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The Punjab is a rich state.

Is it correct to use the before Punjab?

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Was 'the Punjab' considered a region before it became an official state? –  oosterwal Mar 8 '11 at 5:24
I often hear "The Ukraine" as well for some reason. –  tenfour Mar 8 '11 at 9:45
@oosterwal: I believe it still is. Some of the region is now in Pakistan and some of it remains in India. I'm not completely certain about this but I think that when we speak of the region, we call it "the Punjab", and when we speak of the official state, it's usually just Punjab (without the article). Because of its long history as a British province (and being mentioned as "the Punjab" in old British writing), the state is sometimes still referred to as the Punjab. –  Tragicomic Mar 8 '11 at 9:54
@Tragicomic: You should submit your response as an answer. I think it explains why we can use a definite article before Punjab, but not Spain, better than the other answers already provided. –  oosterwal Mar 8 '11 at 14:18
I would simply have consulted with "Articles with Geographic Names" –  Gennady Vanin Novosibirsk Mar 9 '11 at 5:34
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5 Answers

There are certain countries and regions which are traditionally referred to with the definite article: anywhere where the proper name is a description (The United States, The Gold Coast, The Windward Isles), but also certain names which are not (The Ukraine, The Punjab, The Gambia, The Argentine).

Some which were traditionally used this way are no longer: "The Argentine" is now usually replaced by "Argentina"; I believe that the government of Ukraine have specifically requested that their country not be referred to in English as "The Ukraine".

Descriptive names where the description is merely identifying one part of a whole do not usually take "the": North Korea, British Honduras, Inner Mongolia.

Many countries with simple names have a formal name which is a description, and these of course take "the": The Republic of China, The Dominion of Canada.

The use of "the" with a country or region name is rarely optional: in nearly all cases it is fixed, depending on the country or region.

Phrases like "The Spain of General Franco" are entirely different: they are a construction which can be used with proper nouns in general: "The John I used to know", "The Liverpool he returned to".

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Quibble and FYI. The Dominion of Canada was never an official formal name and fell out of use after WWII, although it did appear on some official documents up to 1967. The Canada Act of 1982 made the official, formal name of Canada simply: Canada. –  ghoppe Mar 8 '11 at 13:46
+1. I would still however love to know why Ukraine ever was called "The Ukraine". –  tenfour Mar 8 '11 at 14:36
@Colin: I think that with some of your examples in the first paragraph, they were indeed originally thought of as descriptive. Ukraine means something like "borderlands"; Punjab means "five rivers"; Gambia is the name of the river that bisects the country, and those often get a definite article (the Mississippi, for example); and Argentine means "silver-bearing area." –  Alex Mar 8 '11 at 14:40
@Alex: yes, in the case of Argentine, that is (barely) an English word. But Ukraine and Punjab are different cases: they have no meaning in English (and it cannot be a loan translation, because they come from languages without definite articles). Actually I have a theory that regions, as opposed to countries, were often construed with "the", unless they ended with "-ia". I know there are lots of counter-examples, so it doesn't work as a genuine rule, but I think there is a grain of truth in it. –  Colin Fine Mar 8 '11 at 14:46
Yes, but why "the Punjab" and not "the Bengal"? –  Peter Shor Mar 8 '11 at 22:15
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Along with the answers already here, it may be helpful to know that the Punjab is a geographical region, some of which is in India and some in Pakistan. When we speak of the region, we call it the Punjab, and when we speak of the official state, it's usually just Punjab (without the article). In historical writing as well, the region is referred to as the Punjab.

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+1 The reference in the example must be to the region Punjab, 'the land of five rivers', not to the state. The sentence is incorrect. Either you say 'The Punjab' or 'Punjab state'. –  Kris Sep 26 '12 at 12:53
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IMO, it's all about plural and singular.

You could even argue that loosing the definite article is actually the last state of a normal process in the evolution of a country's name as it progresses towards unity.

For instance, in this thread Spain is often cited as a reference of not having an associated definite article. That's certainly true today but that was not always the case.
Back in the Roman era what we now call the Iberian Peninsula was called Hispania. There were at various times more than one Roman province therein (Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior; later Hispania Tarraconensis, Hispania Baetica, and Lusitania; and in the Verona List a total of six "Hispaniae", including part of North Africa) [Thanks to Peter Taylor for this Precision].
Then, in the XVth century Fernando de Aragon and Isabel de Castilla were referred to as "Reyes de las Españas".
Nowadays, that it is a single entity again nobody in Spain would use "Las Españas" or "En la España" but instead "En España".

Punjab, as everybody knows, being the land of 5 rivers, still conveys a sense of plural, which could justify an article.

Evolution Path
As a rule of thumb, you could theorise that when several entities are grouped together, an implicit plural is present in the place name and that this implies an article.
After a while, though, if there is no ambiguity (if the proper name has no other meaning), then the group type ("islands", "lands", "united") is dropped but the article remains (at least for a while) and that is the root cause of the confusion.

