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  • Sandeep Prasanna 5:10 am on March 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: american english, ap stylebook, , differences between british and american english, google ngram, style guide, toward, towards   

    Toward(s?) a better understanding 

    Hi all, sorry about the delay in getting new posts out to you. Let’s get to it:

    There are many well-documented differences between British and American English. Even those unacquainted with linguistics can point out some of the more obvious ones: color/colour, apartment/flat, spilled/spilt, and plenty more. Lynne Murphy, an American linguist abroad in the UK, maintains the wonderful blog Separated by a Common Language and writes about how language differs across the pond.

    But some American-versus-British rules are less readily apparent. For example, for years, I struggled with whether to write “toward” or “towards.” A few years ago, Grammar Girl taught me that the rule was simple: “toward” is used in the US and “towards” is used in the UK.

    The British newspaper The Guardian writes in its Style Guide:

    -ward, wards. Contemporary usage … suggests that when it is an adjective a word like upward, downward, backward or forward should not end in s, but when it is an adverb it should.

    I checked The Economist‘s Style Guide and found that it was silent on the issue, but it did write “forward” rather than “forwards” twice within the Style Guide itself. The Economist is published out of London and two-thirds of its journalists are based there, so I wonder whether there is or isn’t internal consistency on the use of the –ward(s) suffix.

    According to a commenter on the Grammar Girl website, “toward” is correct AP style. (The AP Stylebook doesn’t have free access, so I can’t confirm.)

    I wondered why we had that difference and whether it had always been that way. So I checked out the Google Ngram data for both American and British corpora. The data ended up raising more questions than it answered, so I’m hoping for more well-informed readers to suggest explanations for the patterns below.

    Here is the frequency of “toward” versus “towards” in British English from 1800 to 2000.

    It’s clear that “towards” has always been favored over “toward” in Britain during this period. There does seem to be a slight shift after 1980, with “toward” becoming more popular than “towards.”

    Here is the American data from the same period, which is more interesting:

    It appears that “toward” supplanted “towards” as the preferred spelling around 1900. The data show a steady decline in the frequency of “towards” starting around 1840. This trend is strange: why did the spelling preference change at all?

    First, a little background: the Oxford English Dictionary regards “toward” and “towards” as variants of the same word. Their etymology is closely related. Similarly, the OED considers other –ward(s) words as variants of each other as well: e.g., forward(s), backward(s), onward(s). It also notes that while there is no difference in definition between –ward and –wards, there may be a slight semantic difference that ascribes more of a sense of “movement” to –wards. This slight difference is disputed, even by the OED authors.

    The OED says:

    In English the history of -wards as an [adverbial] suffix is identical with that of -ward … ; beside every adv. in -ward there has always existed (at least potentially) a parallel formation in -wards, and vice versa. The two forms are so nearly synonymous … that the choice between them is mostly determined by some notion of euphony in the particular context; some persons, apparently, have a fixed preference for the one or the other form.

    It then goes on to observe the preference of Americans for –ward and Brits for –wards.

    Two possible explanations for the American switch from “towards” to “toward” popped into my head at first.

    The first was that Noah Webster’s dictionary, which set out determinedly American spellings for the nascent United States, expressed a preference for “toward.” His dictionary was first published in 1828. I couldn’t find a reliable online source for his original text, so maybe a reader with access to the text can clarify whether this is true. I’m still skeptical whether this is what drove the change. More famous changes like “colour” to “color” happened quicker, according to Google Ngram.

    Another possibility depends on the OED’s observation that “the choice between [toward and towards] is mostly determined by some notion of euphony.”

    According to The Cambridge History of the English Language: English in North America, rhotic accents (accents that pronounce the R in, e.g., “father”) became prestigious in the United States around the 1870s. It may have simply been more euphonic (more pleasing to the ear) for rhotic speakers to pronounce “toward” rather than “towards” — the former has just two consonants in a cluster, whereas the latter would have a three-consonant cluster, making it more difficult to pronounce. This, too, seems tenuous, because written language changes slower than spoken language and Google Ngram depends on data culled from written texts.

    I can’t seem to think of any other explanations, but I encourage readers to share their thoughts below.

    • Jonathon 11:20 am on March 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      I suspect that the American preference for toward is more of an artifact of copyediting than anything else. I see towards in unedited writing and hear it in speech quite often. And as a copyeditor, I know that a lot of editors have been trained to strike out that supposedly superfluous s.

