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Possibly two questions in here: Are these sentence constructions logical, and if they are, why are they different?

I swam across the Ocmulgee River.
I swam across the Pacific Ocean.
I swam across the Red Sea.
I swam across Lake Winnipeg.

I can't think of a way of phrasing the lake example while using an article with a proper noun. I thought at first it was because Lake Winnipeg is different; it's generic portion (the "Lake") comes first and the name of that body comes second, but I swam across Falls Lake is the same.

Yet the sentence I swam across the lake sounds right to me. ...Why?

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Sometimes we do. "I swam across the Great Salt Lake". –  Peter Shor Jan 5 '13 at 19:31
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3 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I'd say you are correct about the placement of the generic word being the reason for using (or not using) 'the' , and all your examples are phrased correctly. Notice that 'Falls' is different also in that it is a plural.

Edit: I have found the answer:

From Wikipedia:

In English, nouns must in most cases be preceded by an article that specifies the presence or absence of definiteness of the noun. The definite article is the in all cases other than generic references, which use the zero article (i.e., the absence of an article), while indefiniteness is expressed with a or an for singular nouns or the zero article for plural or non-count nouns.

From Monmouth University:

The definite article 'the' is used before both singular and plural nouns when the noun is specific. The names of geographic places are specific names and may require definite articles: names of rivers, oceans, seas, geographical areas, deserts, forests, gulfs, peninsulas, groups of lakes (the Great Lakes), mountain ranges, and chains of islands.

No article is necessary before the following specific nouns: Singular names of countries or territories, cities, towns, states, streets, lakes, bays, mountains, continents, islands, languages, sports, academic subjects.

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The fact that "Falls" is plural makes no difference. Same construction works for lake Michigan. –  simchona Jun 28 '12 at 4:08
    
yes, I realized that shortly after answering, and subsequently found the correct answer. –  bee.catt Jun 28 '12 at 4:32
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There is also The Hague, an archaic reference that stuck around. –  bee.catt Jun 28 '12 at 6:56
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It's 'The Hague' because the Dutch is 'den Haag'. –  Barrie England Jun 28 '12 at 7:07
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Those who live in The Hague never stopped using an old-fashioned name that described the place according to its medieval use. We get the official name Den Haag from Des Graven Hage, which means "the counts' hedge" and refers to the fact that Dutch noblemen once used the land for hunting. Many other place names started off as descriptions with definite articles. For example, the city of Bath, England, famous for its purportedly health-supporting natural spring, was referred to as "The Bath" until the 19th century. Etc... –  bee.catt Jun 28 '12 at 7:15
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The use of the is governed by the rules of grammar. For your case,

Use "the" before the names of rivers, oceans, seas and groups of lakes.

  • For e.g., the Nile, the English channel, the Atlantic, the Great Lakes

Do not use "the" before the names of lakes and bays.

  • For e.g., Lake Geneva, Lake Erie

If you want a more thorough list, head over here.

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Unfortunately, like many correct answers about English, this amounts to "because that's how people do it." –  Nathan Long Jun 28 '12 at 10:29
    
@NathanLong That's seeming like what it is. I was hoping for a little bit more logic. Although, in the link above, the example about the United States kind of makes sense because there are multiple United States but (Mexico) but when people say the US they really mean of America. I don't know the root of the others as well to say the same logic holds: Phillipines, Netherlands, (Dominican must be a religious thing, the Dominicans could have have more than one republic and that's the most popular one?) –  Brad Jun 28 '12 at 12:00
    
-1 It's not a "rule of grammar". As implied by Nathan, it's simply a reflection of what we actually say - historical accident, idiomatically established. –  FumbleFingers Jun 28 '12 at 12:17
    
@FumbleFingers Why not? Rule: one of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere –  user20934 Jun 28 '12 at 12:38
    
@rudra: I think we must just agree to differ on this one. Your understanding of "rules of grammar" is different to mine. Established idiomatic usage doesn't count for me. –  FumbleFingers Jun 28 '12 at 13:30
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Perhaps there is a geographic explanation. Oceans, rivers and seas usually encompass greater distances/areas than lakes or ponds; the latter have an arguably more fixed location.

This zero article "rule" seems to hold true with

  1. stationary bodies of water of a limited size, i.e. bays, lakes, and ponds. (Swamps, marshes and bogs are not 100% water.)
  2. flowing bodies of water smaller than a river, i.e. creeks and springs.
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Also "Niagara Falls", "Victoria Falls", and so forth. –  Peter Shor Mar 28 '13 at 11:46
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