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What's the rule on 'the UK' but just 'GB'?

Polonius3 1,000 | 12,446
29 Jul 2010 #1
I was explaining to a Pole learning English that countries and other geographic indicators containing two components or in the plural (Czech Republic, United States, United Kingdom former Soviet Union, Falklands, Antilles, etc.) all require the definite article 'the'. Exceptions are the Vatican and the Hague. So (wouldn't you know it?!) he askled what about Great Birtain which does not normally take the def. article except in sentences like 'The Great Britain of my childhood was a far nicer place.' Is there any rule about this, or is it one of the many exceptions that drive foreigners up a wall. As I was typing this, I realised one also says Northern Ireland, South Africa and West Virginia without a 'the', so maybe directions are exempted.

Anyone know why we used to say 'the Ukraine' but no more?
Seanus 15 | 19,706
29 Jul 2010 #2
Because a kingdom is sth specific where we can use the. GB is just the name of the country without it being sth like a kingdom. The rules are filled with exceptions as I've taught this many times.
Stu 12 | 522
29 Jul 2010 #3
I've always been taught that the definite article in countries is used when the name comes from:

- geographic regions (The Netherlands);

- rivers (The Gambia);

- island groups (The Philippines, The Azores, The Canary Islands, The Isle of Man);

- mountain ranges (The Lebanon);

- deserts (The Sudan).

And also when the names of the countries describe the form of the state (The United States, The Czech Republic, The United Kingdom).
wildrover 98 | 4,451
29 Jul 2010 #4
I always wondered why we in England called our country Great britain...?

I mean , its a bit big headed really , nobody thought to call the USA.. fantastic America , or France.. super France....

And while we are on the subject...what about national symbols...??

Russia chose the bear , a strong and noble creature from their country , Poland chose the eagle , another great creature from their country...The UK of course chose that great British creature...the Lion...errr hang on , we don,t have any lions in the UK...and never have had...whats that all about...???
Amathyst 19 | 2,702
29 Jul 2010 #5
I always wondered why we in England called our country Great britain...?

They're two different things, one is a country the other is a collective of countries - "Great" can mean large, not just superior.

The term "Great Britain" (and the abbreviation 'GB') is the traditional 'short form' of the full country title 'the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland',
Wroclaw 44 | 5,384
29 Jul 2010 #6
the united states

the united arab emirates

the united kingdom (of...)

united shows a plural. the goes in front of plural countries, islands...




no the with singular countries. example: america
Seanus 15 | 19,706
29 Jul 2010 #7
Well, the logic can be put to the test. Japan is a group of 5 islands but we don't say 'the Japan'.

Holland isn't a geographic region?

Universities are also an interesting case, e.g the University of Abertay, but Aberdeen University.
Stu 12 | 522
29 Jul 2010 #8
Okay ... exceptions to the rule ... ? Like Indonesia ... ?

But in general, island groups have the definite article (The Seychelles, The Marshall Islands, The Cook Islands, etc ... ).

As do the countries which names describe the form of the state.
Seanus 15 | 19,706
29 Jul 2010 #9
I wrote a complete sheet to this but it is at work somewhere. Hotels are an interesting case too. Those luxurious chains tend to take 'the'. The Ritz, The Marriott, The Sheraton etc etc.
A J 4 | 1,088
29 Jul 2010 #10
Holland isn't a geographic region?

The Netherlands? (North and South Holland are technically just two provinces of our country.)

Seanus 15 | 19,706
29 Jul 2010 #11
Do I detect an imperialistic follow-up? ;)

Another one in which flexibility rules is 'the piano' and 'piano'. This one is not so clear-cut.
wildrover 98 | 4,451
29 Jul 2010 #12
Ukraine seems to have lost its THE for some reason...??

Although i tend to refer to it still as The Ukraine...
OP Polonius3 1,000 | 12,446
29 Jul 2010 #13
I think it's the Netherlands because it's perceived as plural. There aren't any plural countries or regions without the required 'the', are there?
szarlotka 8 | 2,208
29 Jul 2010 #14
The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, The People's Democratic Republic of South Yorkshire .... these are not plural.
Ziemowit 14 | 4,442
29 Jul 2010 #15
Well, the logic can be put to the test. Japan is a group of 5 islands but we don't say 'the Japan'.
Holland isn't a geographic region?

My dear Seanus! I've been telling you several times here on the PF that there's nothing unusual about the Brits saying 'Japan' rather than 'the Japan' and you still don't seem to believe me. Japan was not a group of 5 island for the people who conceived its name many centuries ago. They could hardly imagine at that time what Japan really was, whether it was an island, or a group of islands, or perhaps a peninsula connected to a land, they treated it within a concept of a country, so they applied the rules that they were applying when naming other countries which were closer to them, that is they called it without using 'the' with the name of the country.

