Unlike mountain names, where "Mount" always precedes its name, e.g. Mount Everest, I've noticed that some rivers have "River" before its name, e.g. the River Nile but others have it after, e.g. the Colorado River. How does one decide where it should be and how did the difference come about?

  • 1
    "Nile River" isn't uncommon; as of now, it's 3x more popular than "River Nile".
    – Daniel
    Jun 1, 2012 at 17:09
  • @Danielδ Try that with the River Styx and you’ll get a seriously different answer. Also, for rivers that retain their Spanish name, like the Rio Grande, you never invert that. But we do say the Colorado River now in English where once it was the Rio Colorado.
    – tchrist
    Jun 2, 2012 at 1:09
  • The answer is here.
    – Hot Licks
    May 22, 2016 at 21:07
  • Is it not syllables? One or two syllables and it's River Foo, else it's Foo River?
    – Ard
    Mar 14, 2019 at 23:17

7 Answers 7


There is no such rule, and for that matter, there is no rule about the position of Mount either; there's Rocky Mount in my part of the world, and many Appalachian peaks are known as Nnn Mountain. It is a matter of convention. The same goes for many other geologic or hydrologic features: the Leyte Gulf but the Gulf of Mexico, Loch Lomond but Alemoor Loch, the Isle of Wight but Portsea Island.

That said, Nnn River is the far more prevalent form in the U.S.; it would be quite rare to hear of the River Missouri or the River Columbia in prose. This is also true of other American terms for streams, e.g. branch, brook, run, kills (though not so much for lakes). This format may then carry over to foreign names, unless the entire foreign name is borrowed in whole: thus Americans usually know the Rio Amazonas as the Amazon River, but it is the Arroyo de la Laguna east of San Francisco Bay and not the Laguna Arroyo.

As JeffSahol noted, you can somewhat sidestep the question for rivers by referring to them with the definite article: the Hudson, the Platte, the Potomac.

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    I live in the United States and I'm a few hundred feet from the River Raisin. For any given geographic feature, there is a conventional way to express the name. No one would say "The Mountains Rocky", it's always "The Rocky Mountains". But likewise no one would say "Washington Mount", it's "Mount Washington". Once a place name is established, it's very rare for anyone to create variations on it.
    – Jay
    Jun 1, 2012 at 18:28
  • Staten Island has the Kill van Kull, but that's still Dutch. Apr 24, 2013 at 9:41
  • When I've seen Nnn Mountain on maps of Appalachia, typically it marks a ridge (or other extensive height) rather than a peak, or that's my impression. Feb 8, 2017 at 8:05
  • @AntonSherwood That could be the case, but it also follows the general pattern of the country's Peaks, Knobs, Balds, Hills, Stars, and Domes, and occasional Flat, Butt, or Crayon.
    – choster
    Feb 8, 2017 at 15:23

I suspect British English tends to put river (and the definite article) before the name. It’s always the River Thames, and not Thames River. Mountains are sometimes preceded by Mount, sometimes not. It’s always Mount Snowdon, but it's Ben Nevis (not Mount Ben Nevis) and the Eiger (not Mount Eiger).

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    It's "the River Don" in the UK and "the Don River" in Toronto.
    – JAM
    Jun 1, 2012 at 18:24
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    Ben is Scottish Gaelic for Mount.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Mar 21, 2015 at 21:16
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    Apparently, Swindale River, Brennand River, Whitendale River, Mells River, Broad River, Pill River, Willet River, Little River, East Lynn River, West Lynn River, Sturcombe River, East Okement River, West Okement River, Abbey River, Trevillet River, De Lank River ... brook the trend [ Wikipedia]. River Wriggle or Wiggle River predictably cuts both ways. Jul 24, 2015 at 20:50
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    @TimLymington It is actually neither Mount Snowdon, nor Snowdon to the people who live by it. They call it Yr Wyddfa.
    – WS2
    May 22, 2016 at 20:58
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    @TimLymington I know this is an ancient comment, but ftr, 'ben' is Scots or Scottish English derived from the Gaelic 'Beinn'.
    – Spagirl
    Feb 3, 2022 at 11:08

The difference, it seems to me, is that Old World rivers have their own names (often personified as a god or nymph) but colonists typically named rivers after something (e.g. Hudson River after Henry Hudson; Swan River, formerly Black Swan River, where someone saw such a bird for the first time) or descriptively (Little Twisty Green River). "Mississippi River" (among other native names) is anomalous in this view, because the name belonged to the river first; I can only suppose that it was absorbed into the now predominant pattern, perhaps after a State was named after it.

