Vancouver routinely ranks among the world’s most expensive real estate markets. There is some doubt, however, as to where it ranks, depending on the survey data you examine and the criteria. (ie: “world’s most expensive place to work and live,” “world’s most expensive place to buy a condo,” etc). Regardless of source, anyone who has tried to make a go there can attest to the challenges of living and working in this very expensive place. This is a serious problem, because although prices have soared, incomes have not. One could argue Vancouver lacks the same opportunities for career and income of places such as Tokyo, London, New York or Singapore, and yet despite this, the prices continue to soar, squeezing out those unable to afford the cost of living. One only has to look up at the thousands of darkened condominium windows on any given night to see the scale of the problem. Many sit empty. Nobody, it seems, can afford to live in this place.
Everyone’s got a theory, too, as to why the prices of real estate are so high. If you’ve ever had any sort of conversation in Vancouver, you’ve heard one. Real estate prices are the subject of nearly every discussion, be it a party chat, a water-cooler diatribe, or a drunken rant in the middle of the night with a taxi driver. Good grief, I’ve even kicked off this article with real estate talk! I assure you, however, the foregoing notwithstanding, that this isn’t one of those rants about real estate prices. This actually isn’t a discussion about real estate at all, not even close, so I’ll leave such debates to the experts. I merely began with it here so as to dispense immediately with any lingering suspense about when it would surface, and to make a point. A grammatical point about this place.
Because, whatever you want to say about Vancouver, and everyone has something to say about it, and wherever it ranks on the global scale of ridiculous prices, what can’t be doubted about the place is that it is, in a very real sense, a place. Vancouver, the word, therefore must be a noun. Agreed?
The school at which I teach English is located one block away from Granville Street in the centre of the City of Vancouver. The heart. The business district. The party street. Downtown. In my classroom, students rarely speak about real estate, and why should they? They don’t have to buy it. The rent they pay likely doesn’t even come out of their pockets, but that of their parents. The issue so dear to Vancouverites is, for the most part, lost on them. But they live, study and party in this place called downtown Vancouver. The place is important to them, very much a part of their lives here. As such, it is inevitable that at least once a month, I observe the following conversation, or something like it:
A: Hey, what will you do the weekend?
B: I will go to downtown to drink with my friends.
Or this one:
A: Hey, where you live?
B: I live in downtown.
When I hear these in my class, I know it is time for my monthly discussion of this recurring example of ENGLISH WEIRDNESS. I usually interject with the following, trying to be playful as I point out the student’s error.
“But guys, haven’t you heard? Nobody can live in downtown. It’s not even possible.”
Glazed stares follow. I know that I’ve just poked at a deeply held assumption. Other times, I’ll write the following series of sentences on my white board and ask the class which one they believe is correct.
“I live in downtown”
“She is going to downtown”
“Let’s go in quickly”
The students usually guess that either the first or second one are correct, but that the third one sounds weird. They’re at least partially right–the third one should sound weird because it isn’t grammatically accurate or sound. However, equally incorrect are the first and second examples, I tell them. This usually leads to gasps of astonishment throughout the class, and quizzing, embarrassed glances of confirmation among classmates. “I always say that,” they announce. Another confirms, “All my friends say this…”
You shouldn’t, I tell them. It’s not accurate grammar. Occasionally a student recognizes that in these examples, it is the preposition that is out of place. “We don’t need in…” they’ll say, but when prompted can’t explain why.
These are my favorite moments in teaching. When a student learns that they have been saying something incorrectly for some time and didn’t realize it, you really have their attention. You’ve blown their minds, torn open the very fabric of what they thought was reality. It’s Matrix time. And they are primed to learn anew. So, let me share with you what I share with them. Let me explain to you the real reason nobody can live in downtown.
First, we have to review prepositions. No aspect of the English language, I find, causes more headaches and frustrations for students, and are harder to learn and incorporate into speech and writing output than these tiny pieces of language. Prepositions. just the mention of the word in a class will cause squirms of discomfort and the folding of arms.
Some students get up and leave for the washroom, overcome with the need to either relieve themselves of the bladder pressure they can suddenly no longer hold, or merely to escape any further talk of the evil prepositions.
Prepositions pose a enormous, often even permanent, challenge to learners. According to noted grammarians Diane Larsen-Freeman and Marianne Celce-Murcia, “Long after ESL/EFL students have achieved a high level of proficiency in English, they still struggle with prepositions” (415). They suggest several reasons why, including the complete lack of them in some languages, the prevalence, alternatively, of post-positions in others, differences in spatial matching with those languages, such as Spanish and Czech that do in fact use prepositions, as well the fact that “the work of prepositions is often performed in other languages, such as German and Russian, through inflections” of verbs and nouns, rather than the use of prepositions. This is all very academic, and only scratches the surface of this vast grammatical feature, so I’ll save a more complete discussion of prepositions for another article. Here, I’d like to be brief.
What’s most salient for this ‘downtown’ example is that we must remind ourselves that prepositions connect nouns. That is their job. They connect nouns, and noun phrases, to other parts of the sentence. So far so good, right? Here’s the part that’s weird, but cool.
The word “downtown,” is not a noun. Therefore, you can’t be “in” it.
When I tell the class this little fact, jaws drop. moans of incredulity spread throughout the room. If there are Japanese students in the class, they’ll emit the famous interjection of surprise, rising in intonation, “Ehhhhhhhhhhhh?”
