Why is "street" treated differently?

I once took an introductory linguistics course. One of the topics concerned “rules” inherent in a language (not rules that someone set down but rules that evolved along with the language). One of these was the placement of stress in words and phrases - for example, why we say “black BOARD” and “BLACKboard”.

A question on one quiz involved showing the derivation of some phrases from the rules discussed in class. So “Elm ROAD” follows the rules, but “ELM Street” does not. Elm AVenue, Elm LANE, Elm BOULevard, Elm DRIVE and so on all follow the rule, so why is “street” different?

I missed the question on the quiz, but the answer was never explained, and it has bothered me off and on ever since. Can any
Doper linguists offer an explanation?

My WAG: it’s because “street” is the default word for describing, well, a street, and as such it’s downplayed - it doesn’t present any new information. Conversely, the reason other forms of thoroughfare are stressed is so that the listener understands that the speaker is not referring to the street of the same name. You say “Fifth AVENUE” because you want to make sure that people realize you’re not referring to 5th Street.

Look at it this way - if you live on Elm Street, you might say “I live on Elm”. If you live on Elm Road, you’ll always say, “I live on Elm Road.” That’s because “street” is assumed.

Perhaps you came via this discussion, since it uses the Elm example too?

None of the answers there are remotely convincing, most are barely coherent.

One thing that occurs to me is that roads are sometimes named after their location, sometimes according to where they lead. In Fulchester you might find Fulchester Avenue, Fulchester Parade, Fulchester Terrace & Fulchester Crescent, etc. - all labeled after their location within Fulchester. But radiating out from the center of Fulchester, you might find Downton Street (the street that you take to go toward Downton), Upton Street (that heads toward Upton), Waterford Street (that heads toward Waterford). In the former case, Avenue/Parade/Terrace is the differentiating element and would tend to be emphasized; in the latter case, the destination is the differentiating factor and would tend to be emphasized. In fact, until names became more formalized, the same road might be called Downton Street at the Fulchester end, and Fulchester Street at the Downton end.

But I’m not sure this hypothesis really holds up to scrutiny. Although a connecting thoroughfare would not be called “avenue” or “terrace” or “crescent”, I don’t think “street” was ever particularly reserved for a connecting thoroughfare (that would be labeled after its destination) any more than “road”.

“It’s English, Jake.”

Rules (if they even exist) are flexible, and ignored.

I discovered this about San Francisco in my first week living here. If the address says just “123 3rd” it means 3rd St, not 3rd Avenue. SF has numbered streets and numbered avenues (the streets go up to 30th, the avenues go up to 48th). Numbered streets and numbered avenues don’t cross, which reduces confusion somewhat.

Yes, and a similar situation existed here many years ago, except these main arteries to various towns were given the {town name}+Road designation. These have long been superseded by freeways and are now just country roads with highway numbers, but the original names still exist within distant towns and cities through which they once ran. And when they do, we still – as we once did – emphasize the named town part, not the common “road” part.

Hence, the premise of the OP isn’t universally true. When there is (or once was) a systematic destination-based naming of roads between towns, all with the designation “Road”, it’s the name that is emphasized as the differentiator. Obviously the reverse is true if you have an Elm St, Elm Ave, and Elm Road all in the same general area – one generally emphasizes whatever the point of differentiation is.

I’ll venture that the reason “street” is least frequently emphasized is for the reason Alessan stated – it’s so common that it’s usually redundant. “Street” is practically the generic term for any urban thoroughfare – hence “street smarts”, “street people”, “street closures”, etc.

That isn’t the point – the point is how common the term is, hence very often redundant.

I think that depends very much on whether there’s duplication in the names/number of the streets/avenues/roads where you live. For example, in the neighborhood where I grew up, there is a street called “Fresh Pond Road” which was nearly always referred to as “Fresh Pond”. There was no Fresh Pond St or Fresh Pond Avenue for it to be confused with. The location of a store might be described as “Fresh Pond and 68th” or “Fresh Pond and 71st” although 68th and 71st were avenues because 68th St or 71st St didn’t intersect with Fresh Pond. But although I currently live on 91st St, I always say the “street”- because 91 avenue is down the block.

It’s my experience that, in common speech, the descriptor is usually left off entirely. I would never say that a particular address is on “Detroit Avenue” or “Detroit Road”; I’d just say that it’s on “Detroit” (in fact, the stretch of said throughfare in my suburb, I’m not even sure if it’s officially an “avenue” or “road”; the signs all just say “Detroit”, too).