      I’ve got a copy of Webster’s 1828 dictionary in my office, and it actually combines toward, towards in its entries, so it apparently wasn’t Webster that kicked off the American preference.

      • Sandeep Prasanna 12:29 pm on March 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        Thanks for checking Webster’s dictionary out. The copyediting makes sense, but it still doesn’t answer why Americans suddenly preferred “toward” over “towards”… a desire for efficiency can explain it, but surely the Brits like being efficient too, right?

    • Kevin 8:33 pm on March 3, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      >> The Economist is published out of London <<

      What springs immediately to the mind of this British English speaker on reading the foregoing sentence is the thought: "Oh no, it's not: The Economist is published IN London! "Out of London", to me, means "Not in London" — as in "Our facilites are located out of London, in Staffordshire" (i.e at least 200 kilometres distant from the capital) .

      Is this yet another transatlantic difference? How exactly, in (presumably) US English, does "published out of London" differ in meaning from "published in London"?

      • Sandeep Prasanna 10:17 pm on March 3, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        Good question. To me, “published out of London” implies distribution outward from a central location. I guess it implies more movement, and (to me) seems particularly suited to describe a periodical like The Economist. But I could have (and maybe should have) written “published in London” instead.

        So I don’t know if I’m wrong. I also don’t think it’s an American thing. I did a quick google search of “published out of” and I found a couple of other examples: “published out of New York City,” “published out of Delhi,” “published out of Alphadelphia.” This usage is definitely in the minority, though. It doesn’t even register as a blip on Google Ngram compared to “published in”: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=published+out+of%2Cpublished+in&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

        Also, if I wanted to say that the facilities were located in Staffordshire, I would probably say “outside of London.”

        tl;dr – I don’t think my usage is wrong, but it’s not common.

  • The Diacritics 9:00 am on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: bushel, customary system, , english system, gallons, google ngram, imperial system, kilometers, league, liters, metric system, miles   

    Stop! Don’t move a centimeter! 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    “You know I’d walk 1609.3 kilometers if I could just see you tonight.” – Vanessa Carlton’s famous ballad, A Thousand Six Hundred and Nine and Three Tenths Kilometers

    A few reasons why we need to keep the customary system of measurement in America:

    • That’s a nice 37.9-liter hat!
    • It hit me like 907.2 kilograms of bricks.
    • He’s buried 1.83 meters under.
    • Give a man 25.4 millimeters, and he’ll take 1.61 kilometers.
    • I’ve got 907.2 kilograms of work to do tonight.
    • He didn’t feel 28.3 grams of regret for his actions.
    • He went the whole 8.23 meters.

    Okay, okay, to be fair, I should use nice, round numbers in these phrases. But does “You know I’d walk a thousand kilometers if I could just see you tonight” sound any better? “Stop! Don’t move a centimeter!”

    There’s something about the customary system that lends itself better to flowing rhetoric. What is it? Maybe it’s that the metric system is so closely tied to science, a decidedly unpoetic field. Maybe it’s similar to the general Germanic-Latinate perception distinction in English (although the metric system is mostly ultimately derived from Greek), where Germanic words are perceived as simpler and earthier, whereas Latinate words are perceived as haughty and highfalutin. Maybe it’s something else altogether.

    There are plenty of reasons to adopt the metric system in the US. But will we lose these expressions if/when the US finally switches over? The United Kingdom partially adopted the metric system in 1965. However, the imperial (customary) system remains widespread. Today, official signs use the imperial and metric systems side by side.

    Does full metrication mean the eventual loss of these great, useful English phrases? If our children and grandchildren only learn the metric system, would a phrase like “Don’t move an inch!” even carry any meaning?

    Would we even be aware of units like “peck” (“a peck of pickled peppers”) or “league” (“20,000 leagues under the sea”) if they weren’t used in common phrases?

    In the UK, where the customary system is supposed to exist side-by-side with the metric system, more obscure customary units are well on their way out (via Google Ngram):



    But more common customary units seem to be hanging on pretty robustly:

    miles vs. kilometres

    gallons vs. litres

    Google Ngram gets its results from the Google Books collection, a corpus that doesn’t include scientific journals (which would be bound to use the metric system, at least for the last hundred years). So despite partial metrication in the UK, customary units like miles and gallons are still widely used in non-scientific written works. Still, you can see a sharp down-tick in the use of “miles” and “gallons” (and a sharp uptick in the use of “km”) around 1965, when the UK officially adopted partial metrication.