  1. Dropped "islands" - still with article:
    The Azores, the Canaries, the Falklands, the Galapagos. However nobody dares to shorten "the Virgin Islands" to the "Virgins" because that could generate some misunderstanding ;-).

  2. Lands: The Netherlands (plural because these are the lands at or below sea level): in most languages, with plural article. But nobody says "The England", "The Scotland" because Angles and Scots have only one land.
    One special case is Flanders (no article in English, Dutch, Spanish and German but an article in French (plural), Italian (plural) and Portuguese (singular!).

  3. United something:
    The United States, The United Emirates.
    In these case, the implicit plural demands an article. However it is commonplace to hear "In the States" or "In the Emirates", the entity type is dropped but the article remains.

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Back in the Roman era what we now call the Iberian Peninsula was called Hispania. There were at various times more than one Roman province therein (Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior; later Hispania Tarraconensis, Hispania Baetica, and Lusitania; and in the Verona List a total of six "Hispaniae", including part of North Africa). –  Peter Taylor Mar 9 '11 at 13:36
Thx Peter, I've replaced my paragraph about Hispania with your comment. Verbatim. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Mar 9 '11 at 14:27
I agree that country and region names that are plural pretty well always take "The". But your suggestion doesn't account for the cases where "the" is (or was) used in the singular. –  Colin Fine Mar 10 '11 at 16:41
@Colin. I'm trying to find some examples, but can't seem to find any. Beware that some apparent singulars are actually hidden plural. All I can find are "The" in front of a type of place or union (The Helvetic Confederation, The Republic of such and such). I'm curious to learn which ones you have in mind... And if you have a good one, I'd be happy to amend of even withdraw my "theory"... ;-) –  Alain Pannetier Φ Mar 10 '11 at 19:53
The Gambia, The Ukraine. –  Colin Fine Sep 26 '12 at 12:57
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Yes, you can, and it is correct to do so too. Similarly with the United States of America and the United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), and the Netherlands.

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It could be argued that in the first two example, the name of the country is prefixed by a noun (and adjective) which describes the place, and such a noun will always have a "the", whereas the place name on its own does not, e.g.: America vs The United States of America, California vs The State of California. However, as you point out, there are exceptions, e.g. The Netherlands (although is that because this began as a description rather than a name?), The Hague, The Vatican, etc. –  Steve Melnikoff Mar 8 '11 at 11:49
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Unless the country is referred to with a phrase or a "descriptive" name, as with the 3 examples he cited, you should not use an article.

The following are all wrong:

The Spain is a rich country.

The Ireland is a rich country.

The Texas is a rich state.


The USSR has disintegrated.

The British Honduras is now known as Belize.

are both correct.

Since "Punjab" is not a descriptive name or the name of a region (at least, not in English), I don't believe that there should be a "the" before it.

Perhaps someone will be able to provide a more ironclad rule for when "The" is appropriate.

Edit: As Oosterwal points out in the comments, when the name references a region or implies that the country is composed of multiple parts, using "the" seems to be universally appropriate.

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I would not have said 'The British Honduras'; it would be just 'British Honduras is now known as Belize'. –  Jonathan Leffler Mar 8 '11 at 7:17
Also, I 100% agree that most countries do not get a definite article in front of them, but I didn't say that they do. Spain, France, Portugal, ... in fact, just about any European country except the ones I mentioned will not take a definite article. The Principality of Monaco would; the Vatican would; they aren't quite countries, though. You'd not say 'the North Carolina', but you might say the Carolinas (or the Dakotas), referring to both the North and South states. It tends to be 'the XXXX' when XXXX implies a number of parts. The United Arab Emirates, but Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. –  Jonathan Leffler Mar 8 '11 at 7:24
"It has turned up in surprising places -- the Spain of General Franco, the Greece of the colonels, the Pakistan of the generals, the Eastern Europe of the commissars -- usually prefaced by some qualifying adjective such as " guided, " " basic, " " organic, " " popular, " or the like, which serves to dilute, deflect, or even reverse the meaning of the word." –  kiamlaluno Mar 8 '11 at 9:24
@kiamlaluno: indeed; in those examples, "the" is used to distinguish between the same place at different times. –  Steve Melnikoff Mar 8 '11 at 11:50
@Hellion: I think the rule is that you use the definite article when the name references a collection of parts, or when the name references a specific subset of a region. Countries that are (or were) collections include The United Kingdom, The United States, and The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Countries that are a specific subset of a region include The Kingdom of the Low Lands, i.e. The Netherlands. Referenced as a specific subset of a region, it's perfectly acceptable to refer to the Indian State of the Punjab as 'The Punjab'. –  oosterwal Mar 8 '11 at 14:39
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protected by RegDwigнt May 21 '13 at 22:11

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