The Article “The” in Geographical Names

By Mark Nichol

When is it appropriate to use the article the in geographical names? Some types of terms are consistent, but for other categories, usage differs depending on the type of name. The following discussion lists categorical examples and explains why the is used with some designations and not others.

Geopolitical names usually do not require an article: Names of thoroughfares rarely, if ever, have one: “First Avenue” and “Main Street,” for example, are not preceded by the, and though Broadway as a name for a thoroughfare used to be styled “the Broadway,” this usage is long extinct. However, highways and other major concourses often have a descriptive name such as “the Pacific Coast Highway,” and though numbered routes do not require an article, many people in (or from) Southern California will refer, for example, to “the I-5” rather than simply I-5 as an abbreviation for “Interstate 5.” (This usage is apparently customary in Ontario, Canada, as well, and the British refer to their highways as “the A-1” and so on.)

Names of municipalities, with one significant exception—The Hague, in the Netherlands—do not require an article, though names of countries sometimes include the, as in the example earlier in this sentence and in “the Philippines,” when the nation’s appellation describes a number of areas or islands. (However, note that with the peculiar exception of “The Hague,” the article is never capitalized in such usage.)

Individual islands do not include the in their names (except in descriptive designations such as “the Big Island” for the island of Hawaii as distinct from the collection of islands of which it is the largest), but names of islands generally include the article as in “the Philippines” (or, sometimes, “the Philippine Islands”); some names always include or exclude the geographical term (“the Channel Islands,” but “the Hebrides”). The is not used before names of continents, however, though it is employed in reference to parts of landmasses such as in “the Arabian Peninsula”). In naming larger, areas, too, the is employed, as in “the West” and “the Middle East”; the same is true of designations of points on the globe, such “the South Pole” and “the Equator.”

Names of rivers, gulfs, seas, and oceans always include the, but, oddly, those of creeks and lakes do not, except for the latter in descriptive names like “the Great Salt Lake” or collective designations such as “the Great Lakes.” (Descriptive names of watercourses such as “Sandy Creek” do not follow this rule.) Names of bays vary in usage: Both “San Francisco Bay” and “the San Francisco Bay” are heard, for example, and though including the is the exception rather than the rule, it is integral in such names as “the Bay of Biscay” where the geographical term comes first.

Mountains generally do not have the in their names, except in such descriptive cases as “the Matterhorn” or in reference to mountain ranges (“the Rocky Mountains” or “the Rockies,” “the Andes”). Names of features such as deserts and forests, however, almost always follow the in American usage (such as “the Allegheny National Forest”), though in the United Kingdom, in references to forests and woods, the article is omitted (as in “Sherwood Forest”).

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23 Responses to “The Article “The” in Geographical Names”

  • Michael Tevlin

    There is a town in Oregon named “The Dalles.” The name of the city, according to the Wikipedia entry, comes from the French word dalle, “… meaning either ‘sluice’ or ‘flagstone’ and referring to the columnar basalt rocks carved by the river.”

  • PAUL WILLIAM DIXON

    Just one thing, the names of motorways and other roads in the UK are written without a hyphen. For example, the Potteries Ring Road (known locally as the D-road) is officially the A500 (not A-500).
    In Brazil, road numbers exist but are never used in references. You would never say ‘take the SP-070’ but ‘take the Ayrton Senna Motorway’. This is very confusing, as some roads like the SP-055, have several names according to the section.
    Example: SP-066 has twelve names for only 70 km.

  • PAUL WILLIAM DIXON

    Erratum: I meant ‘the numbers of motorways’, not ‘names’.

  • Bill

    Great explanation of something that is largely idiosyncratic. The Philippines might take “the” for a different reason. Consider that Indonesia, which is made up of over 10,000 more islands than the Philippines’ 7,641, doesn’t use “the.” Could it be because “the Philippines” is short for “The Republic of the Philippines,” where as “Indonesia” is short for “Republic of Indonesia”? An aside: Ukraine is an interesting example of a region that dropped “the” when is was no longer an area of the Soviet Union but its own nation.

  • Drew Smith

    A large and quickly growing city is The Villages in Florida.

  • venqax

    There is also a town called The Plains in Virginia, familiar to those in the WDC metro area. Countries with the the article in their names are out there, too. The Netherlands, e.g. Most are those named after geographical features like rivers : The 2 “the Congos”, the Gambia, or the Ivory Coast, and of course island chains as mentioned.

  • venqax

    @Bill: I think it’s simpler than that. “the” Philippines is the name of the chain of island, which is a general exception to the “no the” rule as the article said. It’s also the Bahamas, the Seychelles, the Comoros. Indonesia, however, is not the name of the island chain. It is an overall name for a country that happens to be an archipelago, like Japan. We don’t say “the Japan” either because the island chain itself is not called “the Japans”. The name of a chain of islands that becomes the name of a country carries the islands’ the. The name of a country that just happens to be composed of a chain of islands, no the, just like the name of any other country. Some are both depending on context: the Hawaiian islands, but not “the Hawaii” as the name of the state. It is not called “the State of the Hawaiian Islands”.

  • Steve

    Good post, but it curiously falls short of explaining the use of “The” before Ukraine.