    It’s conceivable that units like “miles” and “gallons” could be considered obscure, generations from now, after full metrication in the US and the UK. Maybe then we’d substitute in “kilometers” and “liters” in our figurative language. But I’m more inclined to think that they have more staying power than “bushel” or “peck” or “league,” if only for the volume of common phrases and ideas that they’re used in. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking, a premature nostalgia.

    Questions I don’t have the answer to, but hope that somebody does:

    • Can anyone think of common English phrases in which metric units are used?
    • Is there a similar distinction in other languages? Do French poets and writers prefer to use miles instead of kilometres? I know they both exist in the language, but France is a fully metricated country.
    • The Diacritics 9:30 am on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      It’s pretty common in swimming and diving. we say 100m pool and 3m diving board–we especially wouldn’t say that a pool has a 3 yard diving board.

      • The Diacritics 10:58 am on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Sorry — I should have clarified. Common figurative or poetic phrases that use the metric system. -Sandeep

    • Mark 10:23 am on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I’m British. As far as I know I’m typical of British people, at least those of my age (I’d expect older people to use metric less – though my 60 year old parents learnt only metric at school)

      I use miles and mph when driving, because I have mph on my speedo and road signs are all in miles and mph.

      When walking I sometimes use miles and sometimes km – km are handy because maps have 1km grid squares. Altitudes always in metres.

      Pints to me are what you drink in the pub. They’re not really a measure of volume otherwise. I don’t think I’d ever use gallons.

      I use inches and feet for rough estimated sizes in conversation. I would never measure anything in them (it annoys me that most tape measures are dual unit, you can get metric only ones but they’re hard to find)

      • The Diacritics 11:45 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        In the US, our speedometers have both miles and kilometers, but the kilometers are much smaller (and pretty hard to see) than the mile markers. Presumably it’s for drivers who travel to Canada and need to check their speed against metric road signs. What do the speedometers in Britain look like — are mph and kph the same size, or is one larger than the other?

    • sscandel 12:27 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I’ve often thought it funny that here in Canada, where we’ve been officially fully metric since the late ’70s, standard measurements still dominate the common language. When we talk about our weights or heights we talk in pounds, feet and inches, but the doctor will measure us in kilos and centimetres. Odd as it may seem, this is now only sometimes confusing. Imperial measurements have a way of holding on. Many industries still use SI measurements, and most of the phrases you mention are still used here.

    • 456 5:14 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      In Germany (fully metricated for ages), the words for old measurements are still well-known and are used in set phrases, most people know more or less what they mean (i.e., they know a pint is about half a litre, rather than knowing it’s 568ml(UK)/493ml(US)). But they don’t get much poetic use, maybe a parallel to your Vanessa Carlton example would be this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmUjoQ8rS-Y

      As for common English phrases, I think anything involving ton(ne) could be seen as ambiguous, especially from a UK/Aus/NZ/etc speaker. And there’s always the phrase “metric fuck ton” which is unambiguous. I have heard “he didn’t feel a gramme of remorse”, and “two metres under”. The general rule about metric units flowing naturally in speech in the UK seems to be that you have to use the basic form, so metres, grammes (and sometimes kilos), litres – phrases involving the milli-, centi-, bits wouldn’t be idiomatic. The phrases with imperial measurements remain much more common though, even when the units aren’t precisely known (e.g., my partner who grew up in the UK always has to look up how heavy a pound is in kilos, but has plenty of phrases with pound in them in his active vocabulary (“pound for pound”, etc).

      I think “league” at least might stick around for a while in the UK, because most school children seem to end up studying The Charge of the Light Brigade (“Half a league onward, into the valley of death rode the six hundred.”).

      • The Diacritics 11:44 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Thanks for the insight, especially for that song — it gives Vanessa Carlton a run for her money.

    • Licia 6:57 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Italy is fully metric and yet we still use some idiomatic expressions with the Italian equivalent of "mile”,  e.g. sentire/vedere/capire lontano un miglio (hear/see/understand from a mile off), which however coexists with lontano un chilometro. Another expression, essere lontano mille miglia (literally, "to be one thousand miles afar", meaning to be very far away / to be miles apart) is unlikely to be replaced because the alliteration /’mille ‘miʎʎa/ works well in Italian (mille and miglia are actually doublets).

