The Grammarphobia Blog

No Exit

Q: Maybe I’m wrong, but I’d expect the abbreviation for “North” to be “N” on highway exit signs. Here on Long Island (and elsewhere in New York), it’s always “No” (as in “No Conduit Ave” or “No Ocean Avenue”). Would a visitor dare take “No Exit” when it might lead nowhere? I jest, but those abbreviations bug me.

A: We agree that the abbreviation “No” on a street sign can be confusing to a stranger, especially one from out of state.

As it happens, the New York State Department of Transportation is on your side, and when those signs wear out and get replaced, they won’t look the same.

We’ll get back to the signs that bug you and (with the help of a state official) explain this “No” business. But first, a little etymology (this is a language site, after all).

The earliest abbreviation that was used for “north” was the initial “N” (usually capitalized and often followed by a period), a convention that originated in naval terminology.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded example of the abbreviation is from a dispatch sent by Sir Edward Howard, Lord Admiral of the British fleet, to King Henry VIII in 1513: “The Monday last, the wynd roosse soon to N.N.E.”

The single letter “N” has been used to mean “north” ever since. And while a two-letter version, “No.,” is sometimes used for the purpose, the OED has no citations for it.

In fact, in legal language the use of “No.” to mean “north” is a no-no.

The precedent legal dictionaries cite for this is a 19th-century court case (Burr v Broadway Ins. Co., 16 NY 267, 271) that has to do with a building described inaccurately in a fire-insurance policy.

According to the Cyclopedia of Law and Procedure (1908), the findings in that trial established the legal use of the initials “E, N, S, and W for east, north, south, and west, respectively.”

And “No.,” say the editors, “was held not to be an abbreviation of ‘north.’” Instead, they write, “No.” is “used as an abbreviation of the word ‘number.’”

Other law dictionaries say the same thing. A 1969 edition of Ballentine’s Law Dictionary defines “no.” as “an abbreviation of number” and says it’s “improper as an abbreviation of ‘north.’ ” The proper abbreviation of “north,” it says, is “n.”

And Black’s Law Dictionary defines the initial “N” this way: “In English, a common and familiar abbreviation for the word ‘north,’ as used in maps, charts, conveyances, etc.”

But when you don’t expect to be sued, is it OK to write “No.” for north? It’s fine, according to standard dictionaries.

Both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) say that “north” can be abbreviated with one letter or two.

M-W gives the two-letter abbreviation lowercased and without a period (“no”), but American Heritage uses the period and says the abbreviation can be capitalized or lowercased (“no.” or “No.”), so sign-makers can justify any of those three options.

We haven’t been able to tell just when the abbreviation “No.” for “north” became acceptable in standard dictionaries (legal terminology aside). But we can make a rough guess.

The two-letter abbreviation doesn’t appear in our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged 2nd ed.). So it seems to have become acceptable to the folks at Merriam-Webster’s sometime within the last 50 years or so.

Regardless of what current dictionaries say, we don’t like the two-letter abbreviation. When seen at a glance or glimpsed through a windshield, it looks like the adverb “no” (the opposite of “yes”). So a sign like “No Beach St.” seems to say you can’t get to the beach from there.

Would a stranger really be confused? Probably not, but who knows?

We think a simple “N” would be better. And as it happens, federal and state (and most municipal) authorities think so too. The New York signs that still say “No” for north just haven’t been replaced in a while.

Jennifer Post, an information officer with the New York transportation agency, says the state now uses the same abbreviations (“N,” “S,” “E,” and “W”) as those recommended by the federal government in its National Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

She recently emailed us to explain why those “NO” exit signs showed up in New York and when we’ll see the last of them:

 “Many of the signs with abbreviations such as NO and SO may have complied with the standard of the time when they were originally installed. But as signs are replaced across the state the abbreviations are being simplified to ‘N’ and ‘S’ to comply” with the new standards.

“The most cost-effective time to make sure a sign meets current standards is when it needs to be replaced.”

Many local governments do the same, she added.

New York City, for example, has a similar policy. Street signs in the city’s five boroughs use the abbreviations “N,” “S,” “E,” and “W,” according to “Standard Highway Specifications” (Vol. II), published by the City of New York Department of Transportation.

That’s good news. Big-city driving is enough of a hassle as it is.

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