Midwesterners, Let’s Talk about “The”

I was just having a twitter exchange about a dancer at the Dejavu… and see it? A dancer at the Dejavu. Sometimes, even though I’ve lived in the South since, what, ’97? I still go to the Kroger or the Walmart.

I think that it has to do with specificity. If I need to go to Walmart, it just means I have some items I need to acquire that would best be gotten at a Walmart, any Walmart at some point. If I say that I need to go to the Walmart, it means, sometime very soon, I need to go get things at Walmart. Possibly today. And I mean that Walmart by my house.

Does that seem right to you? If I’m referring to “the X” I mean a specific one of X that I have in mind and that I think we both know or should?

It’s weird. I think of the Midwest as being bland, featureless, and historyless (though don’t let this fool you into thinking I don’t love it). But really, by contrast, you can see a lot of details.

When I lived in western Illinois, it was even a little more quirky. You might work at John Deere, but if you worked, say in Machine Shed 3, we’d say, “Oh, he works over to the Machine Shed.” You can workat a general place, but if you get specific, you work over to a location. Oh, or “the mall” works really well. I could either be going to the mall or I’m going over to the JC Penneys.

What I’m especially curious about is that there were a LOT of Swedes in that area and I wonder if the “over to” formation isn’t trying to preserve something that Swedish has–like a way to indicate general going vs. specific intent going or something?–that English doesn’t have.

7 thoughts on “Midwesterners, Let’s Talk about “The”

  1. So, we’re Swedes in KC, with roots in northern IL, and we just don’t do this. There is no The there when we say it. My man’s people, however, are MS folks all the way back to wherever they came from and this is how they do it. So much so that it’s how we all endearingly refer to their short travel radius “from the house down to the Walmart and back”.

  2. Growing up in the southern suburbs, I never heard ‘over to,’ but people there still say they’re going to ‘the Jewel.’

    But only with the Jewels, never ‘the Walts’ or ‘the Dominick’s’ or ‘the Eagles.’ Weird.

  3. Hmm. Growing up in/around Chicago I don’t recall people saying “I’m going to The JC Penny” or I’m going “over to The Dominick’s,” (that sounds Southern to me, actually) but I did learn to end my sentences in prepositions and still catch myself doing it (“I’m going shopping, want to come with?” or “Where are you headed to?”)

    One of my uses of “to” gets me made fun of by my North Carolina-born husband, though: I will say “I need to be *to* work by 9,” where he feels that “I need to be *at* work by 9” is more appropriate. Of course, this is from someone who says “It’s fixing to rain.” :)

  4. I think that sounds like a great explanation. And I still put a “the” in all those places. And I regularly get teased about it.

    And now I’m a little worried that maybe I might encourage non-native English writers to include more “the”s than are necessary, well, except very few ever write about their shopping trips.

    Oh, I don’t use and heard very little “over to.”

  5. I don’t know how it would be physically possible to go to Jewel if you did not go to the Jewel, that’s how firmly that’s engrained in my mind.

    “Over to” was definitely only something I heard just south of the Quad Cities, but I like it.

  6. I lived in central Maine and then downeast Maine for a number of years, and we all went “over to” restaurants, or had friends who worked “up to” the mall. Not something I heard growing up near Boston, but turns of phrase I’ve grown to love and claim as my own.

  7. You know, Illinoisans live either in Chicago or “downstate.” Now I wonder if it’s not the Swedes that brought that linguistic tic to that area but maybe some old East Coast folks.

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