      • The Diacritics 11:46 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        It’s interesting that the two idiomatic expressions coexist. Is one more appropriate in certain situations?

    • Danielle 8:44 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Hi Sandeep!!!!!

      a) I take issue with your statement that science is “a decidedly unpoetic field”. Whatever happened to fractals and Fibonacci sequences in nature? Or the concept of convergent evolution?

      b) Expressions are great. But the metric system has so much utility. Expressions <<<< not having to memorize a bajillion conversion factors.

      c) On I-89 in Vermont, there is one highway sign which shows distances to control cities in kilometers. (Update: Wikipedia says those signs were replaced in 2010. Bummer.) Do you know anything about why this is? Other than that Washington County, Vermont, is relatively close to Canada, why would this particular sign in this particular location mark distances in metric?

      • The Diacritics 8:55 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Hi Dani!

        a) Science can be poetic. But science doesn’t present itself as a field concerned with aesthetics — it’s just a natural consequence of the subject matter that things end up being beautiful. On the other hand, poets and writers are deliberately concerned with aesthetics.

        b) For those of us pursuing careers in science (e.g., you), and even to many of us who aren’t, the metric system is far more appealing than the customary system. But that doesn’t mean the customary system is useless — we grew up with the system, so you and I know how much a gallon contains, how much a pound weighs, and how many miles we just ran. It’s a useful skill for us to be able to think in terms of pounds and inches because we’re surrounded by those units. Until the US fully metricates — a massive task — it’ll still be useful to understand these units.
        Also, for the same poets and writers I referenced above, expressions >>>>>> having to convert a bajillion conversion factors.

        c) Interesting! I want to instinctively point to Vermont’s proximity to Canada. To me, that seems like a satisfactory explanation for that one sign. But maybe there are also a lot of Canadian immigrants in Vermont.

        • Danielle 9:01 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink

          c) But there are 13 Northern-more exits and 2 Northern-more counties between this sign and Canada. All of the Northern-more signs display distances in miles. So I’m not sure proximity to Canada is a satisfactory explanation.

          Maybe Waterbury, VT, just has a lot of Canadian immigrants, as you suggested.

          Do you ever think we’ll go fully metric? Somehow, I think our current politicians would find metrification “un-American”.

        • The Diacritics 11:55 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink

          I think the ghost of that metrication attempt in the 70s will continue to haunt any wishful metrication attempts in the near future.

    • Lauren 10:12 pm on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Here in Australia we happily embraced the metric system but still kept all the old phrases. I know exactly what it means to walk a mile in someone’s shoes, go the full 9 yards and make sure I don’t give an inch – but we don’t make our children sweat through learning an irregular and outdated measurement system just because of some kind of historical issue with England and France. Perhaps meter-based phrases will eventually and naturally come into existence but there’s no use fretting about losing the old ones while they’re still so deeply ingrained – even in those of us who don’t even know how many feet are in a mile.

      • The Diacritics 11:47 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        5,280, but who’s counting? (It’s sad, but I actually had to look that up!)

    • David 8:50 pm on November 12, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      From an American perspective, the post makes sense. As an Australian, growing up speaking English in a purely metric environment, the post makes no sense at all.

      I would have no qualms saying to someone “don’t move a millimetre” or “the car was leaking litres of oil”. It is really just a question of what you’re used to.

      For vague distances we still say things like “miles away”, but it would be considered a set phrase, and that’s about the extent of imperial measurements in everyday language here.

      • The Diacritics 11:48 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        You’re right that it’s probably a question of what you’re used to. I think to hear “don’t move a millimeter” would be quite jarring to an American.

    • Mats 2:27 am on November 14, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      In Swedish, expressions with pre-1875 units are alive and well. Also, the Swedish mile was redefined as ten kilometers, so that’s not an issue either.

      • The Diacritics 11:49 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Interesting! Is there a different word for that? Do you have to qualify it as a “Swedish mile” or is it just “mile” in Swedish? Do you instead have to qualify the imperial mile as being specifically imperial? (Perhaps similar to how Americans have to qualify “tonne” as a “metric ton” to avoid confusion with our unit ton.)

    • Phil 4:52 am on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Question asked, question answered. Phrases involving leagues and pecks survive quite comfortably despite the fact that hardly anyone is able to quantify the measures involved any more. Ditto for the vast majority of people reading the Bible who have no idea what a ‘cubit’ or ‘shekel’ is.

