. I call the road “I-5” and call the interstate highway closest to me “I-90”.

FTR, I used to live in Sacramento and the Bay Area. I never heard anyone refer to highways there as “the 80” or “the 101”.

Aaron Elkins may live in Sequim, Wa (pronounced ‘Sk whim’) now but he was born in Brooklyn, NY.

Native NW Oregonian here and it is just ‘I-5’.

Saying ‘The I-5’ would reveal you to be a transplant from elsewhere just as surely as carrying an umbrella would.

In SoCal we say “the 5” (short for “the 5 freeway”). I-5 is short for “Interstate 5”, saying “the Interstate 5” seems awkward.

I moved to WNY from Chicago and was surprised to hear the locals say “the 90” or “the 400”. Sadly I find myself now doing the same except when I visit Chicago and quickly/unconsciously revert to normality.

My husband refers to county roads, state highways, and interstates (basically anything with numbers) as “The X.” Thus, “I took the 85…” “it’s just off the 378” “did you hear about the accident on the 45?” etc.

He’s from Holland via Florida, if it matters. Prior to him, I had never met, nor heard of, anyone referring to numbered roads with a “the” instead of just the number.

Native Southern Californian here, now living in the PNW.

This is true. In SoCal it’s ‘the 5’. I’ve never heard anyone say ‘the I-5’. Up here, it’s ‘I-5’. I say ‘the 5’ just to be contrary. (And because I spent decades driving in SoCal.)

I am a native Northern Californian still living in the area, and I have never referred to I-5 as anything but “I-5,” nor have I ever heard it, though a friend of mine confirms having heard someone use “the” as well. We both think it sounds ridiculous.

Interesting information, all. The sentence as it appears in the book does include “I”–“starting the car out of the parking garage and on its way to the I-5.”

Two other thoughts:

  1. If Elkins is from Brooklyn, that still doesn’t explain it, since I’ve never heard anyone from Brooklyn use that expression (and I don’t live all that far from Brooklyn right now);

  2. After reading a bit further (this quote was on page 5–'scuse me, on the 5), I see that the narrator, though living in suburban Seattle for 12+ years, spent some of his childhood and his early adult years in…Los Angeles.

Which still doesn’t explain the “I,” I guess. But maybe we’ll give Mr. Elkins the benefit of the doubt. Referring to the road as “the” 5 perhaps isn’t a mistake, just a regional speech habit the narrator hasn’t quite gotten rid of. You never know…


Long time PNW resident here; I and everyone I know who lives on the I-5 corridor calls it “I-5.” My wife, a native of Portland, has never lived more than a few miles from I-5. At one point, in Seattle, our apartment balcony actually overlooked the interstate. It was like living on a scenic vista.

Ontarians also say “the 405”… but we tend to use “the” only in front of 400-series freeway numbers. Lesser highways and local roads are simply “highway 62”, “county road 8”, or simply “8”.

Example: “to get from Bancroft to Sutton, you take Highway 28 as far as the Buckhorn turn, which is County Road 36. Take 36 to Buckhorn, turn right at the light, and continue to Bobcaygeon. Go through Bobcaygeon, following the signs for Fenelon Falls. That will take you along Kawartha Lakes Road 8. Follow 8 to 121 outside Fenelon Falls, turn left on 121, go through the town, then turn right immediately after the bridge (there’s a Tim Horton’s on the left). You’ll be back on 8. Follow it to Highway 35, turn right, then almost immediately turn left on 8 again. Follow 8 to the Durham Region line, where it turns into Durham Region 15. Follow 15 through Argyle to Highway 12. Turn left on Highway 12, go 10 km, turn right on Highway 48, go 22 km, and at the curve turn right on High Street. You are in Sutton, and you didn’t need to go anywhere near the 401.”

For extra points: what kind of road is 121? :slight_smile:

As a Seattle expatriate:

First time I heard “The XXX” in reference to an interstate was in Las Vegas. Took me several minutes to figure out what was being talked about. People should talk right.

New Yorkers (and other folks from that area) don’t use the “the <route number>” construction. It’s a California usage.

Aaron Elkins has a new novel? The Skeleton Detective or something else? I wish he’d do another with the art critic.

I’ve lived in Seattle, Bellingham, Sedro Woolley and Corvallis, and in none of those places, NONE, was I-5 ever known or mentioned as “the” I-5.