One notable exception any Clevelander would recognize is “West Boulevard” and “East Boulevard”. Those two streets, for whatever reason, are never referred to as just “West” or “East”.

Granted, this would be more complicated in a city where the same name could apply to multiple different kinds of street. You can’t just tell someone in Atlanta that you’re “on Peachtree”. That mostly doesn’t come up around here, though. Mostly.

I will start by saying that I find ELM avenue and ELM boulevard, so I don’t accept the OP’s example. English has a feature that many other languages lack: modifying a noun with a noun. The modifying noun is called an adjunct and, in unmarked speech, the noun adjunct is stressed over the modified noun. Consider the following (true) sentence. The BROWN building on the McGill campus is a brown BUILDING. The first Brown is a noun, while the second is an ordinary adjective. Do you see the difference between FRENCH teacher and French TEACHER?

Now there is an unexplained word in the paragraph: unmarked. These are not invariable rules and you can certainly violate them for emphasis: I said BROWN building, not RED building. That is marked. So the rule is in force only if there is no reason the change the emphasis.

Interesting. When we refer to ‘the streets’, or ‘on the street’, or ‘streetwise’, ‘the street where you live’ etc, we are referring to the street as being a place - where we live, or play, or work. It’s an identifiable area.

When we refer to a road in a colloquialism, we are usually inferring the we are using the road to move - either to or from somewhere.

‘Hit the road’ means leave. ‘Take the highway’ means travel.
‘Hit the street’ means go out into the street and do…something - but not generally involving travelling. And no one ‘takes the street home’ - even if they are going to use an actual street as their route - they take the road home.

I agree. In Albuquerque, most of the largest north-south and east-west streets are described as boulevards, although road, street, and avenue are also common and partially depends on when that part of the city was developed. Being a city where locations (where your house is, for example, or a particular business) are often described solely by the nearest large cross-streets, the descriptors are basically never used. The newer construction was also heavily mapped onto the section planning, with some allowances for local geography. So the only time it ever comes up is when a specific address is needed for some reason. The quadrant designation might come up as well if needed.

In Cleveland some such names are Avenue in the city limits, and Road in the suburbs. See, we have rules for the rules. Detroit Ave, Detroit Rd, Lorain Ave, Lorain Rd.


Just to note that the specific lack of emphasis on “street” (but not other road words) applies in the U.K. too, so it predates (and is presumably not related to) any of the methodical labeling plans in the U.S.

And also, fwiw, in the U.K. we never do this, we always say the road/street/avenue part in full. So I don’t think the lack of stress on “street” is related to this either.

Not in my U.K. dialect. The stress is always on “road”, but never on “street”, regardless of whether the naming is destination-based or location-based.

That’s why I said my hypothesis doesn’t seem to hold up.

It’s not Elm Avenue. It’s ELM AVenue. And it’s not Elm BOULevard. It’s ELM BOULevard. The actual name is also stressed, (or rather, it’s all one name).

Other examples:The WHITE House is not, in fact, a WHITE HOUSE, but rather a large white building.
The GREEN HOUSE on Elm has a GREENhouse in back that’s filled with plants.

I wonder if the explanation in the test which the OP took had anything to do with Broadway, which does not follow the same stress pattern as Way usually does, and is pronounced the way Street is. (Obviously it’s also written as one word.) Most older cities have a Broadway, so it could be that, as has been surmised above, terms other than street were deemed part of the name, but street (and maybe at some earlier time, way as well) was not a generic term, and therefore didn’t receive the stress.

I meant to say they were NOT deemed part of the name.

My Daddy lived for many years on Broadway Street in a tiny little town. It lost some of its glam being referred to as Street, IMO. Everyone knows it as Broadway Street. We had many discussions about how it should be Broad Way and was just bastardized to Street. Who knows with names of places. It could have been a wide game trail and that’s how it got named.

I can’t find any examples of it now, but at one time didn’t some of the signage in certain NYC subway stations bear that out? I know I’ve seen photos of some of the platforms where there’s nothing but the street number. For instance, if there was a station at 45th Street, you would just see the number 45 on the platform posts. I don’t think they do that anymore, but I’ve certainly seen old photos of this.

Here in Chicago, the street called Broadway is unique in that the name stands alone.