      In Czech, phrases like ‘ani centimetr’ (literally: “not even a centimetre”; figuratively: “Don’t move an inch”) are the norm. I cannot think of a single phrase or idiom involving customary units, though the language has a somewhat uniquely prescriptivist history (esp. in the 19th c.), so perhaps this isn’t quite the natural consequence of metrication.

      The Australian situation is outlined above quite aptly – the nation having metricated in the early 1980s. The phrases are alive and well, even as many of us can only guess at the exact distances involved. But, honestly, is knowing that 9 yards is ~8.25m really that essential to understanding the phrase “go the full 9 yards”? Personally, I find it rather inconsequential.

      • The Diacritics 11:53 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        The case of Czech seems to run counter to our “leagues” and “pecks,” doesn’t it? Maybe the difference is indeed inconsequential — but at some point, some writer has to ask himself why he’s using that phrase, right? And then, presumably, he would discard it altogether and move onto a more commonly understood unit.
        I wonder if it’s America’s fault, due to its role in global media, that customary units have stuck in our language. Maybe English is just itching to move on, like Czech, but it’s being held back by the US.

    • The Diacritics 11:42 pm on November 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for the responses, everyone — especially the insight from abroad!

    • Kit Grose 11:21 pm on November 22, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I’m from Australia. We had converted completely to metric by 1988, with the process starting in 1970.

      I grew up and was taught entirely in the metric system. My knowledge of imperial measurement extends only to conversations with older people who might still ask for 6 inches of something or with landmarks like 7-mile beach.

      The interesting point is that in Australian English, you wouldn’t ever say “don’t move a centimetre”. You’d say “don’t move an inch” or “don’t move”. Its also interesting that (as you mention) we wouldn’t say “907.2 kilograms of bricks”—we’d use “tonne” and be referring to 1,000kg. If we were referring to some number of kilograms, though, we’d almost always say “kilos” (as in “I weigh 80 kilos”).

      Since Australian English is driven by slang we’re often inclined to abbreviate and modify the words we use a lot. If you need to extend something a specific but tiny bit, you might say “give me 5 mills” (referring to millimetres). Since we use “kilo” to refer to weight, we often shorted kilometre to “kay” (as in “50 kays up the road”), or to “click”. We can use both terms to refer equally to distance or speed (since the “per hour” part is inferred; “I was doing 120 clicks” would mean 120 km/h). Just as often we’d drop the unit altogether (doing 120).

      So to answer your questions:

      “Can anyone think of common English phrases in which metric units are used?”

      No, but we would use (and/or understand) most of the American English phrases you mention.

      “Is there a similar distinction in other languages? Do French poets and writers prefer to use miles instead of kilometres? I know they both exist in the language, but France is a fully metricated country.”

      Can’t help here, though.

  • The Diacritics 7:00 am on October 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: congo, country, definite articles, , , geography, google ngram, iraq, nation, popular usage, rule, the congo, the ukraine, ukraine, usage   

    Indefinite definite articles: the Ukraine or Ukraine? 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    In 2007, Miss Teen South Carolina embarrassed herself in the Miss Teen USA pageant by giving a famously terrible answer to a simple question. Buried somewhere in the maze of her response were two references to Iraq, except in both instances she referred to the country as “the Iraq.” There are plenty of things wrong with what she said, but calling “the Iraq” was especially (and laughably) jarring to me. We just don’t call Iraq “the Iraq.”

    But why? Is it really so simple, that we just don’t add the definite article “the” to Iraq? There are innumerable other examples of countries that don’t take a definite article, of course. All of which would sound ridiculous with a definite article: “the France,” “the Greece,” “the India.”

    But there are a handful of countries which do take definite articles. There are two main patterns.

    The Gambia.

    The Gambia.

    (1) It seems that many countries whose names derive from important geographical features, such as “the Philippines” (islands) or “the Gambia” (river) or “the Netherlands” (lowlands) take a definite article. (Consider similar formations in the names of solely geographical features, such as “the Amazon” or “the Sahara.”)

    (2) Then there’s the United States of America and the United Kingdom, which take a definite article because the countries’ names describes their political organization. (This becomes clearer when you consider similar formations in many countries’ official names, such as “the Republic of China” [Taiwan] or “the Russian Federation” or “the United Mexican States.”)

