43

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).

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.

  • 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 Mar 6 at 22:49
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    It'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 Mar 7 at 0:00
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    "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 Lardinois Mar 7 at 0:27
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    Compare "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 Mar 7 at 19:39
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    @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 Mar 8 at 7:44
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

  • 1
    It 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 Mar 6 at 23:47
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.

  • 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 Mar 8 at 21:18
  • 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 Mar 8 at 21:46
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"

  • 3
    No, 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 Mar 7 at 19:23
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    (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 Mar 8 at 11:07
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    @vectory It is an implied proper noun. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/imply "to involve or indicate by inference, association, or necessary consequence rather than by direct statement" – RonJohn Mar 8 at 13:55
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    We 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 Mar 8 at 23:16
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    @SamBC "behaves as a proper noun" that might be a better phrase. – RonJohn Mar 9 at 1:23
-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.

  • 3
    It is not based on pioneers history - here's a bunch of examples that predate the USA - google.com/… – Pete Kirkham Mar 8 at 17:16
  • It has nothing to do with the USA: it's a feature of every dialect of English that I know of. – David Richerby Mar 8 at 21:19
  • 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 Mar 10 at 1:20

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