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

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