“In the Street”

A notable difference in British and American usage can be found in references to streets or roads. We would normally say, “I live on Parrish Road,” while the British would say, “I live in Parrish Road.” This sounds very strange to American ears–as if the speaker were saying they pitched a tent in the middle of a street. That oddness explains (to me) why the otherwise very language-sensitive lyricist of My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner, could not bring himself to call the song “In the Street Where You Live.”

I was therefore surprised to come on this sign in Philadelphia yesterday:


I would have expected it to say “NO PARKING ON THIS STREET.” It prompted me to do some research with the Google Ngram Viewer tool, which produced this graph:

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 5.32.06 PM

The three lines represent the relative frequency with which the phrase “live on that street” has appeared in American books (red), and the phrase “live in that street” has appeared in British (green) and American (blue) books. “Live on that street” has apparently never appeared in a British book. (I used “that street” instead of “the street” because “live in the street” has in both countries [I believe] an additional meaning–basically, being homeless.)

The interesting takeaway, for me, is looking back at 1940 or so. Apparently U.S. usage up till that time still followed the British model of “in the street,” after which the “on” phrasing steadily gained popularity, coming out on top in about 1950.

I guess Philadelphia doesn’t change its street signs very often

37 thoughts on ““In the Street”

    1. The use of the word ‘stay’ instead of ‘live’ is probably due to the large numbers of South Africans living in the UK. In S African English ‘stay’ doesn’t have the temporary implication it would have in BrE

    2. In the US, “stay” instead of “live” is common among African Americans for permanent residence, but whites typically contrast “live” for permanent residence with “stay” for short-term or temporary residence.

  1. As an Australian I’m equally comfortable with “in” or “on”. If either sounds like pitching a tent on the surface of the street itself, it is “on”, which in other contexts means precisely that (as in “playing on the road”). To evoke a metaphor in which a street is a container of houses, “in” seems more appropriate, but on the other hand, just as easily evokes a gnome living within the solid matter. Since neither preposition can be considered literally accurate, I say take your pick. I probably alternate between them, without giving it any thought.

  2. Growing up in London, we always played on the road, on the street, on the garden and on the park. Didn’t pick up “in” until living in the US.

      1. Growing up in NW England in the 70s, I would have used “in” for all these phrases, though “on” would have seemed a reasonable alternative for road or street. Never for garden or park.

  3. There’s another British usage – in the capital – to stick “The” in front of the road name. So, University Collage Hospital is on the Euston Road, or take the bus up the Edgware Road.

    It doesn’t happen to roads without the “Road” suffix, so it’s still “Mayfair” or “Oxford Street”. Having said that I can’t recall anyone saying “Strand” without adding “in the”.


    1. I think that the usage ‘the Euston Road’ arises where you have a road that is particularly going somewhere. So many British roads/streets are named after the destination – hence for example the large number of ‘London Road’ names. When giving directions, one might say “take the ondon Road and take the turn-off signposted Milton Parva”. But if you think of the music hall song “Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road” you can see this usage goes back quite a way.

    2. Also, if I remember correctly, the road signs actually on the Strand just say ‘Strand’. Is there anyone in that neck of the woods might be able to pop out and confirm or contradict that?

    3. Indeed, there is an old music hall song – dating from 1891 according to Wikipedia – called Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road.

    4. I think that’s a London thing. Around here, it’s just “Liverpool Road”, “Chester Road” etc.

      Also, “in” seems to be more common for living in cul-de-sacs and “on” for living on a main road.

  4. There is also a difference in the actual meaning of the words ‘street’ and ‘road’ in BrE and AmE. I was frequently pulled up by my American girlfriend for saying things like ‘let’s cross the road here’ in the middle of Washington DC. ‘Street !’ she would yell – roads are in the countryside, streets are in cities’ In BrE we would not call a country land a ‘street’ but in cities the words ‘street’ and ‘road’ are more or less interchangeable – in London you will find Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road

    1. @PETER LE FEUVRE … However you do also get Streets in the countryside – the Romans left us with Stane Street (London to then capital Chichester), Dere Street (York to Scotland), Ermine Street (London to York), Watling Street (Dover to Chester via London) and Akeman Street (Gloucester to London via St Albans).

      I would associate “Lanes” with the countryside: there are hundreds of Green Lanes are still passable with a off-road bike or motorbike.

      1. Yes and there are villages where the main road is called The Street but we talk about country roads and city streets – there are exceptions to every rule in the English language (wherever she is spoke)

    2. Isn’t that because London has grown so much that a lot of the “roads” used to be in the countryside? In a lot of towns with a definite centre, they seem to have “street” rather than “road” (apart from the roads that lead to other towns).