If you still don't believe it, but you do believe in the geographical awareness of the ancient Brits who were deprived of the possibility of watching those brilliant documentaries of Sir David Attenborough on BBC, please remember that Christopher Columbus thought he landed in the western part of India, so he named the lands and the people he met there accordingly: 'The West Indies' and 'Indians'. And this happened much later than the term "Japan" first appeared in the English language.

You can't explain the language from the modern perpective only; you have to search in its history and - sometimes - in the history of humanity. Within that perspective, language phenomena such as 'The Hague', 'The Netherlands' or even 'The Ukraine' will appear logical, such as they were for the ancient users of the language, though they may seem some mysterious exceptions in the eyes of the modern user of the same language.
Seanus 15 | 19,706
29 Jul 2010 #16
Yes, I understand that but it doesn't change the fact that it's an umbrella term for 5 islands. Classifications can be upgraded or modernised :)
OP Polonius3 1,000 | 12,446
29 Jul 2010 #17
Multiple-element countries (the Czech Republic) AND those in the plural (the Netherlands) require the def. article!

On another score, oceans, seas and rivers require the def. article but lakes do not!
Lake Baikal, Lake Huron, Lake Victoria, but the (River) Thames, the Vistula, the Seine, the Hudson, the Baltic, the North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, etc.

isthatu2 4 | 2,702
5 Aug 2010 #18
I always wondered why we in England called our country Great britain...?

I mean , its a bit big headed really

Not really,all it means is we are "large Britain" as oppossed to "little Britain" AKA Brittany in NW France,seeemples no.

The UK of course chose that great British creature...the Lion...errr hang on

Again , thank the "french" for that one,if Im not mistaken the lion goes back at least as far as Richard the 1st.
MareGaea 29 | 2,752
5 Aug 2010 #19
the Hague

"The Hague" really is just an anglisation of it's Dutch name, "Den Haag", which is in turn much easier than the city's official name: 's Gravenhage, or its old name: Des Graven's Haege. Den is old Dutch for De (the) and Haag is old Dutch for Hedge or court. Graaf = Dutch for Count, so the name of the city would be "The Hedge/Court of the Count". You can see why the city was originally founded for: to be the administrative centre of the Netherlands. It's actually a very young city too and given the fact that it didn't get any market (city-) rights granted by a Count or Duke, it's officially still a village :)


It's a Germanic thing. The in front of a river for example, refers to the fact that it's a river, not a name. Officially The Seine or The Rhine should be "The River Seine" and "The River Rhine". It refers therefore to the fact that it's a river, not just a name.

The Netherlands has The in front of it because that of course refers to "lands" Netherlands is again an anglisation of Nederland which means Low Countries (Neder = Low land = land). "Nether" is an adjective just like big in the big man. The official Dutch name for the Netherlands is "The Kingdom of the Netherlands" (Koninkrijk der Nederlanden - yes this includes Belgium as well). Our Queen is a territorial monarch, unlike the Belgian King, which is a King of the populace (compare King of Belgians/Queen of the Netherlands).

(correct me if I'm wrong - I'm not an English teacher)


M-G (tired and apparently heading for a cold)
OP Polonius3 1,000 | 12,446
5 Aug 2010 #20
Great explanation! I never knew that. Don't the Belgians resent the Dutch king claming to be the monarch of their country? what's this I hear about Belgium being about to break up? Fact or fantasy?
Richfilth 6 | 415
5 Aug 2010 #21
I'm surprised there's confusion over this. If we look at the list presented:

The Soviet Union, The United States, The Czech Republic, The United Kingdom, Great Britain

can you spot the odd one out? One of these is not a country.

If the name you are using contains a political state word (Union, State, Republic, Kingdom) then we need the definite article. Attaching "The" really doesn't have anything to do with the country being some sort of plural as a political entity. If it's a group of islands then sure (The Bahamas, the Maldives, The Canaries) but we're referring to the geographical idea of a group, not the political one; the same way we talk about groups of mountains (The Alps, The Tatry) but not individual ones (Mont Blanc, Kasprowy Wierch.)

And Great Britain is NOT a country. It is a geographic land mass, not a political one, which contains three countries that make up a substantial portion of the political entity, The United Kingdom. The confusion comes from the car sticker 'GB', which makes people think that Britain is a country, like PL and DE do, but Northern Ireland have their own symbol, 'NI', so that the Irish know which particular car to attach their bombs to*.

The use of "-lands" in the name of the country (as opposed to just -land) is the background behind this idea of "plural countries", and that's why we have The Netherlands. And there are other countries that still defy sound explanation (The Gambia and The Congo are just two), but The Ukraine, once it gained its independence, cleaned up its ungrammatical international reputation, and politely asked to be called Ukraine. The End.

*this is a joke. A tasteless one, but a joke nonetheless.
Seanus 15 | 19,706
5 Aug 2010 #22
Eh, I hate to break it to you but the Soviet Union is not a country either ;) ;) Russia is.