    Mexico map.

    The United Mexican States.

    For most countries’ names in English, the presence or lack of a definite article is settled. But there are still other conflicts about whether to use “the.”

    (The) Ukraine

    Consider (the) Ukraine. Both “the Ukraine” and “Ukraine” are used in English. Personally, I’ve always used “the Ukraine,” but we’ll see below that my usage is likely misguided.

    A commonly accepted etymology of the word Україна (Ukrayina) is “borderland.” Based on this etymology, the “geographical feature” rule described above could explain the presence of the definite article in “the Ukraine.” But there’s still some level of uncertainty about Ukraine’s etymology — some believe it to be an ancient ethnonym of the Ukranian people, among other etymologies — so that rule doesn’t seem very persuasive here. The geographical rule for definite articles only seems to be useful when the country’s name is obviously referring to a geographical feature. We don’t use definite articles with countries whose names now have tenuous connections to geographical features — like India (the Indus River) or Indonesia (“Indian archipelago”).

    The use of “the Ukraine” stirs up intense passion among Ukranians, in fact. Some argue that the systematic use of “the Ukraine,” especially before its independence from the U.S.S.R., was used by English-language authors and journalists to subjugate the people and nation of Ukraine by demoting it to a mere region, a mere feature of the larger U.S.S.R.

    A similar issue has raised hackles in the Ukranian language itself. The use of the preposition na “on,” before “Ukraine,” has been scrapped for v “in,” within Ukraine. According to this site, the Ukranian government requested the change in 1993. Russian prescriptivists, quoted on the same site, continue to demand na, based on “tradition”:

    Литературная норма не может измениться в одночасье из-за каких-либо политических процессов.

    “Literary norms cannot change overnight because of any political process.”

    Some have pointed out that the style guides of many newspapers and magazines, including The Washington Post and The Economist, have explicitly required the use of “Ukraine” rather than “the Ukraine” after its independence. (I don’t have a copy of these style guides, so I can’t confirm, but there are secondary sources online which mention the shift.)

    Ukraine map.

    Ukraine or The Ukraine?

    I did a Google Ngram search to see the frequency of the phrases “in Ukraine” and “in the Ukraine” over the last 50 years in books. There’s a definite shift around 1993, soon after Ukranian independence (and the same year that the Ukranian government requested the preposition shift from “on” to “in”) from “the Ukraine” (red) to “Ukraine” (blue). Click the image below for a larger version.

    Similar data for the phrases “from the Ukraine” (red) and “from Ukraine” (blue).

    As someone who has been using “the Ukraine” for the past decade, I guess I’ll have to make a shift to the apparently more acceptable “Ukraine.”

    (The) Congo

    But what about the Democratic Republic of the Congo? (The) Congo’s name refers to the Congo River, which itself refers to the pre-colonial Kongo Kingdom. Some sources use “the Congo” whereas others use “Congo.” The official name of (the) Congo uses a definite article: “the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” similar to other definite-articled nations like “the Republic of the Gambia” (the Gambia) and unlike nations such as “the Republic of South Africa” (merely South Africa).

    People I know who have traveled often to (the) Congo, including my undergraduate advisor Brian Hare, call it “Congo.” News outlets, such as CNN, also use “Congo.” But check out these Google Ngram graphs.

    “From Congo” versus “from the Congo” usage from 1800-2000. “From the Congo” (red) is significantly more popular.

    Similar data for “in Congo” (blue) versus “in the Congo” (red).

    Perhaps the continued popularity of the phrase “the Congo” is due to the recurrence of the imagery of the Congo rainforest (a geographical feature) over references to the actual nation. My advisor Brian Hare’s globetrotting author wife Vanessa Woods wrote a book about bonobos (who live almost exclusively within [the] Congo) and the subtitle of the book uses the phrase “the Congo.” But was that usage referring to the country or to the rainforest? It’s debatable.

    So while Miss Teen South Carolina was clearly veering from popular usage when she called Iraq “the Iraq,” other cases aren’t so clear. It’s worth noting that some languages draw a bright line — French, for example, tacks on a definite article to all non-neuter-gender countries: even though “the France,” “the Greece,” and “the India” might sound strange to us, “la France,” “la Grèce,” and “l’Inde” are par for the course in France.

    • John Cowan 12:31 pm on October 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      The official name of the U.S. is “United States of America”, no article, though no one ever uses it that way. Similarly, the United Church of Christ doesn’t use an article officially.

