“I had a flat in the centre of town, but I didn’t like living there, so …”

44

5

I had a flat in the centre of town, but I didn’t like living there, so …

Why is there no article before “town”?

(The quotation comes from Murphy’s “English grammar in use” 4th edition, page 318).

Zak

Posted 2019-03-06T20:27:48.997

Reputation: 1 383

Answers

56

That is a really interesting question!

Why indeed? You can say "center of town", "edge of town", "into town" and it's fine, but if you replace "town" with "city" (or "village" or "neighborhood" or really any similar word), you sound like Borat.

I think it's this:

town: Any more urbanized center than the place of reference

I'll be in Yonkers, then I'm driving into town to see the Knicks at the Garden tonight.

"Town" can mean urbanized areas in general, not just a specific municipality. "City" and "village" and so forth, do not have that secondary meaning: they refer to specific places and so must have an article.

In the sentence above, "town" refers to Manhattan, which is a borough of a city and not a town at all. If you substituted "the town", that would simply be wrong; Manhattan is not a town. If you substituted "the city", that would refer to New York City as a whole, which would make sense coming from Yonkers, a small city just north of New York, but people in Queens and Staten Island (suburban-like boroughs of New York) can say "going into town" to mean visiting the far-denser Manhattan.

By contrast, "country", which means a less urbanized place (as in "country road" or "country music"), still takes the definite article when used as a noun.

I am going to drive into the country.

means "I am going to drive into some rural area."

I am going to drive into a country.

is a odd way to say "I am going to drive into the territory of some nation-state."

I am going to drive into country.

is nonsense and means nothing.

Malvolio

Posted 2019-03-06T20:27:48.997

Reputation: 4 979

I think it's worth noting that in Australian English, "going into the city" can be used as an opposite of "going into the bush" or "going into the country" like "going into town" is, to refer to going somewhere more urbanized, usually the central area of the urban area you're located in (in one of the major cities, "the City" refers to the Central Business District). – nick012000 – 2019-03-06T22:04:26.247

7

@nick012000 — "the City" originally referred to "the City of London", which is not the city of London (pop. 8,787,892) but the actual City (pop.9,401), the financial district at the heart of metropolis. Presumably the Aussies picked it up from there.

– Malvolio – 2019-03-06T22:49:07.473

6It's interesting. If you live in the New York City vicinity, "into town" and "into the city" both mean the same thing -- going into Manhattan. And probably the same thing around other major cities. – Barmar – 2019-03-07T00:00:09.450

@Barmar sometimes not if there are two major cities near each other; in the San Francisco Bay Area, "the city" means San Francisco while "the town" means Oakland (and somehow the larger city of San Jose just gets omitted from discussion entirely). – Justin – 2019-03-07T00:25:44.057

7"Town" can mean urbanized areas in general, not just a specific municipality. "City" and "village" and so forth, do not have that secondary meaning: they refer to specific places and so must have an article. I'm not convinced that's the reason they need an article. One might say "I don't enjoy life in the city," which can mean that they don't enjoy life in any city. – Justin – 2019-03-07T00:27:06.517

@JustinLardinois One might say "I don't enjoy life in the city," which can mean that they don't enjoy life in any city. But it requires an article, which "town" does not. "Town" has an actual figurative definition, whereas "city" does not (it can still be used figuratively, as you showcased - just not without an article). – Flater – 2019-03-07T10:02:54.250

While you can't say "in the centre of city" the alternative "in the city centre" is common. – Eric Nolan – 2019-03-07T12:06:51.163

2Compare "go home", which has many related questions asked, here. Why not "go to the home", nor "go to home"? adverbials, like "going north". With "to" it's slightly different. We "go back to before". – vectory – 2019-03-07T19:39:42.980

2@vectory -- what interests me is that "college" can omit the article, in American English, while in British English, "university" is the equivalent word (and "hospital"). – Malvolio – 2019-03-08T07:44:08.120

@Malvoli That one I understand as an uncountable abstractum describing the level of education, not the place. But it might well describe the place, on the model of town, "goodbye hometown, I'm leaving for college". That reminds me of a recent question, why "Big change is ..." without article, instead of the plural?

