The use of "the" in place names.

This question was asked of me by my 12 year old son, and I didn’t have an answer for him, so I’m turning it over to the teeming millions.

Some place names are preceeded by “the” but not others. For example we say *the * Pacific Ocean, *the * Brazos River, *the * Rocky Mountains, but just Deer Creek, Lake Michigan, Pikes Peak, etc. There seems to be a general rule that the larger the geographic entity, the more likely that its name will be prefaced with “the”.

What is really odd is that whatever the rule is, it never seems to be broken. You never hear someone saying “We went swimming in Pacific Ocean” or “I went swimming in *the * Lake Michigan”.

Off the top of my head, it seems like “the” is only used when the first word of a multi-word place name is an adjective.

Then there’s places like The Woodlands, TX.

Such as The Hague :wink:

Really, I agree. It has a lot to do with the adjective coming first. There are exceptions, though… you’ll hear that something happened "on…

The Pacific Ocean
The Cataraqui River
Lake Michigan
Mount Logan
Yonge Street

But occasionally:
The river Nile
The Plains of Abraham

And, in the opposite case,
Big Trout Lake
… and probably some others.

Usually there’s a ‘the’ for rivers and oceans, but not for lakes, streets, and mountains. But sometimes there are. I’m not sure what to make of it, aside from a couple of places being famous enough to be different.

And The Pas, Manitoba.

Don’t forget Da Bronx.

I don’t think it’s dependent on the placement of the adjetive. No lakes that I know of start with the:

Lake Travis
Inks Lake
Lake Buchanan
Town Lake
Lake Michigan
Oil Mill Lake

All rivers start with the:

The Brazos River
The Rio Grande
The River Nile or the Nile River

Cities, towns and states don’t use the regardless of an adjective. (The Woodlands was developed in the early '70s, and the name was given a preceeding “the” as a marketing ploy):

New York
South Dakota
Grand Salina

But general areas do:

The Dakotas
The Balcones Fault
The Plains of Georgia

Salt water bodies seem to vary more or less by size:

The Pacific Ocean
The Straights of Magellan
The Gulf of Mexico

but Norton Sound
Tampa Bay

Is there a common rule concerning the use of the word “the” in regards to buildings? For instance, while a certain very big building in New York City is always called “The Empire State Building”, the place where the New York Mets play their home games is never called “The Shea Stadium.”

Oregon has a town called The Dalles, Then of coures, there is The Hauge.

This is an interesting thread. It kinds of made me wonder why I had never wondered aobut it before, if you see what I mean.Regarding mountains and lakes, now I know just diggin out one or two exceptions will get us nowehre, bbut…

My first reaciton was to agree that these never have “the” as part of the name, closely followed (predictably enough) by remembering that here in Scotland we have a hil;/mountain named “The Rest and Be Thankful”. I can’t think of other examples but I I have been giving it much thought, (though it will probably keep me awake al night wondering about it :slight_smile: )

Lakes - still in Scotland, we have one named “The Lake of Menteith”, wheres other lochs are all simply Loch Lomond, Loch Nevis and so on. (The Lake of Menteith is actually our only “lake” too, but I digress.)

As mentioned above. But chances are “The Hague” comes from the natives’ name for the place - “Den Haag”.

(Oh, and don’t get me started on the ignorant peers of mine who insisted the place was called “La Haye”, and Not The Hague… because place names don’t translate with languages and La Haye is the real name. :mad: )

Noodling out a few more rules:

Nearly all plural place names seem to take articles: the Rocky Mountains, the Netherlands, the Two Sicilies, the Queen Charlotte Islands, etc.

Country names that contain a political form in the name have an article: the Indian Union, the People’s Republic of China, the United Kingdom, the French Republic, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Individual mountains don’t: Mount Logan, Pikes Peak.

Placenames containing a noun that isn’t a usual generic (such as lake, river, etc.) often have an article: the Canadian Shield, the Devil’s Punchbowl.

Bays have an article when the bay comes first (the Bay of Fundy) but not when it comes after (Hudson Bay, James Bay). Likewise for islands: the Isle of Wight, but Prince Edward Island. Both “the Georgia Strait” and “Georgia Strait” are used, but there’s always an article for a preceding strait: “the Straits of Gibraltar.”

Gulfs have articles (the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Saint Lawrence).

Seas and oceans have articles: the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Cortez.

A few geographical features that just have a single name have articles: the Bosporus, the Hellespont, the Crimea.


Here in Los Angeles, we refer to the freeways with “the” in front of the name or number. “Take the 405 to the 5, get off at the Griffith Park exit. If you get to the Ventura Freeway, you’ve gone too far.”

However, Northern Californians don’t. They take 80 to 280, or whathaveyou, instead of the 80 to the 280.


I have my theories, but they’re mostly based in NoCal-SoCal rivalry and the chance to get in a dig at Northerners, so I’ll not repeat them.

Don’t some place names have articles because they were named after specific places or things within their borders? For instance, The Hague ('s Gravenhaag) means The (Duke’s) Hedge. And while they usually don’t say The Congo or The Gambia anymore, weren’t both those countries named for the rivers they contain? So, originally, someone would have said, I’m going to the Congo, meaning that he was going to explore or navigage the Congo River, and then that name came to be applied to the whole country.

When the Ukraine became independent in 1991, its government issued a notice to the world to drop the “the”.* Now it’s just plain “Ukraine.” A cynic like myself would note that the Ukrainian language doesn’t have a definite article. But the explanation given was that “the” in a place name is used for a region or a subunit. They dropped it to emphasize that they were a full-fledged nation in their own right.

The same thing happened with Sudan’s name in 1992: they officially went from being “the Sudan” in English to just plain “Sudan.” The weird thing about this is that the country’s name in Arabic still uses the definite article: al-Sûdân. They only dropped it in English, not in Arabic. Why this selective deletion?

Some definite articles used to be used in country names, but have long since been forgotten in English: Argentina was once called “the Argentine”; why, I have no idea. Argentina just sounds better. Yemen (in Arabic, al-Yaman) was once called “the Yemen”, perhaps reflecting the Arabic definite article in its name — but no more in English. Lebanon, before it became a country in 1943, was once called “the Lebanon” (its name in Arabic, Lubnân, does not use the article). But I think “the Lebanon” actually referred not to the country but to the highland massif now known as Mount Lebanon.

*Band name!

The Great Salt Lake.

Which actually seems to go both ways, with the The and without.

Otto, I’ve never heard the Great Salt Lake referred to without the article. Just saying it out loud without it sounds totally foreign to me.

I’ve always heard “the” before named roads, but never before numbered ones.

And by the way, there’s **Los **Angeles and **Las **Vegas and **El ** Paso.

This SDMBer is a resident of The Dalles, Oregon. in fact, I’m a former president of the chamber of commerce, though that was decades past. There’s a quaint little ritual we go through when explaining the name of the town to someone from, say, the East Coast.

“No, it’s two words. Yes, the “the” is part of the name. That’s right. T-H-E D-A-L-L-E-S. No, not Dallas. The final vowel is an “e,” not an “a.” Otherwise, it might end up in the Willamette Valley town Dallas, Oregon.”

We can blame the French for our name: this is the word, from According to Oregon Geographic Names, 6th Edition by Lewis L. McArthur, p.594

Hope that’s helpful.