Your analysis is also somewhat lacking. The UK is comprised of four countries and GB of 3. Still, they are considered as one unit when it comes to classifications.

I think the * should have been applied to the whole post ;) ;)

Just kidding, there were valid points included there.
Richfilth 6 | 415
5 Aug 2010 #23
I see your point, the trouble in my explanation comes to the definition of "country." The Soviet Union was a political state, as is The United Kingdom. Russia is a country, as are Wales and Scotland, unfortunately.* But what's the difference between a country and a political state?

On the international political arena, such as The United Nations (there's another one) or NATO, you'll never see anyone sitting at a desk marked "Great Britain." That's my point about what is and isn't a country. The Olympics don't count.

* another joke.
Seanus 15 | 19,706
5 Aug 2010 #24
To my knowledge, there are 3 criteria for a country but I'll be damned if I remember what they were.

As regards Great Britain, you might be wrong there. There is no reason, other than antagonism, to say The United Kingdom as Stormont and NI are hardly represented well. I can't remember how it is in the UN Chamber but you could be right that they don't refer to GB. I have to check simply.
5 Aug 2010 #25
I always wondered why we in England called our country Great britain...?

Great Britain is the largest of the British isles.
Richfilth 6 | 415
5 Aug 2010 #26
So how about this definition:

Any entity with a political state word in the title (Kingdom, State, Union, Republic) requires The.

That also explains The European Union* too, which definitely isn't a country

*another joke
MareGaea 29 | 2,752
5 Aug 2010 #27
Don't the Belgians resent the Dutch king claming to be the monarch of their country?

Well, actually at the time that this name came into being, the Netherlands and Belgium were in fact one country. They both formed "The Netherlands", after the seperation of Belgium, the Netherlands kept the name for reasons which are so complex it would take 500 pages of text to explain and the Belgians, who wanted to do the same were forced to change the title.

Edit: one of the reasons was that after the Belgian separation Luxemburg was still part of the Netherlands in that it was the personal possession of King William 1 and his son William 2. In 1859 King William 2 wanted to sell Luxemburg to either Germany or France, never seem to remember which one. Just do a search for the Luxemburg crisis. Luxemburg didn't get sold and remained part of NL until 1898 when King William 3 died and only had a daughter, Queen Wilhelmina. Since Luxemburgian constitution did not allow a woman to be head of state, they became a Ducdom.

But to answer your question: until 1934 there was indeed animosity between the two, but that was mainly due to French influences (for example, Brussels is originally a Dutch city and spoke Dutch originally, but in order to make it French speaking, more and more French ppl were moved in and now it's half Dutch, half French). Belgians know they are also part of the Low Countries (just like Luxemburg) and between 1934 and 1949 there was actually talk of the two getting together again, but then the BeNeLux came and they are kinda like one again.

Short answer: it's just a title, the Belgians nor the Dutch don't give a darn about it, as far as I know.

Edit 2: the title does not only cover NL and BE, but also parts of Northern Germany, which historically belonged to Friesland and parts of Northern France (Pais de Calais) which historically belong to the Low Countries. In both areas a Dutch dialect is still spoken.

About Belgium breaking up: de facto it's already broken up. Since 1992 it's officially a federation with a Dutch speaking part, a French speaking part and I am not sure about the German speaking part (maybe one of the present Belgians could help me out there?). Belgium breaking up is all about cultural differences: Flanders to the North is Dutch speaking (Flemish = Dutch) and Dutch cultured while the south is Francophone and French cultured. The cultural line between the Netherlands and France runs straight through the middle of Belgium and it's an arteficial state in that regard. But to be honest, I don't think Belgium will fully split up with Flanders joining NL and Wallonia joining FR.


M-G (anybody more Dutch history?)
Seanus 15 | 19,706
5 Aug 2010 #28
That looks about right, Rich :)
nobabody - | 10
7 Jan 2011 #29
Ukraine has never been "the Ukraine" as far as i know, it was our ignorance in this country that lead to us incorrectly refeferring to the beautiful country of Ukraine

The UK of course chose that great British creature...the Lion...errr hang on , we don,t have any lions in the UK...and never have had...whats that all about?

the uk did not chose the lion, england did.

on the royal coat of arms, there are 2 animals represented symbolising, i think, the union of the crowns, the lion for england and the unicorn for scotland, so at least the english chose a creature that does exist..................still
Trevek 26 | 1,702
7 Jan 2011 #30
Anyone know why we used to say 'the Ukraine' but no more?

I believe it was from Russian diplomats writing in French and writing Le Ukraine

that the Irish know which particular car to attach their bombs to*.

Perhaps not that much of a joke. In 1997 I was studying in Belfast and an English student who had brought his car over was offered NI registration plates for the duration of his studies.

rivers (The Gambia);

And seas (but not lakes, funnily enough)

that great British creature...the Lion

Isn't it a biblical thing, like the Lion of Judea?

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