– vectory – 2019-03-08T11:00:48.287

@vectory I think 'uncountable abstractum' is a good way of putting it. 'going to town' is an abstraction of place in the same way 'going to hospital' doesn't refer to a specific place of healthcare delivery. Listeners can draw context-specific implications of which town or which hospital, but the statement does not specify in itself. – user1908704 – 2019-03-08T13:06:36.520

1My question is, how does a word get pointed to such an abstractum? No American, no matter how ill, would say, "I need to go to hospital"; he would say the hospital, even if he didn't have any specific hospital in mind. – Malvolio – 2019-03-08T16:36:21.940

1@Malvolio Likewise, in the US we say "I'm watching television" but we wouldn't say "I'm watching performance". I think this is one of those things where there's no real logic to it. It just sounds right or it doesn't. – JimmyJames – 2019-03-08T17:12:30.190

I'm not sure I agree with the exclusion of "city" from this. As all your examples sound fine to me. Looking at my friends chat history alone I've got: "I've got a bus up city", "don't go city", "what you going city for?", "I'm at the edge of city". – None – 2019-03-08T19:45:52.457

@ClaraWest — what city do you live in? It might be regional or dialectal. – Malvolio – 2019-03-08T20:49:21.857

@Malvolio Milton Keynes - which, funnily enough, is a town not a city. It may be regional as MK is made up of various towns. And so seems to be used in relation to "town" to distinguish between small and big towns. (I'm happy with both my comments being deleted once the answerer has had a chance to read them. Not before that.)

– None – 2019-03-08T21:25:19.820

@ClaraWest - What about "Santa Claus is coming to city"? I don't think you can should grammatical judgments based on those texts. – Hannover Fist – 2019-03-08T21:55:41.737

@HannoverFist I don't think "Santa Clause is coming to the city" sounds much better either. – None – 2019-03-08T22:02:10.843

"I am going to drive into country" could be not nonsensical, if you were discussing a plan to ram-raid a record shop. – SamBC – 2019-03-08T23:19:00.263

17

The word "town" can be used without an article when discussing the centre or business district of a town or city whose identity is irrelevant, obvious or previously mentioned. A flat in town; going (or going up) to town; "In Town Tonight" was a long running BBC radio programme; it's nice to get out of town at the weekend.

Town

Michael Harvey

Posted 2019-03-06T20:27:48.997

Reputation: 31 750

1It could also be a town so small that the interlocutor isn't expected to know/care what town is being referred to. "Back when I worked at Buy More, I had a flat in the center of town and commuted to the suburbs." – miltonaut – 2019-03-06T23:47:53.853

8

There is no need, as "the centre of town" is an understood phrase that might refer to any town, a specific town, or the idea of a town, depending on context. In a sense, the necessary article is in front of the phrase "centre of town".

Indeed, town often operates without any article at all in any case, centre, edge, or no specific location at all.

I'm driving into town.
I like to get out of town when I can.
She lives just in town.

It is, perhaps, just a quirk of the word.

SamBC

Posted 2019-03-06T20:27:48.997

Reputation: 21 301

Then why not "I'm driving into city", "I like to get out of village when I can" or "She lives just in conurbation"? – David Richerby – 2019-03-08T21:18:45.670

Because town is special. It may have it's origins in the time when town without qualification always meant one particular place, of course - London. – SamBC – 2019-03-08T21:46:13.480

7

In this case, "town" is implied to be (or as @SamBC puts it, "behaves as") a proper noun.

For example,

  • "He owns a flat in London."
  • "He owns a flat in town."

If you owned a flat in London, were visiting Manchester and said, "I own a flat in town," then Mancunians would rightly presume that you have a flat in Manchester. If you were out in the middle of the Highlands, they'd ask which town, literally meaning a town, not the city.

