Use of the Definite Article with Geographic Place-Names


I'd like to hear some feedback concerning this problem.


The rules for using the definite article "the" with place-names and organization names are complex. Sometimes the definite article is required, and sometimes it is not, depending on what noun type is being used. For instance, with the names of rivers, we are told that we must use the definite article. But with the names of lakes, we should not. I am told that the rule for rivers stems from speech. It allows use to differentiate between different meanings of the same word. Mississippi means the state, while the Mississippi refers to the river. So far, it makes sense.


I am writing about a part of California that has several rivers, and the regional speech pattern does not follow this rule. Almost always in speech and much of the time in print, the residents refer to their rivers as the San Joaquin River, Old River, and Middle River. Old River and Middle River do not receive the definite article while the San Joaquin River does.


I suspect this reversal of the rule developed so that speakers could distinguish Old River (the place) from the old river (a more generic term not necessarily associated with the loal river). Ditto for Middle River.


Clearly, I am breaking the rules if my writing follows the regionalism. Throughout my manuscript, I have tried to use the place-name that was current during the period I write about. That is, when writing about the Mexican era, I use the Spanish place-name, not the modern English name that a developer came up with last year. I take pains to make sure the reader knows the place I'm writing about, but I am trying to immerse the reader in the history and "feel" of the place -- the cultural landscape -- through the words I choose.


Omitting the definite article with Old River and Middle River would further that goal. If choose this course, I plan on mentioning it -- along with related items concerning the use of era-appropriate place-names -- in the foreward.


What do you think of this plan?

edited Sep 08 '12 at 01:31 Jeff Pribyl Grammarly Fellow

1 answer


My answer is really my train of thought on this.  I’m having trouble cleaning it up, so I think I’ll just leave it as is and hope you can follow or that it makes sense. I've had a helluva week & my brain is a bit fried.


Even though Old and Middle are parts of the names of the rivers, can they be looked at as a determiner of sorts?  We can say that new forests make better carbon sinks than old forests, and we don’t have to use any articles.  That works well with plural nouns, but the river is singular.




What about uncountable nouns?  We ask if you want some water or say that is old news.  But you are talking about a specific river, which is countable.  Many liquids fall under the category of uncountable: milk, juice, gasoline, paint, blood, oil.


So maybe if we look at the combination of old and middle being used as determiners and a river being liquid, we can see why people drop the definite article in these instances.  It's a thought.


I have to add one unrelated comment.  I’m going to assume that you made a typo when you spelled foreword with an a.  I make that assumption because, well, you are too well-versed and this format doesn't have a spell-checker in the box to catch our typos.  But I can’t tell you how often I have seen this word misspelled.  My company binds small runs of soft-cover books.  That means we see a lot of self-published works. I will venture to say that more than half the time the foreword (when there is one) is spelled foreward or forward.  Oh, that just gets my goat.  I think it's great that people can self-publish, it gives me work.  But sometimes I just want to ask them to try a spell-checker or editor. (Stepping off my high horse now.)  

link answered Sep 08 '12 at 05:32 Patty T Grammarly Fellow

Yes, it is a typo. When writing, I tend to type ny thoughts and then edit, edit, edit. The forum doesn't let me do that. Besides the Word spellchecker (highly customized), the now 95% complete manuscript takes multiple passes through several different grammar checkers. For printing, it runs through a different InDesign spell checker. I've also developed a VBA macro that checks for about 3,000 specific errors of usage. The macro also forces me to render place-names, especially Spanish place-names, the same way each time. The question above came about because I was thinking of adding this to the macro. Finally, to keep me honest, I have three regular second readers, high school girls who are daughters of friends. One is the niece of my professional editor who will get the last crack at it. Through this, I am hoping to avoid the typical self-published/small press problems.

Jeff PribylSep 08 '12 at 13:51

I'm thinking that you have a fairly good chance of avoiding those problems, Jeff. ;-) Since my company doesn't print (just binds) the deed is already done when I see it. Sometimes I call the printer & let them know. Nowadays, they aren't paid to proofread because they aren't typesetting anymore. So they just print what the customer gives them without reading it.

Patty TSep 08 '12 at 14:59

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