  5. So, when Alan Jay Lerner wrote My Fair Lady (1955/56), it would have been quite normal usage for him to have used “In the street where you live”.

  6. I’m pretty sure I use both. Growing up in north London I think I’d have said “I live in X Road” but now my road begins with ‘The’ I’m more likely to say “I live on The …”.

  7. With regard to words like street, road, and lane, here in the US these terms are often part of the official name for the streets in question. It’s well known that in Manhattan, north of Houston St., “street” refers to a cross-town street, while the streets that run uptown and downtown are called “Avenues”. Similar conventions are used in parts of Brooklyn and Queens (usually with the directions in the reverse of the Manhattan convention). But in those outer boroughs, there are a number of neighborhoods that started out as suburban housing developments, where the property developers did weird things with the local numbered grid.

    Consider the little enclave in Queens just east of Calvary Cemetery, and north of Mt. Zion Cemetery. In that little area you’ve got to distinguish between 58th Street, 58th Lane, and 58th Place, and some of these intersect with both 52nd Avenue and 52nd Road. That’s just one example, Queens is riddled with areas like that where trying to give directions quickly takes on the characteristics of an Abbott and Costello sketch.

    1. Road, street, etc. form part of the official name here. Also, crescent, lane, walk, alley. Where I grew up there was even a Clarence Chare, whatever a chare is.

      And to further complicate matters, for Americans visiting the UK, as has been discussed on the Separated by a Common Language blog, we often have different streets with the same first part but different second parts. So, I live in St. John’s Road, Guildford, and there is also a St. John’s Close, Guildford. (And a St. John’s Road in Farnham which is in the Guildford postal district.)

      1. @ Paul Dormer | And to further complicate matters, {. . .} , we often have different streets with the same first part but different second parts.

        Lately this is an intentional part of the system to show “same neighbourhood”

        Thus here we have Oatlands Drive, Oatlands Chase, Oatlands Avenue and Oatlands Close. Also it seems Oatlands Mere and Oatlands Green. The first three are oldish, the last are newer houseing.

      1. That’s brilliant, thank you! I guess that just tells us that the Brits are becoming slowly more Americanised (or Americanized) – But very slowly. Great post 🙂

  8. Interestingly, I’d say we park on streets more often than we park in them so this sign is a bit odd more generally.

    1. “Park on the street” seems to me to differentiate from parking in your drive or garage. Hence ‘on-street parking’. “I’m parked on the High Street” would also be a familiar usage to me.

  9. I think that this comes from the Latin influence. One lives in a street/road. That tradition has survived into modern Italian: vivo in Via Antonio Gramsci (I live in Antonio Gramsci Street/Way/Road). But in Italian and English, one plays ‘on’ grass, on tarmac etc, when describing the surface. In Latin, ‘in’ is used for both.

    Standard English usage is:

    I live in the street = where I live
    I play on the road = playing on the road surface

  10. Never even thought about it before, but I would say that in the UK, while there’s no hard and fast rule about it, one would tend to park on such-and-such a street, but live in it. As for the obligatory definite article prefix, that’s indeed a London thing, and it’s instinctive: always “The Mall”, “The Strand”, “The Embankment”, but never “The Charing Cross Road” for example. To widen the subject slightly, we never ever omit “street” or “road” verbally, as happens in the US. I’ve been stopped in central London by American tourists wanting to know the way to Oxford, who were taken aback when I cheekily told them it was 60 miles away. Of course they meant Oxford Street.

  11. @WPW You certainly do here Londoners say “The Charing Cross Road” From discussion elsewhere it appears that “The” gets prefixed on roads that are actually to that place (there is a Charring Cross, it’s outside the station), so it’s “Oxford Street” (it doesn’t go there) but “The Edgware Road” (as it does to that place).

    Sometimes The remains on roads that went to places that once existed – so The Tottenham Court Road is heard, even though the Court is long gone. Of course Tottenham Court was nowhere near Tottenham!

    1. I half take it back, Brian – yes, rolling “The CCR” around the tongue doesn’t seem too wrong (although I’d never say it), but no, “The TCR” is unthinkable. Good point though that “The X Road” is the road to X, as against a road that’s been named after a historical benefactor so is just “Jones Avenue”. However, fascinating though all this is, I fear we are both drifting from the theme of this thread!

  12. I have never seen a no parking sign referring to street even when the road in question us actually a street. I have just seen “no parking”. However I don’t know what others think (I am half Welsh valleys half Berliner German and grew up mostly around The West Country (SW England) and am in my 30s if that puts any context on things). I definitely would live ON a street or road I think.

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