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/imply

to involve or indicate by inference, association, or necessary consequence rather than by direct statement"

RonJohn

Posted 2019-03-06T20:27:48.997

Reputation: 391

3No, it's not. At least I don't understand it that way. I wonder why 7 people are on-board with this. A proper noun is an appropriate name, but town is still a generic word. I don't douibt however that native speakers might parse it that way, as long as there is only one "my town" in most contexts. Since it's not a proper noun, you still have to say "I'm going to visit the town", I hope you agree. – vectory – 2019-03-07T19:23:40.067

@vectory no, I don't agree, and I explained why. With examples. – RonJohn – 2019-03-07T19:29:59.650

1(Again), this can't be a proper noun, because those are capitalized, formally. We are looking for formal arguments. It might well be a shortening, historically, of phrases like "London town", in which case you would be correct, but I don't know that. I believe a historic detivation is more important for the answer than after-the-fact intuition. – vectory – 2019-03-08T11:07:55.497

1

@vectory It is an implied proper noun. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/imply "to involve or indicate by inference, association, or necessary consequence rather than by direct statement"

– RonJohn – 2019-03-08T13:55:26.470

1We might say "behaves as a proper noun", if that makes it easier to stomach. I'm not sure it's the "right" analysis (in as much as that's a term that means anything in English), but it's certainly an analysis that works. – SamBC – 2019-03-08T23:16:43.090

1@SamBC "behaves as a proper noun" that might be a better phrase. – RonJohn – 2019-03-09T01:23:27.837

There's a difference between being implied and to imply. Something that implies itself ... shouldn't that be explicit? Note that I don't fully agree with the capitalization rules anyway. – vectory – 2019-03-09T18:17:25.110

@vectory you're right that there's a difference: one is the present continuous passive voice, and the other is the "base form" of the verb. As for implying itself, who says it implies itself? – RonJohn – 2019-03-09T18:27:12.273

I still disagree, because I have a suspicion that the -n of town was a verbal marker of some kind, eon's ago. German, being akin to English, has several comparable adverbal constructions with "zu" (to, whence also the infinitive marker to, that works as participle marker in German), so e.g. zu fuß gehen "to walk afoot", zuhause "at home", zu Hofe "in the court", and directional zu seiner Mutter "to his Mother", which can be zu Muttern in a northern dialect, for a reason that I don't know but might be helpful here. Mother is truly understood like a proper name, or a pronoun. – vectory – 2019-03-09T18:37:57.780

@vectory "Old English tūn ‘enclosed piece of land, homestead, village’, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch tuin ‘garden’ and German Zaun ‘fence’." – RonJohn – 2019-03-09T18:46:57.767

@vectory all the other positively voted answers disagree with you. – RonJohn – 2019-03-09T18:47:49.737

No they do not disagree, they do not treat the history of it at all. Archaic colocations like that must have been quite common, "zu Grabe tragen", "zu Bette gehen", "vor Gericht ziehen", yadda yadda yadda – vectory – 2019-03-09T19:26:46.360

-1

The below was my poor attempt to point out what another answer successfully did. To paraphrase the Cambridge dictionary: The word "town" can be used without an article when discussing a town whose identity is obvious.

== Previous bad answer ==

It's a phrase based on the pioneer history of the United States and is shorthand for "the nearest populated place". When people are really spread out and travel is difficult, you don't need to say "I'm going in to Charlottesville" you can just say "I'm going in to town". Literally everyone that lives in the area knows what you mean and where you are going.

So, for the same reason you wouldn't say "I'm going in to the Charlottesville", you don't say "I'm going in to the town".

The phrase is still very much in use in the rural US.

Tim

Posted 2019-03-06T20:27:48.997

Reputation: 21

3

It is not based on pioneers history - here's a bunch of examples that predate the USA - https://www.google.com/search?q=%22in+town%22&lr=lang_en&source=lnt&tbs=lr%3Alang_1en%2Ccdr%3A1%2Ccd_min%3A1%2F1%2F1000%2Ccd_max%3A7%2F3%2F1766&tbm=bks

– Pete Kirkham – 2019-03-08T17:16:39.193

It has nothing to do with the USA: it's a feature of every dialect of English that I know of. – David Richerby – 2019-03-08T21:19:42.113

Sorry, I don't know the history of the word. I was trying to capture the mindset of why the term made sense. I was in a hurry and wrote a poor answer. – Tim – 2019-03-10T01:20:28.640