Naming countries in English is generally pretty straightforward. You just say the name and, well, that’s it. France, Germany, Ireland etc. But while having a look at where my blog visitors came from yesterday (I’m always intrigued by where you all come from), I noticed a few cases of country names that require just a little bit more grammar. Those were: the Netherlands, the Philippines, and the United Arab Emirates. Not a huge difference, but obviously, these countries are always preceded by the.
You can probably think of a few more similar names: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Ukraine, the Czech Republic, the Bahamas, and so forth. But why do these countries get special treatment?
Basically, it’s just to make them easier to say. With longer names like the United States and the United Kingdom, you’ve got compound nouns with adjectives, which ordinarily use the in normal English usage, and it would therefore sound strange if countries with similar structures didn’t include the. Imagine saying just United Kingdom or United States: it’d sound too abrupt. With island groups like the Philippines or the Bahamas, we include the because we’re referring to specific islands and we need the to specify which ones. This would be clearer if we kept the word islands, e.g. The Bahama Islands. But we drop islands because it’s obvious they’re islands, but we still keep the word the. The Netherlands is a funny one because it’s not entirely composed of islands, but they do make up a significant part of it, and more importantly, because we’re used to the accompanying plural country names of island groups, we include it with the Netherlands because it sounds more natural. So generally, it’s with a country with a compound name, or with a plural name.
The Ukraine is a more complex one though. First of all, it really should just be Ukraine. The main reason it still gets called the Ukraine is that until independence in 1991, it was known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the the has just stuck around. Many Ukrainians however, felt after independence that the the denigrated their country, reminding them of Soviet rule. And I’d imagine that these days, Ukrainians feel even more strongly than usual about not including the the.
You may however, decide to forget entirely about using the or not when I tell you that officially, there are only two countries in the world that include the as part of their name. And those countries are: The Bahamas, and The Gambia (and because it’s an official part of their name, The is capitalised). Yep, just those two, according to pretty authoritative sources such as the CIA World Factbook, the US Department of State, and the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World. You can see this yourself by checking the Wikipedia article for particular countries. None will feature the in the title except these two. There’s nothing particularly special about these two that means they keep the: it’s probably just a short form of their old names: The Commonwealth of the Bahamas, and The Republic of Gambia.
What does this all mean for you then? To be honest, not much really. You can still use the with most of the countries you already do. It’d sound very strange indeed if you suddenly started United Kingdom or Philippines. Even though the isn’t officially part of their names, usage dictates that in terms of grammar and sound, they work better with it. Go back to a Wikipedia article about one of these countries (e.g. the Netherlands), go beyond the title, and notice how in the text, the is included in every mention of the name of the country. The only country I’d specifically suggest not including the with is Ukraine, because of the offense it might cause to Ukrainians. The is a small but powerful word, making the difference between and independent nation and an old Soviet satellite. I know which one I’d prefer to be.
Thanks to this BBC article for some helpful information: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-18233844