Country Names and 'The': The Ukraine or Ukraine

You used to hear people say "the Ukraine," but now it's just "Ukraine." Here's why!

Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read
Episode #694

Ukraine has been in the news a lot lately, but if you’re a bit on the older side, you may remember that it used to be more common to call it “the Ukraine,” with that article in front: the Ukraine.

Have you ever wondered why some countries have “the” in the name and others don’t? Why is it the Philippines but simply Greece? Why is it the Netherlands, but simply India? 

Is it really so simple that we just don’t add the definite article “the” to Greece and India? 

Most countries don’t take a definite article, of course, and it sounds ridiculous when you add one to them: “the France,” “the Greece,” “the India.” It sounds silly!

But there are a handful of countries that do take definite articles, and there are two main patterns.

The Gambia

First,  it seems that many countries whose names derive from important geographical features take a definite article. For example, “the Philippines” refers to the Philippine islands, “the Gambia” refers to the Gambia River,  and “the Netherlands” literally means “the lowlands.” (For comparison, think about  the names of geographical regions, such as “the Amazon” and “the Sahara.”)

Second, we have the United States of America and the United Kingdom, both of 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” [another name for Taiwan] or “the Russian Federation” or “the United Mexican States.”)

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

(The) Ukraine

A handful of countries take definite articles, and there are two main patterns.

And that takes us back to (the) Ukraine. Both “the Ukraine” and “Ukraine” have been used in English, but “Ukraine” alone has been becoming more common, and “Ukraine” alone is AP style, so that is what you will see and hear in most news stories today.

It’s common to hear that the name comes from the word “Ukrayina,” which means “borderland.” Based on this etymology, the “geographical feature” rule we talked about could explain the presence of the definite article in “the Ukraine.” But there’s still some level of uncertainty about Ukraine’s etymology—some people believe it to be just an ancient name for the Ukrainian people, and some people have other ideas—so that rule doesn’t seem very persuasive here.

The geographic 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 (whose name originally came from the Indus River) or Indonesia (which derives from the Greek words for “Indian islands”).

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And the use of “the Ukraine” stirs up intense passion among Ukrainians. 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 Ukrainian language itself. The use of the preposition “na,” meaning “on,” before “Ukraine,” has been scrapped for “v,” meaning “in,” within Ukraine. According to an article on a Russian website, the Ukrainian government requested the change in 1993. Russian prescriptivists quoted in the article continued to demand “na,” based on “tradition” though:

[They said] “Literary norms cannot change overnight because of any political process.”

Today, many newspaper and magazine style guides, including those from "The Economist" and the Associated Press explicitly recommend the use of “Ukraine” rather than “the Ukraine.” 

Ukraine or The Ukraine?

A Google Ngram search can tell us the frequency of the phrases “in Ukraine” and “in the Ukraine” over the last 50 years in books, and there’s a definite shift around 1993 from “the Ukraine” (red) to “Ukraine” alone (blue), soon after Ukrainian independence (and the same year that the Ukrainian government requested the preposition shift from “on” to “in”). 

Based on style guide recommendations and searches, it’s best to use simply “Ukraine,” without the definite article.

A Google Ngram of "Ukraine" versus "the Ukraine"

(The) Congo

Next, 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” alone. 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).

Google Ngram graphs show that “the Congo” is significantly more popular in published books.

A Google Ngram of "Congo" versus "the Congo"

However, anecdotally, people who’ve traveled to the region call it “Congo” and news outlets, such as CNN and the Associated Press, use simply “Congo.”

It’s possible 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. We don’t have a clear answer for this one, but if you’re following AP style, use simple “Congo."

Finally, 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.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Note from Mignon: This article is based on a piece written for Quick and Dirty Tips by Sandeep Prasanna in 2012. However, it needed updating, and Sandeep wasn’t available to do it, so he gave me permission to rework it, and that’s the version you see here.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.