  • Lisa Gorrell

    There are countries that need the article when spoken in German, such as Switzerland (die Schweiz), Turkey (die Türkei), United States (die Vereinigten Staaten), Netherlands (die Niederlande), Iraq (der Irak), Lebanon (der Libanon), and Sudan (der Sudan).

  • Dale A. Wood

    “The Japans” is a term that was used, but has fallen out of use. Watch the TV miniseries SHOGUN, and you will hear it, but this one was set in the Japans of about 1600-1610.
    Along with “the Bay of Biscay” are “the Bay of Bengal”, “the Bay of Fundy”, “the Bay of Pigs”, “the Bay of Rainbows” (on the Moon), “the Gulf of Mexico”, “the Gulf of California”, “the Persian Gulf”, “the Ocean of Storms” (on the Moon), “the North Sea”, “the Sea of Japan”, “the Isthmus of Panama”, “the Isthmus of Suez”, “the Sea of Tranquility” (on the Moon).

  • Dale A. Wood

    Whether or not these are abbreviated: “the USA”, “the USSR”, “the ROK”, “the ROC”, “the DPRK”, “the UAE”, “the Union of South Africa” (its former name), “the United States of Mexico”, “the EU”, “the UN”, “the Confederation of Canada”, “the Federation of Australia”, “the FRG”, “the Republic of Ireland”, or more simply “Eire”.

    These are very common: “the Carolinas”, “the Dakotas”, “the Atlantic Provinces”, BUT here is one that I only heard (on TV and the radio) while I lived around Washington, D.C.: “the Virginias”, referring to Virginia and West Virginia.

    I have also read that even in the Constitution of Kentucky, about 1/2 of the time that place is called the “State of Kentucky” and the other 1/2 it is called the “Commonwealth of Kentucky”.
    This might drive people mad who live in the “Commonwealths” of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Legally speaking, these are “commonwealths” of a very different nature in American law: “the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico”, “the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas”, and the former “Commonwealth of the Philippines”, which was abolished on July 4, 1946, when the Philippines was granted its independence.

    The “Commonwealth of Virginia” is an entirely different thing because Virginia is a permanent part of the United States.
    In a ruling by the federal Supreme Court (concerning a case in Texas) in 1870, the Court ruled that no state (commonwealth) could leave the United States except under two circumstances:
    I. With the consent of the other states (unspecified how), or
    II. By way of a successful rebellion!

    For example, if Alaska wished to leave the United States (to become independent or to join Canada, for example), the unanimous consent of the other 49 states would do it. I don’t know if an Act of Congress would do it, passed over a Presidential veto, if required.
    If it were decided that an Amendment to the Constitution were required, that would take the approval of 2/3 of the House of Representatives, and 2/3 of the Senate, and then the ratification by the legislatures of 3/4 of the states. This would work in the case of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii being dead-set against letting Alaska go.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I came across a trivia question in a magazine that asked us to name nine countries whose names are only four letters long. (The answers were given elsewhere.) Naturally, I had to think of a tenth one, too:

    Peru, Cuba, Chad, Mali, Togo, Iran, Iraq, Oman, Fiji.
    Then I got to wondering, “Why not one in Europe?”, and it came to me: “Eire” (a.k.a. the Republic of Ireland).
    Ohio, Iowa, Utah, and USSR do not count.
    Your assignment, Mr. Briggs, if you decide to accept it, is to list as many as you can with just five letters.

    Some of those places have alternate spellings, such as Tchad (French), Tschad (German), Republique Togolese, and the Fiji Islands..
    A few places have two four-letter words: Hong Kong, Bora Bora, Alma Atta (whose name has been changed), Pago Pago, Tora Bora, but not any countries right now.

  • Dale A. Wood

    As for some former or oddly-spelled places with “The”:
    The Ukraine, The Argentine,

    Oops, one more country with just four letters: “Laos”, so the original question asked for 10. We now have these:
    Africa: Chad, Mali, Togo.
    Asia: Iraq, Iran, Laos, Oman.
    North America: Cuba.
    South America: Peru.
    Oceana: Fiji.
    And the one additional one for Europe: Eire !
    Leaving out only Australia, which has only one country,
    and Antarctica, which has none.
    Even the states and territories of Australia have long names, like “New South Wales”, “Queensland”, and the “Australian Capital Territory”.

  • SHERRY ROTH

    It seems that one should learn the major or common things and look up the rest as needed. There are so many exceptions to the so-called rules in this post that it hardly pays to consider them rules. For instance, Californians might say “the I-5,” but in Florida we just say the number (“I hate rush hour on 95”) or the letter and number (“Take I-4 to Disney”). And, we do leave the hyphen in there.
    OK, I’m done rambling on!

