The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “upstate” an adverb, an adjective, or a noun?

Q: I claim the “in” is redundant and unpleasant to the ear in this sentence: “Senator Gillibrand was campaigning in upstate NY.” I am quite sure we could do without it, and would be better off without it.

A: There’s nothing wrong with that sentence. Here “upstate” is an adjective modifying “New York.” It’s used much like “northern” would be.

The word “upstate,” according to dictionaries, can be used as an adverb, an adjective, or a noun. Here are examples of each:

Adverb: “They drove upstate last weekend.”

Adjective: “They drove to upstate New York last weekend.”

Noun: “They came back Sunday night from upstate.”

So the writer of that sentence could correctly use either “campaigning in upstate New York” or “campaigning upstate.”

And by the way, the state in “upstate” doesn’t have to be New York. In fact, “upstate” doesn’t necessarily have to be up.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the adverb as meaning “in that part of a state which is (regarded as) higher than another, or is more remote from the chief centre. Freq. with reference to the State of New York.”

The adjective means “of, pertaining to, or characteristic of, an area upstate; situated upstate, rural; also, designating part of a State remote (esp. north) from a large city.”

And the noun means “an upstate region” or “a rural area,” the OED says.

When the term was first recorded in print (in 1901, according to OED citations), it was used as an adverb in an article about prostitution in New York City.

Here’s the OED’s citation, which comes from the North American Review: “American girls … imported from small towns up-State.”

But the OED has non-New York references as well.

Jonathan Daniels, the editor of the Raleigh (NC) News and Observer, used the adverb in A Southerner Discovers the South (1938), his book about a 10-state tour of the South: “I heard about it upstate.”

And the noun form appeared in a 1974 issue of a southern newspaper, the Easley (SC) Progress: “Many of us in the upstate do not appreciate the value of the Tidelands … to our environment.”

We should add that the use of “upstate” as a noun is much less common than its use as an adverb and an adjective. The noun use is limited and is governed by idiom.

While it’s idiomatic to say, “He is in upstate [adjective] New York,” it is not idiomatic to say “He is in upstate [noun]” or “He is going to upstate [noun].” We do, however, say, “He is from upstate [noun].”

Check out our books about the English language