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There is no “the” in Ukraine

November 14, 2011

The other day, an English teacher from the Pedagogical University asked me why in English we say “the Ukraine” instead of simply “Ukraine”. I told her that I honestly did not know, as in my view, Ukraine is the name of the country, and calling it “the Ukraine” would be akin to saying “the France” or “the China” – awkward and wrong.

Of course, usage of “the Ukraine” still persists, even with many people with whom I am friends. I have not out and out told these people it is wrong, because I do not want to offend anyone. But now, I decided it is time to do a little research and find out exactly WHY this started in the first place. I thought maybe because “the Ukraine” was part of the Soviet Union (and, I remember from my childhood, known as “the breadbasked” of the USSR). Of course, this was just a theory, and likely it is wrong. But I would like to be able to provide an intelligent answer when asked this question again, or to be able to adequately explain to people why it is incorrect to say “the Ukraine”.

According to everyone’s favorite source, Wikipedia, “In English, the country was formerly often referred to with the definite article, that is, the Ukraine (as in the Netherlands, the Gambia, the Bronx, the Congo, and the Sudan), and occasionally still is. However, usage without the article is now more frequent. This approach has also become established in journalism and diplomacy since the country’s independence… The use of the definite article is standard in some other languages such as  French (l’Ukraine) or German (die Ukraine), although the latter is generally required for all non-neuter place names.”

The Sudan? I don’t even remember that one…the Netherlands makes sense because it is plural (like the United States) and the Bronx just makes no sense because it is not a country…but anyway…

Ukrainian has no definite articles, so our habit of saying “the Ukraine” did not come from Ukrainian. Same with Russian – no definite articles. No articles are required in front of a name of a country unless it is plural (again, the United States, the Netherlands) . Major newspapers and style guides do not use it and advise against it.

So with all of these reasons working against using “the Ukraine”, why do people still use it?

Habit, I guess. Or laziness. Or ignorance of the the correct way to say it. Or any other number of reasons.

There is a forum on ukraine.com that addresses this subject, however, not with any aspect of scholarliness – merely people’s different opinions. General opinion holds that it was popular to say “the Ukraine” when the country was a territory of the Soviet Union (hey, I was right in that respect!).

Does any of this mean that people will change how they refer to it? Probably not. However, if you come to Ukraine, I suggest dropping the “the” when referring to their country – it tends to bother them.

As for my answer to tne English teacher, after I explained my theory, and she kept asking, I simply told her that she was looking for a logical answer where there IS no logical answer.

‘Nuff said.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 14, 2011 9:20 am

    Karin-

    The usage of “the” in fornt of Ukraine is correct. It is like a collocation- there is no rhyme or reason to it, it just is. And just like with collocations and irregular verbs- you just have to memorize it. Yes, some of the countries/ places are plural, but that is not the case in all instances. For example, it is correct to say “the Czech Republic” even though it is just one country and not a collection of states. It is, also, correct to say “the Bronx”. try to use it in a sentence without it- doesn’t sound right. I’m going to Bronx tomorrow to visit a friend. Sometimes there are no specific rules in English, something just is. Yes, some academics and journalists are trying to get away from using ‘the Ukraine’ but it is not grammatically incorrect to say it. As a teacher, if one of my students were to write ‘Ukraine’ without the article, I would mark it incorrect.

    Hope that helps clear things up a bit…..it’s the joy of English!!

    Jen

  2. November 14, 2011 9:21 am

    And yes, as an English teacher I realize I made a few typos up there….always happens when I’m trying to make a point about grammar 😉

  3. November 14, 2011 10:27 am

    Jen – I must respectfully disagree. All modern sources and style guides say that the usage of “the” is INCORRECT.

  4. November 14, 2011 12:39 pm

    By the way..my comment about the Bronx was related to the fact that the author of the article was talking about countries, then suddenly mentions a neighborhood/borough. Seemed to not fit the argument.

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