  • Dale A. Wood

    In my experiences with Southern California, rather than saying “the I – 5”, people say “the Golden State Freeway” for the one from downtown to the northwest, and “the Santa Ana Freeway” for the one from downtown to the southwest.
    The very long and busy Interstate 405 was “the San Diego Freeway”, and inquiries about “Where is I – 405?” drew blank looks.
    Here are some other translations for you:
    US-101: The Hollywood Freeway & The Ventura Freeway, depending on where you are. US-101 now vanishes somewhere downtown, but it used to go all the way to the Mexican border.
    Interstate 10: The Santa Monica Freeway and The San Bernardino Freeway, depending on whether you are west or east of downtown.
    I – 110: The Harbor Freeway
    I – 710: The Long Beach Freeway
    I – 210: The Foothills Freeway
    I – 605: The San Gabriel Freeway
    I – 105: The Downey Freeway
    Calif. Hwy-60: The Pomona Freeway
    Others known by name only: The Pasadena Freeway (the oldest one), The Riverside Freeway (also very old), The Artesia Freeway, The Ronald Reagan Freeway (formerly the Simi Valley Freeway), The Glendale Freeway, The Marina Freeway.
    On the whole, California has A LOT of the three-digit Interstate Highways, and some of these are quite long and huge ones: Interstates 105, 205, 305, 405, 505, 605, 705, 805; and 905 (awaiting completion in San Diego County).
    Interstates 110, 210, 710; Interstates 380, 580, 680 (The San Jose Freeway), 880 (The Nimitz Freeway).
    The San Diego Freeway is I – 405 in Los Angeles County and Orange County, and it is I – 5 in Orange County and San Diego County.
    You can be minding your own business headed south on The Hollywood Freeway in LA, when suddenly you are on The Santa Ana Freeway. Thence to Santa Ana in Orange County, when suddenly you find yourself on The San Diego Freeway, headed to San Diego County. Don’t get confused!

  • thebluebird11

    @DAW: Thank goodness for GPS, is all I have to say.

  • Andy Knoedler

    The last sentence of this post reads as follows:
    “Names of features such as deserts and forests, however, almost always follow “the” in American usage (such as “the Allegheny National Forest”), though in the United Kingdom, in references to forests and woods, the article is omitted (as in “Sherwood Forest”).”

    It would be better to emend this sentence to read “. . . in the United Kingdom, in references to forests and woods, the article is usually omitted (as in “Sherwood Forest”).”

    The need for the emendation is that some British forests do retain “the,” such as the New Forest, the Forest of Arden and the Forest of Dean.

    Incidentally, the New Forest seems oddly named because it was designated a royal forest some 938 years ago.

  • D.A.W.

    Correction: I meant to write “and “the Santa Ana Freeway” for the one from downtown to the southEAST, because Santa Ana is southeast of Los Angles. Most of Orange County is southeast of Los Angeles.

  • D.A.W.

    The town and the region called “The Dalles” is a quite lovely one.
    Those are in “the gorge of the Colorado River”. Through the gorge runs Interstate 84, and Congress has designated it as a “National Scenic Expressway”. I think that this is the only one, but for more, I nominate I – 17 between Flagstaff and Phoenix, Arizona, and I – 70 between Denver and Grand Junction, Colorado.

    There are some lovely ones in the East, too, such as I – 24 in southeastern Tennessee and northwestern Georgia, in the Appalachians. Heading (generally westerly) from Chattanooga to Murphreesboro and other places. I – 24 starts in Tennessee, then loops southwesterly through the mountains in northwestern Georgia, and then back into Tennessee northwesterly across Lookout Mountain, thence northwest to Nashville and beyond.
    Going in the opposite direction, I – 24 enters Chattanooga in the northeasterly direction.
    I wrote this mostly to use variations of “southeast”, “southwest”, “northwest”, and “northeast” as many times as I could, just to show the British and the Irish how to do it.

  • D.A.W.

    Oops, I typed “Colorado” instead of “Columbia”. It is too bad that we cannot edit such things.

  • D.A.W.

    Other areas or regions with “the”, notably in the USA, Canada, and Australia {the East, the South, the West, the North, the Northeast, the Southeast, the Southwest, and the Northwest}.
    None of this business of “the North East of England” and “the South of France”. (northeastern England & southern France)
    ——————————————————————————
    In Australia, they have an interesting case of nonuniformity:
    The Northern Territory, Western Australia, South Australia, and the Eastern Time Zone.

  • D.A.W.

    To Lisa Gorrell, to whom nobody had replied, yet:
    Odd spellings, etc., in German for well-known places in the world:
    “der Jemen”, “die Jugoslavia”, “die Tschechoslovakei” .
    Also, “die Sowietischen Sektor” = “the Soviet Zone”.
    There is also a huge body of water called “die Südsee”, even though “See” often refers of lakes.
    “Die Südsee” = “the South Pacific Ocean”.
    As for lakes, “Genfersee” = Lake Geneva (draining into the Rhone), and “Bodensee” = Lake Constance (draining into the Rhine).
    In Dutch, “Zee” is for saltwater, such as the former Zuider Zee.
    During the 1920s & 30s, the Zuider Zee was diked of from the North Sea. The water quickly became fresh water from the many rivers in the area, and its name was changed to the “Ijsselmeer” = “Lake Ijssel”.
    In North America, we don’t make this distinction because we have Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie , Lake Ontario, and Lake Champlain (fresh water), but the Great Salt Lake and Lake Humboldt (saltwater). Also, the Salton See in California.

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