    • lynneguist 3:29 pm on October 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      There’s also some variation on this kind of thing between British and American English. I did a post on that a long time ago, if you’re interested: http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2007/04/gambia-lebanon-etc.html

      • The Diacritics 4:00 pm on October 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Thanks for sending this along! I’m curious whether it’s Americans or Brits who are more concerned about the “colonialist” undertones of using “the.” -S

    • Alex 8:25 pm on October 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      In German, it’s “der Irak” and “der Iran”. German doesn’t tend to use definite articles for countries but those two are generally accepted exceptions.

    • Irena Bell 11:00 am on October 9, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Great article ! ‘ Ukraine ‘ it is !

    • stuartnz 5:13 am on October 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      The use of the article is a feature of NZE when it comes to the two main islands of Aotearoa. Native speakers will say “THE North Island” and “THE South Island”, treating the compass points as adjectives , non-native speakers (except perhaps Aussies, who may know better) almost invariably say “North Island” and “South Island”, as if that’s what they were actually called. Te Ika a Maui and Te Wai Pounamu both include the article, though. 🙂

    • Lane 2:59 pm on October 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

    • Mark Bej 3:42 pm on October 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I do not believe that “geographical features”, nor a description of political organization have anything to do with the use of the definite article. The definite article is used when the name of the country includes a noun that is a “regular” English word, i.e., not merely a proper noun. Thus: “the Netherlands”, because this is literally, the nether (low) lands. Compare, for example, against “Holland”, which never takes the definite article. “The Philippines” is so most likely because of the implication of “Islands” thereafter; similarly with “the Azores”, “the Antilles”, yet we say “Indonesia”, without the article, since the country is not called “the Indonesian Islands”. In the case of the US and UK, it’s because “States” and “Kingdom” are regular English words that just happen to be a part of these names. Compare, for example: “South Africa”, but “_The_ Union of South Africa”.

      The other consistent pattern is that regions take the definite article. The Amazon, the Sahara, the Sahel, the Himalayas, the Midwest, the New World, etc., all exemplify this. “The Sudan” would thus be a now-outdated reference to that portion of Africa in those years when, politically, it was a region of a colony under England’s control. This is the most likely explanation as to why “the Ukraine” came to be used in English.

      As to “the Gambia”, I have never been able to figure out why that country’s government insisted on the definite article being used, but it certainly does not follow the usual English pattern.

      Note that French does not have a neuter gender. It would not be unusual to see some degree of transference (insisting on the definite article where it does not belong, or insisting on its absence where it should be used) by those whose native languages are not English.

      • The Diacritics 4:11 pm on October 15, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        I’m not sure that you understood the thrust of my argument. Your points actually do fit neatly into my categories: the Netherlands (lowlands), the Philippines (islands), the Azores (islands)– these are all geographical features. Similarly, the regions that you point out all take “the” and they are all geographical features (desert, river, etc.). And the political organization (Union, States, Kingdom) also informs the use of “the” in a country’s name, whether it’s their official or common name.
        The Gambia uses “the” probably because the country is named after the Gambia River, hence a geographical feature.
        You point out correctly that French does not have a neuter gender, but the names of countries/political units that are also islands do not have a gender. So you would say Je vais à Hawai (I’m going to Hawaii), whereas for gendered countries/political units you would use the prepositions “au” or “à la” depending on the gender.

        • Mark Bej 2:34 pm on October 19, 2011 Permalink

          Not at all, I understood your argument quite well.

          My argument is that the use of the “the” has nothing to do with a geographical feature. Rather, (in my view) it has everything to do with the fact that “land[s]”, “island[s]”, “state[s]”, and “union” — the latter two of these decidedly *not* geographical feature, but a man-made one — have semantic meaning in the English language, whereas “Congo”, “Ukraine” etc. have no semantic meaning outside of its meaning as a proper noun.

    • Julie 10:13 pm on October 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I use “Gambia,” not “the Gambia.” I’ve never heard anyone say it with the article before…

    • johnwcowan 11:18 am on November 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Here is Arnold Zwicky’s list of Language Log postings on anarthrous (article-free) proper names. In French, the rules are fairly simple: all such names are arthrous unless they are abbreviations of more complex forms. Thus Maurice (Mauritius) takes no article because it is short for l’île de Maurice.

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