In a phrase like "the river Thames", the R ought not to be capitalized in my humble opinion.

  • "River Thames" is always capitalized, just like "Mount Everest". Feb 7, 2017 at 18:46
  • There may be a good reason to capitalize the River Thames but that ain't it; the analogy is flawed for the reason I mentioned: Mount Everest is named after someone (and thus needs its distinguishing prefix), the Thames isn't. – Anton Sherwood 6 mins ago Feb 8, 2017 at 8:07
  • 2
    Fine then, Mount Sunflower, named after the flower, not a person. This is not the place for peddling your own personal theories about how English ought to be. Feb 8, 2017 at 10:21
  • What is the Thames named after? Feb 9, 2017 at 19:02
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    As far as I can see, nobody really knows but it doesn't matter. The convention in English is that "River Thames" is a proper noun and is capitalized. It doesn't matter if there's a reason or not; that's just how it is. The language is defined by its usage, and usage is that the word "river" in the names of rivers is capitalized. Feb 9, 2017 at 19:28

Interesting...note that rivers are denoted by the definite article "The", though. The Colorado, as distinguished from Colorado, the state. Mountains' names, without the definite article, tend to need their "honorific" to distinguish them from other proper names or ordinary nouns...with exceptions, as noted below in the comments.

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    But not many people would read "Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Everest" as referring to a former Surveyor-General of India.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jun 1, 2012 at 18:13
  • I wouldn't say so for mountains without anglicized names. We say "the Matterhorn," not "Mt. Matterhorn," and "Aconcagua," not "Mt. Aconcagua."
    – choster
    Jun 1, 2012 at 18:20

Most rivers in England are "River Foo" but there are exceptions e.g. "Moors River". Streams are always "Foo Stream". Foreign rivers are variously called "Foo River", especially if the author is N American, "River Foo" if the author is e.g. British, but most often just "the Foo" or "the Foo river". This information is gleaned from various book-based searches of river names at Google Books.

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    I don't think that, e.g., "River Mississippi" or "River Colorado" would ever be considered correct, even by a British English writer or speaker. Feb 7, 2017 at 18:47

Cambridge Dictionary does not agree with capitalizing "river".

It says, "We use the before the names of rivers. We usually write the without a capital letter. If we use the word river, we usually write it without a capital letter: the river Thames, the river Severn, the Yangtze river." https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/grammar/british-grammar/geographical-places

Grammar books don't always find correct what people think to be natural...

  • Welcome to EL&U. Consider using better formatting (italicisation or quotation marks) to separate the verbatim "the" from the article. Also, your ending seems a bit inconclusive: what are you suggesting as correct? Jan 30, 2021 at 19:04
  • And it's actually wrong (or, lacking any documentation, merely an opinion): certainly I'd usually write River Thames.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jan 30, 2021 at 19:14
  • I can't find any supporting evidence for this, other than 60+ years of familiarity with UK geographical naming policies. But CD is incorrect here. As, I believe, is CMoS. Jan 30, 2021 at 20:17
  • At first glance, Google 2-grams seem to show that 'River Thames' is about four times as common as 'river Thames' (and complications due to sentence-initial etc capitalisation are unlikely). Grammar doesn't enter into this; it falls under the discipline of accepted punctuation. So style guides are the place to investigate. And they should reflect favoured usage, not shibboleths.... Apr 5 at 10:13
  • Wikipedia has an article for review that suggests capitalisation ... ' ... in English-speaking areas where the local convention is to prefix, say "River X". Examples are River Cam, River Rouge.' // The first 53 relevant hits in a Google search for "river cam" are 50 : 3 in favour of the capital R. Most include the definite article, but some of the examples (and only running text is considered, not titles) are anarthrous. Apr 5 at 10:23

It’s an example of English being a Germanic, yet French-influenced language. Much of the time, an adjective precedes the noun it modifies. Sometimes the French order, with the noun preceding the adjective is used. Germanic words and word order tend to be used for “everyday” and commonplace sorts of things, while the French order gives something a “dressier” or more official or more poetic emphasis.So, for example, we have the River Thames and time immemorial and Attorneys General.

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