That’s right, “downtown” is not a noun. It is not a place you can be “in.” “Vancouver” is, though. Remember, we agreed it was a place, and therefore a noun. It’s an understandable assumption to make though. Intuitively, “downtown” does seem like a place, and thus a noun. And perhaps in some language it is used as a noun. Nonetheless, I remind them, no matter where you are in the city, what street you are on, you really are still only in Vancouver. Vancouver is the name of the place, the name of the city, the noun.
So, if we were to say, “I live in downtown Vancouver,” the sentence is grammatically accurate because the use of the preposition ‘in’ applies to the proper noun “Vancouver.” In this case, “downtown” is a clearly an adjective.
Look it up, I tell the students. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as both an adjective and adverb: “being or located in the central part of a town or city. esp. the business district” (COED 451).
Some dictionaries go so far as to concede its use as a noun, and offer the following as an example of its use as such: “A downtown area.” This, however, I’d dispute because as it comes before the noun ‘area’ it is either a noun adjunct which is to say, a noun that performs the function of an adjective (water bottle, car key, etc) , or it is a real adjective, modifying the noun ‘area’. Either way, it’s clearly adjectival, and thus in my opinion, with apologies to the esteemed experts at Oxford, still fits.
If, as if often the case, the general context is known or shared by all, as is the case wit my students and I, all of whom are living and studying the Greater vancouver area, the use of the noun “Vancouver,” seems redundant, so often it is dropped from the sentence. This would leave our example as, “I live in downtown.” Without the noun, however, we can’t use a preposition. We no longer need it; there’s no longer a noun to connect to the rest of the sentence. Therefore, with no noun to connect, the preposition “in” can no longer survive in the sentence. It has to go. Remember, prepositions connect nouns. No noun, no preposition.
But if “downtown” is an adjective, and the noun it wants to modify is gone, what do we do with it? It undergoes syntactic shift and assumes the role of an adverb. No longer able to modify its noun, “Vancouver,” this poor lost adjective seeks the next closest word to modify–the verb. It transforms, like a grammatical caterpillar into a butterfly, from an adjective into an adverb. With the noun “Vancouver” no longer used, “downtown” become an adverb of direction modifying the verb, in this case, “live.”
This is why the correct way to say the above examples is by using ‘downtown’ as an adverb of direction:
“I live downtown.”
“She is going downtown”
If you still don’t believe me, test this structure by replacing “downtown” with a more recognizable adverb, say, one of manner–“quickly:”
“I live quickly”
“She is going quickly.”
It clearly fits. You would never use a preposition like “in” with the adverb “quickly,” would you? We don’t say, “I like in delicious pizza,” we say, “I like delicious pizza.” You can’t be “in delicious” any more than you can be “in quickly,” or for that matter, “in downtown.”
Let’s pause and summarize. Saying “I live in downtown Vancouver,” is grammatically accurate because “downtown” is acting as the adjective to the noun “Vancouver,” and thus the preposition is necessary. And, saying “I live downtown,” is also fine because in this sentence, “downtown” is acting as the adverb modifying the verb “live”.
When students learn this, they inevitably shake their heads and tell me that it sounds uncomfortable to say, that it sounds really weird, that nobody they know says it like this, and that all their friends say, “I’m going to downtown,” or “I live in downtown.” I remind them that it should sound weird because it is new, that this is learning. The correct usage had heretofore eluded them and their friends, and that if something didn’t sound weird it probably indicates that they knew it already and were thus not learning anything. Learning should always carry with it a slight note of unease and discomfort, I think, for it shakes up these fossilized assumptions and false cognitives. We learn when we challenge our assumptions, and get closer to the truth, in this case, the grammatical truth.
The big revelation here is that “downtown” is not a noun. This is why nobody can live in downtown.
Nobody can live “in” an adverb or an adjective.
Remember, downtown is an adjective or adverb, not a noun, so don’t use prepositions to connect it.
This little gem of ENGLISH WEIRDNESS comes up all the time, always to the astonishment and bemusement of all concerned. It makes for a revealing mini-lesson, which I’ve tried to encapsulate here. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to native speakers say this. And if you still don’t believe me, listen to no less a grammatical authority than Petula Clark say it. Check out the video below and listen to Ms. Clark sing her 1965 hit song, aptly titled, “Downtown.” Follow along to the lyrics. Notice the absence of prepositions. Hopefully the song will help you remember that nobody can live, go, drink, or otherwise do anything in, at, on, with, around, against, under, above, below, through, for, (etc) downtown.
When you’re alone, and life is making you lonely
You can always go
When you’ve got worries, all the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know
Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city
Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty
How can you lose?
The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
So go downtown, things’ll be great when you’re
Downtown, no finer place for sure
Downtown everything’s waiting for you
Don’t hang around and let your problems surround you
There are movie shows
Maybe you know some little places to go to
Where they never close
Just listen to the rhythm of a gentle bossa nova
Barber, Katherine, and Oxford Reference Online: Premium. Canadian Oxford Dictionary.Oxford University Press, Incorporated, New York, 2005.
Celce-Murcia, Marianne, Diane Larsen-Freeman, and Howard A. Williams. The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teacher’s Course. Heinle & Heinle, Boston, MA, 1999.
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